Dealing In Metaphor: Margie Gillis On Art And Aging

To hear Margie Gillis speak about art is not unlike watching beauty unfold upon a stage. Her gentle voice is underscored with a kind of contemplative passion when she talks about her craft; it’s the kind of passion, I imagine, responsible for launching a career as convention-defying as hers has been. Now approaching her sixty-third birthday (just two days from now, in fact), Gillis has been a professional contemporary dancer for nearly forty-five years — an amazing feat, considering that until as recently as a few years ago, dance careers tended to fizzle at age thirty-five.

Today Gillis is just as immersed, just as active, in the dance world as she has always been. She recently took the time to speak with KHACHILIFE during a brief hiatus after closing the Montreal run of PearlThe show, which follows the story of Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning writer and activist Pearl S. Buck, originated in New York last year at the Lincoln Centre. It is set to tour to Toronto and elsewhere in North America later this fall.

As the eldest of five performers playing Buck at various stages throughout her life, Gillis stepped into the role of the ‘mature’ Buck, embodying the enigmatic woman in her later years. In preparation for this part, Gillis drew from her own early experiences with the prolific author’s work. “I had been a big fan of Buck when I was a child,” says Gillis. “I was a voracious reader when I was a kid…I still have extremely fond memories. I still call hot water ‘silver tea’ — things like that I learned in the book.”

But despite Gillis’ familiarity with Buck’s writing, the process of performing in this show also opened her eyes to other aspects of Buck’s life. “I had no idea that she had gone on to become this great humanitarian,” says Gillis, “definitely championing the cause of intercultural relationships. She had a whole adoption agency for children who are of mixed culture. She was very positive about humanity, as well as a great writer.”

The production also paired Gillis with a wealth of younger artists, an aspect of the experience that she greatly appreciated. “It was just a delight. The vast majority of the dancers were less than half my age. That’s really fun for me, to be with them and see what they’re thinking and feeling about things. They’re beautiful dancers with deep, great hearts.”

When I ask Gillis whether she had always known that dance would be a lifelong pursuit, she is quick to point out that dancing vs. dancing for an audience are different entities altogether. “I always danced. It’s something I’ve always done,” she says. “I never thought I would dance onstage — that’s a whole other ball of wax. You step onstage and that’s about communication and ritual and the transformative process.”

It’s surprising to hear Gillis speak of failure; indeed, she is one of Canada’s most acclaimed and celebrated dancers. She is  an Honorary Cultural Ambassador of Quebec and Canada, the inaugural winner of the MAD Spirit Award from the Stella Adler Acting Studio in New York, an Officer of the Order of Canada, a Knight of the National Order Of Quebec, and the recipient of a number of lifetime achievement awards. But these accomplishments haven’t hindered her ability to reflect humbly on her beginnings. “I thought I would fail,” she says freely of her decision to become a dancer. At the age of eighteen, she experienced a vision that dance was to be her calling (“Yes, I’m one of those people who actually had a vision,” she laughs) and followed it, despite being fairly certain that she would never be a success in the traditional sense. “I thought I would crash and burn,” she says, “but I didn’t. My work touched people very deeply.”

Perhaps it was Gillis’ determination to be fearless that allowed her to make this connection with her audiences, both in Canada and, before long, internationally. “The reason I became a soloist is because I thought I could ask myself to work in the way I wanted – which was very, very vulnerable onstage, very raw, very natural, but in a ritualized state. I didn’t feel I could ask anybody else to do that.”

The inherent truth present in Gillis’ performances made her a formidable player in the cultural fabric of Canada, and as she aged, she refused to slow down. Ageism became a hurdle that she confronted simply with lasting power, something that forced casting directors and producers to reassess their own prejudices towards the aging dancer. “[They would say] ‘We absolutely love you and we think you’re a genius, but we can’t book you because you won’t last, there’s no way, you won’t last.’ And then, ‘Oh, well now you’ve lasted ten years, so for sure you won’t last longer…Oh, now it’s fifteen years, so obviously that’s as far as anybody could possibly go…Oh, now it’s twenty…Oh, now it’s twenty-five…Oh, now it’s thirty-five…forty years…forty-five years…’” Gillis laughs. “I just spent my life in dance.”

She attributes her outlook to her family; the child of Olympic skiers Gene Gillis and Rhona Wurtele, Gillis describes hers as a “family of athletes.” This description almost feels like a euphemism once she’s rattled off her family history; her Aunt Rhoda (her mother’s identical twin and an Olympic skier herself) is still skydiving at the age of ninety-three, and the sisters bungee jumped and paraponted well into their eighties. “They’re voracious,” says Gillis. “This is the kind of family I grew up in. You know, hockey players, NHL hockey players, Olympic skiers, people who started freestyle skiing…This is my family.”

A few years ago, Gillis found herself at the centre of a national debate over arts funding in Canada; in an interview with Sun reporter Krista Erickson, the dancer was taken to task for the reliance of her company, The Margie Gillis Foundation, on public grants. The network has since folded, and the interview, which went viral, was attributed in part to its demise.

Instead of reflecting on the incident negatively, Gillis chooses to focus on the outpouring of support she received not just from Canadians, but from artists around the globe. “I was getting letters from China from theatre organizations. It was kind of overwhelming, how much support there was…The arts really do generate an enormous amount of financial good for the Gross National Index.” (Interestingly, a study that cited the arts as statistically more profitable than sports was released shortly after I spoke with Ms. Gillis.)

Aside from their monetization, the sociological value of the arts has often been a difficult thing to quantify, much like the age-old debate over whether the success of advertising, for instance, can be measured. Though while it may be hard to tangibly grade the lasting effects of the intangible, Gillis views the role of the artist in society as integral.

“Whenever there is the need to say something that cannot be spoken, or is difficult, it is the artists who come forward because artists are dealing in metaphor. Artists are dealing in depth and vision and creation and transformation, so we are the soul of a nation,” she says. And while the debate over public arts funding has by no means ended with the transition to a Liberal government in Canada, Gillis is hopeful about the shift in public opinion. “It’s like people suddenly realizing how important air is, or water, or earth. I would say that in the arts, we learn to grow as a nation and grow as individuals.”

Meghan Greeley
Meghan Greeley is an actor and writer originally from Newfoundland. She has performed in films that have screened at festivals around the world, including Cannes, Karlovy Vary, the Utah Indie Film Festival, the Montreal World Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival. As a writer, her works have been published in The Stockholm Review, Metatron, Riddlefence, Nelson Publications, and the Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Drama. She is a winner of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival’s Playwriting Contest and first place winner of the Sparks Literary Festival’s Poetry Competition. She currently resides in Toronto.