Edge of the Known World: Dancer Peggy Baker sets out for uncharted territory

“I never expected I would be dancing solo. I expected I would just be dancing with companies. I had no idea that this would grab me by the roots. One project moves me in unexpected directions, and from there the next project arises.”

Dancer, choreographer, and teacher Peggy Baker still expresses amazement at her career and where she now finds herself, despite being someone who has never settled for anything less than what she wants.

She also has never let–and is still not letting–age determine what she can do. At 51, Baker–past member of the Lar Lubovitch Company, original member of the White Oak Project, and now solo performer–is pushing the boundaries and expanding the repertoire for mature dancers. She will be performing as part of the UCSB Dance Department Faculty Concert on October 10.

“What if you were an actor and had to stop performing when you got into your late 30s?” she asks, comparing dance to other disciplines. “Fortunately, modern dance is more forgiving.” Baker spoke of the days when ballerinas would retire from the stage, in their final performance still having to play youthful characters. No dancer had the equivalent of a King Lear-type role as a career goal.
“No longer do dancers have to portray youth for a final show,” she says.

Baker, who was born in Edmonton, Alberta, has readily ignored preconceptions of age. Growing up in a family that immersed itself in theater, and who spent her childhood with her siblings putting on plays for the relatives, Baker initially headed out for drama school.

“Part of my coursework was a class called ‘Movement for Actors’,” she explains, “And the instructor essentially was using the techniques of [dancer and choreographer] Martha Graham. It was a whole new language, eloquent and evocative. I was moved by the whole experience.” Though she was part of only a dozen students who had been especially chosen for drama, Baker went straight to her adviser and announced that she “absolutely had to follow dance.”

“I was told ‘It’s far too late for you to start,'” she recalls. “Luckily, I was naïve enough to not take that adviser seriously.”

Baker immersed herself in modern dance, focusing on technique, changing her life around. After several years she found her way to Toronto and from there to Lar Lubovitch’s company. “Lars went to tremendous pains to include me. I was in my late 20s with only six years of experience.” But, she adds, her natural ability for dance and her sculpted physique made people think she was more trained than she was.

For the UCSB performance, Baker will perform two pieces, “Savannah” choreographed by Melissa Fenley, and a recent work of her own “this is a true story.’ “There’s no music in the piece, just text, which I will speak while I dance.” She adds, “Even though I start off saying it’s a true story, people will come up to me after and still ask, ‘So was that really a true story?'” She laughs long at this memory, but the work is serious. “It’s about my experiences as a stepparent, about coming to terms with that role, and all the negative baggage that comes with it. And how it comes with its own challenges and rewards.”

Of “Savannah,” Baker mentions a similarity of childhood experiences that dancer and choreographer share. “Melissa grew up in Nigeria. Her dad was in the diplomatic corps. I grew up on the prairies of Canada. So we both have those memories of similar open spaces, of huge skies.”

Fenley choreographed the piece onto Baker while sitting in a chair, recuperating from a career-halting and life-changing injury, back in 1995. “I danced the piece quite a lot at first, then stopped for about five years,” Baker says. Now she’s reviving it and returning with “a deeper understanding, with more experience.” Baker’s been a longtime friend of the choreographer, and says of her work, “If [Merce] Cunningham was erotic, that would be Fenley.”

She says she chose these two pieces to make her Santa Barbara performing debut because “They represent me very well, they show my deeply held beliefs.”

Another friend from years past will be performing as well at the Faculty Concert, UCSB Professor Nancy Colahan. The two met in Lubovich’s company, and danced together with Mikhail Baryshnikov as part of the White Oak Project, which has been one of the groups leading the way in mature dance. “I think both of us are surprised we’re dancing long after we thought we’d stop performing,” says Colahan. There are reasons for their longevity. “Good genes, good training, better surfaces to perform on than the past,” she lists. “There is much better physical therapy now, better nutritional and emotional education.”
Calahan regards Baker’s talent with awe. “She’s an entity unto herself,” she says.

In the realm of teaching, Baker has quietly revolutionized the world of dance by working with Irene Dowd, a neuromuscular specialist who had devised a series of training sequences for dancers. Unlike Pilates or yoga, but similar in their focus on the body, the sequences are tailored for a dancer’s physique, allowing the individual to understand the strengths and limitations of their own body and to develop technique and a range of expression. “It saves a lot of useless detours,” she says.

This has been an integral part for Baker of discovering herself as an artist in this stage of life. “There is a particular poetry for the different ages,” she says. “Teenagers dance in a special way that shows their idealism. But I don’t think we as the audience want to see middle-aged people bouncing around.” Her dances are instead incredibly concentrated and complex series of twists, turns, and other movements, all done with subtlety and finesse. “It’s really interesting to act my age,” she says, “This is a beautiful time in my life.”

Baker is fascinated with what the future holds. “I don’t know where dancing will take me at this point. Along with Baryshnikov, Trisha Brown and Kazuo Ohno, we’re on the journey together. We’re at the edge of the known world.”

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