Joe Laughlin’s 4our unites generations

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Photo courtesy of Michael Slobodian.

After 10 years, Joe Laughlin is returning to the stage to dance in 4our, a monumental work featuring four dancers spanning 30 years. Laughlin is joined by Gioconda Barbuto, Kevin Tookey, and Heather Dotto. This cross-generational collaboration touches on the themes of memory, family, history, and bridging the divide between different generations as it explores the many milestones of our lives. 

Laughlin has known Barbuto since 1985 and they have worked together over the years; he met Tookey when he was 17, and has been working with him for the past four years; he met Dotto three years ago when she performed in Joe Ink’s 25-year retrospective.

“We found a unique chemistry,” said Laughlin, explaining that the creative process involved evoking memories and exploring how they formulate over time. Through their different experiences and cultural touch points, the four dancers each brought a unique perspective to this piece. While Laughlin conceived, choreographed, and directs the work, he said that he always works in a collaborative manner with the dancers. “We had a lot of conversations translated into physical equations,” he said.

Although the show is about the major moments in our lives, it doesn’t follow a linear narrative, as is so often the case with dance, especially contemporary dance.

“We’re coming to a time where there’s more older dancers still engaged,” explained Laughlin. “I was inspired by working with these other dance artists. I had been thinking about the mature dancer and aging.” His own return to the stage felt natural in many ways, but he admits, “I struggled to get back to rehearsing four to five hours per day.” He originally thought of returning to the stage for a piece like this while choreographing a solo for Barbuto. “I thought maybe I’ll go in and move with her and that would inform me,” he said, and once he was in the studio it felt right. As he said, “you’re always a dancer in your soul.”

Laughlin did have to do some work to get back into shape, and he said that Barbuto helped with that process. “She helped me to navigate my way back into my body,” he said. With age comes finding a new way to be in your body, he explained. There is a lot of muscle memory, but there is also a need to learn what the body is still capable of and to reconnect memories to movement. “Sometimes I have to reign it in and be thoughtful about what my body can do,” he said, “but at the same time there’s an emotional intention driving the movement.” 

The set will feature wooden furniture pieces to create a striking scene, and there will also be video projections bringing a kind of otherworldly, magical element to the show. “It’s a representation of society in a way,” Laughlin explained, saying that the various pairings and groupings of dancers each have a significance. “It’s different to have a 50-year-old and a 29-year-old on stage together — even visually,” said Laughlin. “I like the look of us all together, the range of ages.”

Laughlin feels strongly that we’re lacking intergenerational interaction, and Joe Ink’s Move It program addresses this by providing a physical literacy program that often brings together teenagers and seniors. “You see how the different generations affect each other,” he said. “I was inspired by that; I think society’s lost that.”

While Laughlin said that he would like the audience to leave the theatre entertained, he also hopes they will have an emotional connection to the work. “I hope we invite them to think about people in their lives that have moved them. I hope it evokes memories for them.”