Interview date: June 2017
Olya Glotka, a self-made filmmaker based in Toronto, is transforming the contact dance improvisation community she is a part of. Contact dance improvisation is a social dance involving touch, in which momentum between two or more people inspires dance movements. Like martial arts, it uses a rolling point of contact and trains the ability to sense one’s partner’s movements. There are no set gender roles which enables a fluid exchange of lead and follow. With limited resources, Olya decided to embark on a self-training program to become a filmmaker. Her goal was to make one-hundred dance films. Currently, she has just finished her fifty-eighth film, and has already started to win awards. Her films showcase a range of people from beginners to professional dancers. In several of her films, Olya has chosen to showcase dancers using wheelchairs. When watching her films, one starts to see the beauty that she sees in all people. You start to see that dance is for everyone and can be done everywhere.
Kathleen Rea, director of the Contact Dance International Film Festival, recently sat down with Olya to find out what drives her as a filmmaker.
KR: When did you first fall in love with contact dance improvisation?
OG: I was at my first contact dance improvisation workshop and we were doing an exercise in which one person is lying on the ground and the other person practices balancing their weight on their partner. As I felt the compression from my partner’s weight on my back, I suddenly realized that I had a body. I know that might sound strange. Analytically I knew I had a body, but this was the first time I understood from the inside out that my body existed. This was such a new feeling for me because I was a sickly child growing up. There was so much fighting, anger and negativity around me and I think my body reacted by being in pain. I was in and out of the hospital. Being sick became my identity. But in that first contact dance workshop, I started to see myself in a new way… one in which my body was strong and was something I could depend on. I started to see my body as a source of creativity. These realizations changed everything that came next.
KR: What else is it about contact dance that is healing for you?
OG: For me something fundamental changed inside me when I, this “tiny, little, pretty girl” learned to pick up a full-grown man and carry him across the room! You see, for me contact dance is my life’s lab. It is a playground where I can try out things or ways of being that I am scared to do in “real” life. Dance improvisation helps me face my demons and in so doing learn to face myself, to fall in love with all that is in me.
KR: I understand. I use contact dance in that way too. So, when did you become interested in dance film?
OG: Four years after my first encounter with contact dance improvisation I went to Allen Kaeja’s dance film workshop. That experience answered a question for me: “why can’t I stick with anything?”. You see, as a kid, I would do all kinds of arts and crafts. I went to art school, studied piano, guitar, creative writing, songwriting, did crafts, sewed my own clothes and went to theatre school. I was good at everything I tried yet I never ever stuck with it. I would quit after a year or two and I always felt like a failure. When I made my first little dance film in Allen’s workshop, I had this “Aha!” moment. The skies opened, I heard the angels sing and my life finally made sense. All the art forms I had ever loved were encapsulated and merged into one – filmmaking.
KR: You did your first contact dance workshop just before the 2015 Contact Dance International Film Festival. Did that festival influence you?
OG: Oh yes. I was so inspired by the films I saw I couldn’t sleep for two days. When I took Allen’s film workshop I knew I wanted to make dance films, but I didn’t know if there was a place for them. Then I went to the Festival and I saw there would be a place for my work. I knew the next Festival was in 2017, so I decided to get busy.
KR: How did you go about pursuing this new-found art form? Did you enroll in a film school?
OG: No. I didn’t have the resources that would allow me to get any long-term professional training. So I decided to do it myself. I set a goal of making one hundred dance films.
KR: Kind of like Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master at something. How many hours have you logged so far?
OG: I’ve filmed about seventy dance film projects and completed fifty-eight of them. So I only have forty-two films left to reach my goal.
KR: From your first dance film to your fifty-eighth what has been your progression?
OG: It is very entertaining to look back at my first films and see the quality of them. Very basic. Very boring. Very self-centered. I think I am now better at engaging the viewer. I understand that I need to edit in service of the film instead of in service of myself. This has helped me tighten up the pacing of my films. I have learned the technical aspects of the craft and this has improved image quality. I have cultivated my voice and artistic vision and I think it is now more direct, meaningful and thought-provoking. When dancers and artists ask me for advice about how to “turn into a filmmaker”, the only thing I can say is, “go make 100 films”.
KR: Besides making one hundred films, what else was involved in this progression. How did you teach yourself all the different aspects of filmmaking and find your creative voice?
OG: For a year, I woke up every Monday two hours earlier then I needed to, and participated in free online courses on all aspects of filmmaking. First, I learned editing, then production, then camera movement and so on. I had four part-time jobs at the time and I didn’t even own a camera and somehow, I managed to work on over sixty film projects that first year. I would study in the morning and then go to my nine-to-five retail job where I’d listen to hours and hours of film-related podcasts. My evening job was babysitting and when the kid would fall asleep, I’d open my laptop and edit, edit and edit. Then I’d run home to sleep. I would repeat the whole cycle again the next day for the rest of the work week. Then I had the whole weekend to shoot! I had lots of friends in the contact dance improvisation community who were eager to dance and help. Because I was making so many films, I was able to explore the medium and quickly get results by trying different things and learning lessons from my mistakes.
KR: That’s intense.
OG: Whether watching dance films or editing my own work, when something would catch my eye I would always ask myself the same questions: “why do I like this?” or, “why do I not like that?” I would look at it over and over, trying to figure it out and I would either try to recreate the effect later or try to avoid it if I didn’t like the effect. I was in a loop of learn, try, analyze and then repeat. I fed back into the loop everything I learned and figured-out, as well as feedback from others. I was exhausted by the pace but also happy.
KR: I know that you were born and raised in Ukraine. Can you tell us the story of how you came to Canada?
