Dancer Jessica McMann details the experience of practicing performance art in a pandemic

The SFU alum and Made in BC artist-in-residence shares some pros and cons

McMann represents Indigenous dance in this year’s Re-Centering/Margins showcase. Photo courtesy of Tet M Photography

By: Dev Petrovic, Staff Writer

Spring has sprung and so has the dance festival season, so if you’re hoping to get your arts on, now is the time. Made in BC – Dance on Tour is continuing this year, despite the tour aspect of the showcase being a little different. One upcoming event happening in April, Re-Centering/Margins, will be performed by local BIPOC artists-in-residence — including multi-talented SFU alum, Jessica McMann. The Peak got the chance to speak with McMann about her experience as an artist-in-residence and how this year’s presentation has been produced. 

McMann comes from a Cree background and works as a flute musician, dancer, and choreographer. She completed her MFA in Contemporary Arts at SFU and, pre-pandemic, focused her attention on the dance company Wild Mint Arts, where she is a co-founder and co-director. She started her residency with Made in BC in 2020. The work that will be seen from McMann has been entirely choreographed, performed, and composed by her. 

Margins is a dance residency, but it’s not in residence now because of COVID,” clarified McMann. “Normally we spend 50% of our time in Vancouver and then 50% of our time here, in Calgary.” 

Due to the pandemic, the artists-in-residence have not been able to travel back to BC. McMann explained that this has made the residency more challenging, as she lived in Vancouver when she got accepted with Made in BC but has since moved to Alberta. 

“When the Re-Centering/Margins residency came up, I was really excited because it wasn’t age-driven, which is [sic] really nice. It wasn’t like you have to be 25 or under and as an Indigenous artist, I don’t fall into those young emerging artist categories,” explained McMann. 

Adding to that, McMann said she’s been grateful to have the creative freedom, as well as “the time and space and support to do the work that [she] want[s] to do” instead of being limited to a specific residency theme.

She explained SFU has been giving her support as an alum by providing her with studio spaces in Vancouver. As well, she’s been building her professional connections with SFU and Made in BC. 

After the initial lockdown last year, plans for the artists-in-residence shifted. “So we were going to come [to BC], but then we didn’t, so it’s filmed at [a theatre in Alberta],” McMann said, adding that she wanted to be in BC to film at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, but couldn’t due to work obligations in Calgary.  “I’m not really quite sure what the other people are working on because we haven’t had as much time to really connect with each other as we would have been in a more traditional residency,” she expressed. 

[For] myself, as I can only speak for myself, this pandemic has given me an opportunity to actually do land-based work,” said McMann. “So instead of trying to figure out how to bring a land-based thing into the studio, now I have the freedom to actually do land-based stuff and film it and do it where it should be done.” This new artistic space will also allow her to freely film and edit her work as she pleases.

She reminisced about how her work is intended to be done on the land of her ancestors and explained that using online art platforms will make showing her art easier. “I’m circling back to where I first started a dance practice,” she said, “which was not in studios, which was not in theatres because I didn’t have access to those bases. So it was parks outside, art galleries that would let me get those spaces for an hour.”

Yet residency, in its untraditional form, has been difficult. McMann is from the Vancouver area, so not being able to continue her work in BC was disappointing, as well as the disconnect with the residency being all online. “I got so comfortable always being a studio, but my practice is land-based so it’s time to go back,” she said. 

The project honours BIPOC artists and delves in the artistic representations of what these struggles look like. “But there are only three slots available for artists,” reflected McMann. “When you have four supposed categories to fit everybody in, how do you honour those struggles of individual people? So I cannot speak for anybody else but Indigenous people and even then, only myself. Because each Indigenous person’s experience is going to be completely different.”

McMann’s work is supported by Indigenous methodologies and is “created from an Indigenous body with the Indigenous mind.” She explained that her work comes within a base of Indigenous knowledge, “meaning [she] learned to do powwow dancing first before [she learned] how to do and incorporate other dance styles.”

Reflecting on how her style of dance works within and around the margins, McMann described how “looking at that from an Indigenous worldview changes the expectation that [she had] to move in a certain way in front of the camera for it to be dance.

“And [with] Western dance people [ . . . ] it becomes other labels and different types of dancing. Pedestrian movement and terms like that don’t sit the same way in the way that I view how I move and work,” she said.

Re-Centering/Margins will be showcasing their work from April 2–7. The event is free, but donations are suggested. Registration is required through Eventbrite.