Moving Within Stillness, Stillness Within Movement

Kaja Irwin has been dancing her whole life, from ballet to tap and contemporary to hip-hop—but she was immediately drawn to jazz for the way it focuses on groove, personal expression, and feeling grounded. “It’s such a rich dance form, and I immediately felt a connection to how my body wanted to move.” Today she’s going into her sixth season as a company member with Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, a concert jazz dance company based in Calgary. She recently brought the Spring/Summer 2020 collection to life in a contemplative dance video collaboration with Corey Moranis and filmmaker Michele Ayoub. We spoke with Kaja about creating body shapes, how dance teaches her to honour the moment, and why she believes everybody is a dancer.

You’re a familiar face to discerning Corey Moranis fans; tell me about your experience working together.

I originally met Corey in Winnipeg seven years ago. When I moved to Toronto, we instantly connected; she was so open and invited me into her world. I don’t do a lot of modeling at all, so it has been interesting to explore with Corey. The shapes that work in dance are different than in modeling. Dance is so movement-driven; whether it’s slow or fast, there’s a sense of aliveness. I think photographs have an aliveness as well, it's just held in a different way. So even if you're holding a pose or a shape, there's an internal movement within the stillness.

What were the points of inspiration for the video you created for S/S20? 

Corey came to me with a vision inspired by a meditative routine where her gems play a part in a personal recharging moment. We played with ideas of meditation and tai chi, stretching and massage, and the repetition within that. We wanted it to be a moment that you take for yourself where you just breathe or feel the sun on your skin, that heat and inner peacefulness and sense of calm.

Does that come from your own practice as a dancer?

I think there’s a sense of meditation whenever you focus all of your being in one thing. So every time I dance, or I’m preparing to dance, and I feel all of that energy within my body focused into one moment, it’s a kind of meditation.

How did you arrive at your choreography for the video? Where did the shapes come from?

Corey sent me images and clips of movements that resonated with her, and she also gave me some words and feelings. There were some images of very architectural, angular shapes, of a face massage, some tai chi moves, some Kate Bush dance moves. We talked a lot about breath, and that moment when you’re one with yourself but you’re also experiencing nature and taking in the air around you, the sand, the grass, the water… Then I took all of those reference points and went into the studio to just play, to see where all of those ideas started developing in my body, what felt good, what felt like it still resonated with the idea and what had gone too far away from it. “Sunset Village” by Beverly Glenn-Copeland was playing on repeat, because we felt that song really encapsulated the feeling, and having that go through my body and as an environment around me helped keep the idea alive. 

Your movements are so calming to the viewer, but I heard that the real setting behind the scenes didn’t exactly reflect that. How did you maintain a sense of calm in a stimulating environment? 

It was a wild day out there at the Scarborough Bluffs! There were fights happening, so many boomboxes—loud, clashing, cacophonous sounds—so many people watching us like, “What are you doing here?” In the midst of that, first of all I had to tune out the rest of the environment. And then I really had to go to that meditative breathing space that the video was all about—I had to go pretty deep within myself, just focusing on each movement and in the space that I was taking and the air that I was breathing. Having all of that external wildness was actually a really cool aspect, and kind of helpful in the way that I had to go straight inward in order to get the representation that we wanted. We find ourselves in that space all the time, with outside distractions and external clatter and the noise of the world. It takes real skill and practice to try and bring yourself back in, bring yourself to a balance, take focus. 

Do you have a favourite moment from the video? 

They all felt really good, but I do have two. The first is the one that we called “Orbiting the Sun” where I’m circling my head and my wrists symmetrically. And there’s also a bit of playfulness with the delicacy of the wrists and fingertips and how that’s emulated in the head. I felt the sun on my face, and the sky was so blue—it was a beautiful moment to experience. And the other one I love is the one that we call “Take my Breath Away” when I’m walking sideways in the sand and almost scooping up air towards me. That one felt really calm, like I was tracing patterns in the air.

How about a favourite piece of jewelry?

That one’s tough. I love all of Corey’s designs, and wearing multiple pieces at the same time— such a dream. But I love the Loop Ring a lot, it just feels so nice on your finger. And the Knotted Loop Earrings. They have a little bit of weight, but they’re not too heavy. You feel very glam and you also feel the movement of them with you.

Do you have a favourite representation of dance?

Because of my love of jazz and its rich history, I love watching older movies with dance in them. One of my favourite pieces is the dance in Hellzapoppin'” from 1941 with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. Whenever I want to see the expression of joy in dance and go back to jazz’s roots, I always love watching that video. 

How has dancing changed your life? 

Dance has taught me so many life lessons. It has helped me question so many things. It has taught me perseverance, hard work, and drive, and how much you need those in order to make a career out of it. It's also taught me about having physical communication, both with the other people you’re dancing with but also with an audience. And connection and vulnerability—that one’s really hard, but dance helps me to continue to push myself, to be more honest about my experience of who I am, and what I'm learning. It helps me appreciate what my body can do and develop a confidence and a trust in myself. Dance can encompass so many changing moments; you can do the same movement one day and the next day it can feel totally different. There's always a sense of exploration, curiosity, and openness. And it helps me try to honour the moment. Dance is so special, especially when it's a live performance, because that moment is so fleeting: it happens, you experience it, and then suddenly it's gone. It's magic.

What do you say to people who think they can’t dance?

Everyone has movement in their bodies, and it doesn't matter what that looks like. Dance is so much more than choreographed steps; it's a physical expression of what you're feeling in that moment. So I really believe everyone can dance—and should dance—and explore how they're feeling within their bodies. There is so much to be said for that expression of dance in your bedroom alone: let loose, be free, put on whatever music. It can be the smallest movement or it can be the biggest movement, it can be jumping around—but all of that is dance. It's joy and movement and letting go, and I think that’s pretty powerful. 

Interview by Ellen Freeman. Photography by Shelby Fenlon