OG: I never planned to move to Canada. In fact, I always dreamed to dedicate my life and art to my home country. I grew up in Ukraine, and when I was eighteen I left so I could learn life by traveling the world; just myself and a few dollars in my pockets. During my travels, I fell in love with a Canadian and after several trials of getting my partner adapted to the life in Ukraine, we gave up and ended up here in Canada. I really had planned to live my life in Ukraine. I had always imagined that I would be able to help my troubled country. To be one of the young people fighting for human rights. I think this fight for human rights still lives in me. All my dance films are a celebration of human rights. A celebration of people.
KR: How else does being Ukrainian influence your work?
OG: I think Ukrainian people have this ability to work hard for the things they want in life because that is the way of life there. Also, growing up in Ukraine I learned the value of family and community. When things are tough these two aspects of life are the only solid ground that enables survival. After I came to Canada the relationship that brought me here ended. I was alone in a new country. I had not been dancing because my ex was not comfortable with contact dance improvisation. Leaving the relationship meant I was free once again to pursue dance. I came to a Toronto contact dance jam and met my new “family” that would provide me with solid ground. Knowing how vital this was for me strengthened my drive to build community through dance. I started a new Contact Dance Jam in the east end of town for this reason as well as to get more dancing in.
KR: Does your queer identity influence your work?
OG: It makes me question a lot! It inspires me to create something different that will challenge the norm of, if there is a man and a woman on the screen, they must be in love, have been in love or are about to fall in love. It has always upset me to see the lack of other types of relationships on TV and film. A man and a woman don’t have to only be lovers, they can be siblings, family members, best friends, soul mates, opponents, business/dance/sports partners. Two women don’t have to be either friends or competitors. They can be lovers, muses, partners in crime, sisters for each other. And men can be nurturing and sensual with each other.
KR: So you feel that people would benefit from seeing gender roles represented in a more fluid manner.
OG: In terms of gender stereotypes, I grew up in a world where everyone was telling me that girls are stupid, mean and catty. Once I discovered this belief in me as an adult, I spent years healing from it. I am committed to doing anything I can to change pop culture and the message we put out there so people can see the infinite range of possibilities.
KR: Can you tell us about your recent 30 Days of Contact Dance project?
OG: I made thirty films in thirty days. Over fifty dancers were involved in the project, most of them from Toronto. It was a tribute to the Toronto contact dance improvisation community. It is my way to thank the community for being there for me when I was struggling. My partner, Kim Simons, who is also a contact dancer was an integral part of the project. She alternated between camera person and dancer and offered support and encouraged throughout. It felt great to find a creative outlet that we could share. The first film in the series involves Kim and I dancing everywhere we could think of: the beach, a dollar store, the gym, a couch, a swamp, leaves, snow, hallways, living room floor.
KR: Now, ten films from this project were selected by the jury for screening at the Contact Dance International Film Festival, which is coming up at the end of June. I was overseeing the jury and remember a big discussion they had about whether it was fair to program so many of one filmmaker’s films. Finally, one jury member said let’s not think of that question and instead think of the merit of each film separately. Also, of note is that Allen Kaeja, your first film teacher is staring in one of the films, Farewell to Honest Ed’s with his wife Karen Kaeja. How did that feel?
OG: It definitely gave me a feeling of coming full circle. I felt that by appearing in one of my films he had recognized me as a fellow filmmaker and that felt really good.
Another one of the films in the festival, that especially moves me is Contact Dance Every Body, which features Luke Anderson, who dances using a wheelchair.
OG: I met Luke at a party. I was contact-dancing with someone and he came up after and asked, “what was that?” I started telling him about contact dance but then I realized that none of the regular Toronto contact dance spaces were wheelchair accessible. I felt terrible seeing how eager he was to try it and knowing that it was not accessible to him. Meeting Luke inspired me to start my own all accessible monthly contact dance improvisation jams at Artscape. Later I asked Luke and his friend Laura if they wanted to make a dance film. We met at their favorite place, the Art Gallery of Ontario. Luke was very nervous because he hadn’t done much contact dance. But when they started to dance, his nerves melted away. When I edited the film, I frequently had tears in my eyes. Their dance was so tender and the look in Luke’s eyes was so alive. I have been told by the Festival that this film has been selected for a prize and to prepare a speech. We are so excited about the attention the film is receiving because it has such potential to break down barriers faced by people with physical disabilities.
KR: What is your vision for contact dance improvisation. Where do you see it potentially heading?
OG: I really see contact dance in a much broader sense than most. I think contact can be a way of living a life in which there is more connection and touch. It can teach mothers how to playful interact with their kids. It can give elderly people a much-needed sense of community and connection. I really want contact dance improvisation to move beyond the dance studio and offer its healing properties to all. For me, ensuring that this dance form is accessible to people who can benefit from it is a human rights issue.
KR: Now that I think of it, not one of your dance films are filmed in a studio. They occur inside and outdoors in public spaces. They occur in people’s homes. They occur in the rain, in the snow, and in the blazing sun. Your films really do show that we all can dance wherever we are. Thank you for sharing your story. I think it can inspire many people. And a warning if you run into Olya at the film festival she might just convince you to star in her next dance film.
OG: [laughs]. Yes, there is a chance that will happen! Thank you, Kathleen.
This interview was done in June 2017.
Here is our update. The Contact Dance International Film Festival returns for its fourth season, June 29 to July 1, 2019, in Toronto Canada. This festival, produced by REAson d’etre dance productions, celebrates films featuring momentum-based dance created by some of the top creators and dancers in the field of Contact Dance Improvisation. Four different screening programs will be presented alongside dance workshops, jams and parties. The upcoming 2019 festival will screen two new films by Olya. www.contactdancefilmfest.com to see the line-up. Olya is now working full-time as a filmmaker.