Peggy’s Commencement Address to York University

In June, Peggy received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from York University  where she presented the following acceptance speech as part of the convocation ceremony for the Faculty of Fine Arts/Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies:

baker1-VChancellor McMurtry, President Shoukri, Dean Singer, teachers, graduates and guests, it is my very great pleasure to join you at this convocation for the Faculty of Fine Arts, and the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies at York University. I am awed to be in the company of so many accomplished and inspiring individuals, and deeply moved to be the recipient of an honorary doctorate. This award is a bold declaration by York of the vibrancy, relevance, and value of the Canadian dance milieu, a community I am privileged to be a part of. My remarks today derive from the continuum of influences and experiences that have shaped me, and reflect above all, the impact of my parents, expanding outward from that primary source to encompass the breadth of my life as an artist.

I’m one of six children, born into a middle class family in Edmonton, in 1952. My parents are both inspiring teachers and they championed play, imagination, creative learning, and the outdoors as the focus of childhood. My siblings and I played dress-up, built forts, put on plays, and penny carnivals. I loved swimming, skating, riding my bike, and dancing. I danced everywhere: in the living room, down city sidewalks, in classes that met once a week, and in community recitals. I played the recorder with my grade school class, took piano lessons, and sang in a church choir. At school we practiced reading aloud and also silently, which amazed me! We worked on penmanship, spelling, and the rules of grammar. We learned things by heart: times tables, poetry. I remember my excitement and wonder at learning that words could be unleashed into an explosion of possibility through metaphor. I took art lessons in the basement of an old downtown mansion that was the original home of the Edmonton Art Gallery. Each week our lesson began with our teacher taking us upstairs to view and discuss a painting. She taught us how to look for secrets and pleasures hidden inside of the images on the canvas.

School writing assignments expanded to include short stories, newspaper articles, essays, and all kinds of poetry. I loved the pleasure of scrawling and scribbling through the reckless mess of a first draft, and also of wrestling with the words and images to try to reconcile them within the concise architecture of each literary form. I began to discover unexpected and thrilling possibilities for womanhood in biographies, fiction, and plays. I became more and more serious about theatre, excited by the complex female characters so essential to the action. By luck, I won a bursary in a high school drama festival, and traveled away from home to attend a summer theatre school. One of our daily classes, called movement for actors, was actually an introduction to the serious and demanding dance technique of Martha Graham. My teacher was Patricia Beatty, a professional modern dancer recently returned to Canada from New York City, and a founding artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre. She spoke like a poet, describing how we were to move, and guided our bodies with her hands. Her dancing was fierce, feline, with actions emanating from her torso. She moved with weight and fluidity, utterly connected to her body and to the moment. The image she presented went beyond all possibilities for female expression I had ever encountered. Her lessons opened outward to encompass all and everything that moved and excited me. Set in motion according to her instructions, I had the extraordinary sensation of having discovered my essential nature. I felt both transformed and yet perfectly myself.

Within a few years I had become a student at the New York school of Martha Graham. One day, in the middle of class, Miss Graham suddenly stopped us and demanded, “Do you want to be dancers?” Some of the students around me averted their gaze; I looked directly at her. The room seemed to vibrate. “Declare yourself to be dancer now,“ she commanded, “ Say I am a dancer, and then – show me!”

Two other powerful encounters with giants of the dance world were moments of reckoning that hinged on questions of self-definition:

In my late twenties I discovered the groundbreaking work of choreographer Lar Lubovitch. Two deeply inspiring summer intensives with his extraordinary company had left me suffering a kind of heartsickness knowing that I would never be good enough to join his group.  Out of the blue, I got a call from Lar inviting me to an audition for his company. Intimidated and horrified by the thought that he would discover what a bad dancer I was, I told him I couldn’t make it. Lar called a second time saying he had decided against an audition, but wanted to spend an afternoon working with me to be sure I was right for his company. Again, I lacked the courage to accept. But, unbelievably, he called a third time. “You need to do this,” he said, “We need to work together.” He gave me the address of his New York studio, and told me when we’d begin. I toured the world with the Lubovitch Company for the next decade, becoming, through Lar’s generous encouragement and demanding mentorship, the dancer he had imagined.

