By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
On a break from rehearsal this past week, the cast of Jezebel, At the Still Point are hanging out in the Theatre Network green room.
One of them — the one with the speaking role — is reflecting on the origins of the show, three years in the making, and the relationship that inspired it. The other, back from casually exploring the men’s washroom and doing a friendly walkabout in the theatre office, is tucking into a small Milk Bone.
Ainsley Hillyard, the innovative dance/ theatre artist who’s the muse of Good Women Dance, and Jezebel, the French bulldog (and retired breeder) who gets the title billing in the Bumble Bear production opening in the Roxy Performance Series Thursday, met nearly five years ago.
“Getting a dog had been a dream of mine for a long time,” says Hillyard, whose bold, creative impulses as a choreographer/ movement designer/ actor/ director have consistently smudged the ancient frontiers between theatre and dance, and for that matter between the species.
“A companion! A roommate who’s always happy to see you when you get home! Some roommates aren’t like that,” as Hillyard says. Jezebel, who has a gap-toothed smile and a gravely watchful look in repose, snorts her assent.
The theatre life, with its chilly rehearsal rooms, terrible hours, harsh lights, loud noises, epic emoting, isn’t every dog’s cup of kibble, to say the least. “I wanted one who’d be happy with my and my life — in an apartment, with other dogs, in rehearsal halls,” says Hillyard, who’d grown up with a dog, the late lamented Murphy (named after Murphy Brown). She’d spent a dog-free decade, and was having one of those “I’m an adult now, at least in theory” moments.
It was rapport at first sight. Jezebel was one and a half. Hillyard was 30.
“Right away” the new dog owner, a Grant MacEwan dance program grad who had returned to Edmonton five years before, after four with Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, got the idea of creating a dance/theatre show for the pair to be in together (the term “two-hander” does miss the mark in this case). “But I convinced myself it was foolish….”
Not that Hillyard has ever shied away from daring experimental forays into theatricality, either as a choreographer/director or performer. For Matthew MacKenzie’s Bears, she devised a movement-scape that conjured a journey through nature and incorporated an erotic pas de deux between grizzlies. For Northern Light’s Wish, she played a gorilla who learned sign language and fell in love with a man.
As for sharing the stage with Jezebel, that inspiration found new life in a workshop led by Mi Casa Theatre (Countries Shaped Like Stars) at the Chinook Festival. “They asked all of us to list three things we’d always wanted to do onstage,” without regard to budget, logistics, practical do-ability, Hillyard recalls.“Mine were 1. to do a show with my dog, because that felt very impractical. 2. to do a show set in Outer Space, also very impractical. 3. to be genuinely vulnerable onstage; to cry and not because I was acting.”
This unusually high-risk wish list intersects in Jezebel, At The Still Point, which has had shorter-length workshop outings at the Feats festival here and UNO Fest in Victoria. The short earthly life span of dogs is a heartbreaker. Hillyard the astronaut and her co-pilot Jezebel travel through Outer Space and time in a quest to halt the passage of time and defeat mortality‚ “so that Jezebel never has to die.”
“It opens with us crash-landing on a strange alien planet. We need to fix the ship to launch ourselves back into space…. I send Jezebel to survey and see if there’s any suitable material.”
“I have a general sense of what she’ll do,” says Hillyard of a cast-mate she describes as “untrained.” She amends this slightly. “Jezebel does know how to sit. And she sometimes comes to me when I call. But she only listens to me when I have a treat in hand…. All my pants and jacket pockets are full of crumbs,” Hillyard says cheerfully. Jezebel’s favourite treat, for special occasions only? “Freeze-dried beef liver” which can be broken off in chunks. It is, says Hillyard, an acquired taste.
What “untrained” means, in the course of “a theatre show with a lot of text and movement, and a dog,” is that whatever Jezebel takes it into her cute pug-nosed French bulldog head to do, Hillyard has to go with it. “She keeps me in the present, in the moment.”
“Jezebel might wander off. On opening night in Winnipeg (at the Fringe in July), Jezebel left the stage, crossed over behind, and (re-) entered from the other side.” Sometimes she leaves the stage “to meet new people, in the audience.” At one performance Jezebel, tired from a long pre-show walk, “fell asleep in the middle of the stage and started snoring,” says her co-star, amused.
The self-possessed canine star (for whom the theatre term “grounded” was invented, surely), isn’t freaked out by loud noises or flashing lights; she’s impervious to stage fright. “She’s the chillest dog I’ve ever met,” says Hillyard. She does, however, react to Hillyard’s own moods. “If I’m sad or anxious or stressed, she picks up on it, so I have to be careful about that…. She’s very emotionally intelligent.”
When W.C. Fields advised strongly against ever appearing onstage with dogs or children, he was alluding to the inevitability of getting upstaged. A cock of the head and wham!, all that Method acting agony counts for nought. Hillyard agrees. “I can practice a monologue forever; I can rehearse till I’m exhausted, and Jezebel moves an ear…. Her comic timing is amazing!” What does a human have to do to hold the crowd, under the circumstances? Jezebel has been known to fall asleep onstage while Hillyard was standing on her head. “The curve balls keep coming.”
“Beth (director Beth Dart) warned me ‘she’s going to upstage you at every turn’,” Hillyard laughs. “It’s a very Jezebel-centred show. And I’m resigned to the fact that I’m there to support her journey.”
Jezebel, At The Still Point
Roxy Performance Series
Theatre: Bumble Bear Productions
Created by and starring: Ainsley Hillyard and Jezebel
Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: Oct. 11 to 21
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca