On a busy street corner on Queen Street West, a lady in red and her partner prepare to dazzle the crowd with a one-of-a-kind contemporary dance performance. The crowd is used to buskers, but this one stands out.
For most dancers, the performance starts when they hit the stage. But for Marlee Cargill, the stage opens when she begins her performance.
But then again, most dancers don’t have a file cabinet as a partner.
“This summer I just started to take my file cabinet on a dolly, come over here to Queen and Soho and dance,” she said. “The response blew me away. One guy was running by, saying ‘Oh my God, that’s the best piece of art I’ve seen all day – and I just went to the AGO!’”
For Cargill, the file cabinet is a metaphorical male: cold, linear, grounded. Her performance, entitled “Solo /w file cabinet,” depicts a dire, almost desperate woman pleading for her inanimate lover’s attention. To Cargill, the piece is about the social construction of women’s sexuality and how they are always pleading for men’s attention.
“It’s this idea of this secretary character being lonely, and she’s there after work talking to inanimate things,” she said. “She tries to elicit attention from the file cabinet, but it doesn’t respond, so she takes to it aggressively, trying to make it her lover.”
Born in Toronto on Nov. 6, 1966, Cargill has been dancing for 24 years and doing choreography for 14. Having first studied dance at York University, she left to explore graphic design. Eventually, she realized dance was her calling and returned to school at Concordia University to complete her BFA.
The dancer describes her performance as “modern ballroom dancing with jagged tango moves and odd, abstract movements.” For Cargill, the setting is a crucial part of her performance; she uses the city as a canvas for her art.
Having lived in cities most of her life, it’s no surprise she has integrated it into her work. After having studied, taught and performed dance in Montreal and Paris, she returned to Toronto critical of how we use public space.
“Growing up in the city, physical space and its surroundings have always affected me,” she said. “When I came back from Montreal, I was very interested in public space and what we do with it.”
She said she returned only to find disappointment. This inspired her to take her performance to the streets.
“Here we are in Canada with such a surplus of space, and in the downtown core it can still be very boring,” she said. “So I started working site-specifically.”
While Cargill has choreographed major stage productions for Bravo! television and danced in well-known venues such as the Drake Hotel in Toronto, Leif Harmsen, an artist and friend of Cargill’s, said she goes back to busking on the street not for the money, but for the love of it.
“She really enjoys getting off the stage and onto the streets,” Harmsen said. “She doesn’t busk because the stage would not have her – she busks because she likes to perform in that real space.”
Harmsen said Cargill uses street performance as a way to engage people that many choreographers would neglect.
“With the street performance, she is reaching out to an audience that many choreographers and dancers would never even bother with,” he said. “They would expect the audience to come to them, but she’s going out to find her audience.”
But in addition to this, she also uses her performance as a tool for learning.
“She’s teaching people merely by performing on the street,” he said. “It isn’t a formalized lecture hall, but she’s forcing people to confront something… She’s demanding people’s attention, and doing interesting things with it.”
He said while many simply see her dance as entertainment, most of her work has a story behind it.
“Some people might start by saying, ‘Oh, there’s a sexy chick with a file cabinet,’ but then they have to confront the problems with that.”
Miklos Legrady can remember the first time he saw Cargill perform, when he was asked to shoot a video for her. He says that while the off-beat nature of her performance is what first jumped out at him, he soon realized there was a lot more to the dance than he thought.
“Most people would at first think it’s something strange, but when they see the dance, because she’s a professionally trained dancer, all of a sudden you think ‘Wow, this woman really knows what she’s doing.’”
Legrady says that if he didn’t first encounter the performance on the street, it may not have had the same effect on him.
“Most dance happens inside of a theatre.,” he said. “But with Marlee a lot of it happens on location, and the themes relate directly to people’s lives, and show them in a different light.”
Cargill’s street performance elicits a range of responses.
Claudius Ramprashad, a Toronto resident of 6 years who recently witnessed one of Cargill’s spontaneous performances, was nothing less than impressed by the performance. He said he feels street performance is good for the city because it diversifies our range of experiences.
“She’s extremely bold, to be able to perform like this,” he said. “I think it has a good effect on the city, because it makes us more tolerant of everything.”
Some, like Lindsay Lambert, find the performance neither entertaining nor educating. In fact, she finds it downright scary.
“To be honest, it scares the shit out of me,” Lambert said. “I don’t know if she’s having a panic attack or what…It’s art, I guess, but I don’t understand it.”
Amy Harris, an urban geography professor at York University, says it’s not surprising that the performance gets mixed reviews.
“People have different cultural and moral standards and expectations for what is appropriate (in public space),” she said.
But to her, performances like Cargill’s are a positive thing because they open up an interactive discussion about how the city uses public space.
“A pro is that it can change people’s experience and perception of a public space,” Harris said. “A performance that challenges our views or even gets us to ask questions about public space is succeeding on some level.”
To Cargill, the questions that arise are a result, rather than the object of her performance. She said while she does feel there is a social obligation to have a message to her work, she doesn’t focus on that.
“I actually dance initially for pure entertainment, but what happens is that it becomes educational after I interact with people,” she said. “It becomes its own creation, something people never expected.”
She said first and foremost, she dances to communicate, not educate.
Cargill said that after her performance, people open up to her after only knowing her for five minutes.
“People tell me really intimate things, because I’ve shared something really intimate with them,” Cargill said. “All of a sudden the barriers are gone.”
“There’s this whole idea of the walls just dropping, and having very deep conversations with a perfect stranger. At that point, I’m like an ambassador for dance in Toronto.”
And while she still accepts donations after her performance, that’s the last thing on her mind as her dance unfolds.
“I’m still passing a hat around, but I don’t even think that matters,” Cargill said. “If anything it just gives people a way to understand me… It helps put my dance into a context they can understand.”