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Panopticon by Bill James and Shelagh Young

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Panopticon was a collaboration between choreographer Bill James and visual artist Shelagh Young. The work was about surveillance, using as inspiration the 19th century prison design called a panopticon, which featured a central tower so that all cells could be observed from one place simultaneously.  To that end Shelagh’s set included a modern surveillance technique: throughout the performance two infrared security cameras were trained on the audience and projected as a huge backdrop; you can see them in the video alternating back and forth between the two views. Distracting? Nah, you got used to it after a while and you forgot the cameras were there. Oh…

This was Toronto-based Bill James’s first creative endeavour in Peterborough, as artist-in-residence for Peterborough New Dance (now Public Energy); little did he know at the time that he would later move to the area to live. Bill was keen on finding local artists to work with. He put six Peterborough dancers in the work – Anya Gwynne, Michael Hermiston, Kris Keating, Kate Story, and Penelope Thomas, who each brought their own movement ideas to it – but his big discovery was Shelagh Young, a visual artist who had worked with Canada’s leading avant-garde dance artists before moving to the Peterborough area from Toronto years earlier. (She came for the job of executive director of Artspace, the successor to co-founder David Bierk – a high pressure job she managed with great poise.) Shelagh ignited a real creative spark in Bill, and in the ensuing years they collaborated well on a series of ventures; her eventual move away from the area left a big gap in the Peterborough arts world.

The story of Panopticon, which was presented as a work-in-progress and would premiere later in Toronto with a Toronto cast, is best told by the notes written at the time for the program.

Here they are, below. As you can see the program was promoted as “A Blind Date with Bill James and guest artist Shelagh Young”. Because Bill was creating the work from scratch as artist-in-residence, it was impossible to predict what would be on stage. However, promoting the event as a mystery turned out to be a virtue and audiences were as excited as ever to show up and be surprised, challenged and entertained once again by artists giving us their best.

 -Bill Kimball


Program Notes (2001):

Thanks for joining us on this Blind Date. I called it that, because a month or so ago I really didn’t know who – or what – we would be seeing tonight. Most of this had to do with the nature of presenting a creative collaboration – Panopticon – between two artists who had only first met a month or so previous. And some of it had to do with the nature of re-mounting a dance work – Wind – meant for a different setting, and on top of that dealing with two dancers suddenly leaving at the start of rehearsals and having to replace them with, well how about one from Toronto, and the other from…Chicago.

   The whole process of creating Panopticon really did begin with a blind date. I had wanted to bring Bill James to Peterborough for some time, having been both enamored of his grand vision for site-specific dance, and impressed by his interest and commitment to working on community-based projects. Could we combine the two? I thought we’d try, so this past summer I invited Bill to Peterborough to meet some local artists with whom I hoped he might hit it off. That was the first blind date, between Bill and Shelagh. Another series of meetings between strangers followed, most recently when Bill got together just last Sunday with five very adventurous performers from Peterborough. They’ve worked every day since to create the performance you see tonight.

    Of course, the work between strangers would not be possible if we couldn’t rely upon people we’ve worked with and depended on before, particularly Steve Rose and Ian Osborn, who supported Shelagh in the making of her video and audio. Not to mention Ryan Kerr, who, in two days, has created lighting for two pieces he’s never seen before, with some help from David Morrison, Wind’s original lighting designer.

    So, in the spirit of adventure that has brought together all the collaborators on tonight’s program, I welcome you on this Blind Date.                         

– Bill Kimball, Artistic Producer, Peterborough New Dance

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