I worked with Mikhail Baryshnikov for a year as part of The White Oak Dance Project. One day in rehearsal, struggling with a turn, I said something like, “This is hard for a modern dancer.” “A modern dancer,” Misha responded, throwing up his hands, “Peggy, there are only two kinds of dancers: good dancers and bad ones”.  We roared with laughter.

***

Whether through dance, psychology, filmmaking, mathematics, music – what each of us hopes to discover is a pursuit so aligned with our nature that it draws us fully into a matrix of interconnectivity, meaning, and purpose. What promotes that likelihood?

My father recently forwarded me a letter to the editor written by a young man, graduating from Harvard with a masters degree in architecture. He was decrying the termination, after 50 years, of the Edmonton Public School Board’s Enriched Music Program. Thanks to this program he had studied violin for 11 years, and his letter eloquently detailed the crucial impact this experience had on him. Gifted academically, his high marks in school were effortless. But he was a mediocre musician, and practicing his instrument taught him what could be achieved through commitment and hard work. The music program was optional and extracurricular, and it was his first experience of the joy of participating in a group activity freely chosen by all. There was no grading, and he discovered that something could be, in his words,  “unquantifiable and yet immeasurably valuable”. His family might have been able to afford private lessons for him, but those lessons would never have given him the chance to play in an orchestra, where he reveled in the intensity of competition and collaboration. He identifies his serious and joyful studies in music as crucial to his ambition to excel and contribute through work he loves.

***

You lucky graduates of these two faculties with the word ART in the descriptor, your connection to creativity and the potency of culture can nourish every aspect of your life if you take it to heart. If you consider work and creation to be one and the same, you will engage with imagination, daring, and integrity in everything that you do.  The qualities of action that are conducive to collaborative creativity – curiosity, sincerity, respect, humour, empathy, patience, commitment – will enhance every relationship you enter into. The spirit in which, as an artist, you share ideas, resources, opportunities, and the work you create, is a model for generosity in any circumstance.

We share the knowledge that making and experiencing art feeds the soul; that culture is a perpetual work-in-progress integral to the fabric of society; that culture is wealth that we share. But newly graduated, these are early days in your chosen field. How will you harness your energy and your gifts, to make the greatest contribution? In the introduction to her wonderful collection of essays, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, Joan Acocella writes:

“When I moved to New York in 1968, I fell in with a group of artists whom I was often awed by. “What will they become?” I thought. They were so brilliant, so bold. And as the years passed, I found out something my elders could have told me. There are many brilliant people – they are born every day – but those who end up having sustained artistic careers are not necessarily the most gifted. Over time, our group lost many of its members – to bad divorces, professional disappointments, cocaine. The ones who survived combined brilliance with more homely virtues: patience, resilience, courage.”

***

Whether you feel yourself to be functioning within the mainstream, a subculture, or in the vanguard; whether you identify yourself as an outsider, a renegade, a stabilizing force, or an agent of change; you are a member of society, and you have an impact on society. We are all living lives of consequence. We have each assigned ourselves a role and we are literally building a world together. Work for good. Burnish your brilliance with effort, empathy, imagination, integrity, and also with patience, resilience and courage.

– Peggy Baker

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2 responses to “Peggy’s Commencement Address to York University

  1. Peggy, I first took a summer dance session with you, at York University, around 1978/9. You have been my greatest inspiration, and once again, many years later, reading this speech, I am reminded of the impact you have had on my life, and that of many others. Congratulations on this amazing honour. Thank you for your passion, commitment, wisdom, and generosity of spirit. Best wishes, Janet Goldblatt Holmes

  2. Peggy,

    As you know, I don’t always “get” modern dance, but you have moved me so often through your performance because within each one lies your grace, humility, openness and determination to find the means to express the essence of what it is to be human. As for your generosity to others, words cannot express. You have transformed lives!

    Congratulations,

    xoJS

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