OOE Artist Features: Yvonne Coutts, Choreographer

By: Tanis Browning-Shelp

Yvonne Coutts—award winning choreographer and artistic director of the Ottawa Dance Directive (ODD)— knew she was a choreographer from the moment she took her first dance steps as a small child.

“I wanted to make dances, but I didn’t know that I could make a career of it until a serendipitous moment at age 17,” Coutts says. “I’d been planning to become an English teacher but met a high school math teacher who was leaving his job to study at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton to become a choreographer. I was so surprised to learn that this was an option!”

It was at Grant MacEwan that Yvonne was exposed to some of the pioneers of modern dance—Charlene Tarver (a student of Hanya Holm)—and Brian Webb, a Canadian dance artist who trained in New York City and brought his contemporary techniques back home to Edmonton.

“These instructors opened my eyes to contemporary dance,” she says. “I became interested in how people move their bodies through space together. I focus on rhythm and gesture. I love how day-to-day life gestures can mean so much; I am very curious about that.”

Coutts points to the kinship that contemporary dance has with contemporary art.

“It takes risks, keeps you wondering, and leaves traces of something within you,” she says. “You may not be able to understand it literally, but you will have a kinesthetic or emotional response to it that will create a connection. It is not about solving the art, but, rather, witnessing or experiencing it. A contemporary piece might spark discourse; you may even feel frustrated by it. But I believe that it is necessary because it can lead to self-questioning.”

Coutts worked as a company member of Le Groupe Dance Lab in Ottawa from 1988 to 1994 and became artistic associate at the Lab from 2003 to 2006. She has been on faculty of The School of Dance (TSOD) since 2000 and has instructed at contemporary dance schools including the University of Calgary and Grant MacEwan. Her choreography has been presented by dance companies around the world.

In 2010, Coutts teamed up with three other professional dance artists—Sylvie Desrosiers, Lana Morton, and Natasha Bakht—to form ODD.

“We did a lot of research and community consultation to come up with ODD’s hybrid structure,” she explains.

According to Coutts, ODD has an exciting ongoing relationship with The School of Dance (TSOD), which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Merrilee Hodgins, TSOD’s artistic director, agrees.

“Collaboration between dance organizations and other groups is the way you build community,” Hodgins says.

ODD, for example, employs graduates of TSOD’s contemporary dance program. As it approaches its own 10th anniversary, ODD, with Coutts at the helm, has become a centre for contemporary dance that houses Compagnie ODD and Series Dance 10 (Lana Morton, presenter). It welcomes dance artists for creation, presentation, professional development, and residency opportunities.

It embraces inclusive practices in dance making and intersects with the provincial, national, and international dance milieu. ODD promotes other more unusual forms of collaboration such as the Festival du Milieu de Scolaire (Dance Festival for French Speaking Students)—in its fifth year at De La Salle High School this March—as well as the Read to Move Program which connects literacy and movement.

Coutts, who is also a library technician, loves to see kids make the connection between language and movement or body language.

“I enjoy seeing young people realize that they can also express themselves through movement.”

A collaboration of which Coutts is particularly proud was a partnership ODD established in 2018 with a performing dance company from Denmark, a videographer, a scientist, and 50,000 mealworms. The resulting MASS Bloom Explorations was an environmental choreographic installation that invited visitors to enter a biodome with a dancer and the larva of the Darkening Beetle.

“In Ottawa, we are so lucky to have the National Arts Centre (NAC) because it brings high quality works and world-renowned artists to our city. The NAC also collaborates with local dance organizations. But there are still many hidden gems—dance companies doing dance outside of the national body. For many of these local independent artists and organizations, it can be challenging to get visibility. ODD, for example, is better known in the dance milieu outside of Ottawa and trying to gain ground with the local public.”

Author Tanis Browning-Shelp (http://www. browning-shelp.com) pens her Maryn O’Brien Young Adult Fiction series, published by Dog-Eared Books, from her home in Old Ottawa East.

Contact  tanis@browning-shelp.com if you have information about artists or art events that you believe would enrich our community members’ lives.

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