Laura Cannon

2021 Ambassador Laura Cannon

Sarita Persaud: (00:04)

Hi, my name is Sarita Persaud. I do marketing and membership here at Dance Wire. Today is March 3rd, 2022, and I am here with Dance Wire Ambassador Laura Cannon to talk about her life and career as a dance artist as part of our Artist Stories series. Welcome.

Laura Cannon: (00:22)

Hi, thank you.

Sarita Persaud: (00:25)

Laura, what are your current titles?

Laura Cannon: (00:28)

I am the director of ProLab Dance, and I am a mother, and just a general creator. 

Sarita Persaud: (00:42)

Perfect. Can you give a brief overview of how you got started in dance?

Laura Cannon: (00:48)

Sure. I started dancing when I was a child for fun and loved it so much and just kept doing it. I was at the dance studio after school everyday. I didn’t care what the class was, I just wanted to take it. Then I studied dance in college at the University of Texas. I got a degree in dance and started dancing with the dance company in residency there, Sharir Bustamante DanceWorks, and then I branched out from there, dancing in companies and doing freelance work on my own. I started also working with theater companies, doing costume design and choreography for theater. So I have really gotten a chance to experience a lot of different sides of the performing arts. This was in Austin, by the way, all of those things.

And when I was in Austin, I was with a company that we did site specific work and started doing it all over town. We started building scaffolding out in properties, outside of town, or by the river downtown. And then we started getting onto buildings or airplane hangers – the airport closed and they had these open airport hangers. So we would stage shows in them. And that was a lot of fun. That’s where I really started to fall in love with site specific work, I think probably as a product of ADHD. I don’t like to stay in one place and with site specific work, suddenly, my brain just felt at ease dancing in places that were not just dark theaters. It was really the thing for me.

Sarita Persaud: (03:04)

Side question, do you often rehearse in a studio environment and then take it into a site, or do you work in your site and perform there as well?

Laura Cannon: (03:20)

I think that it is the most wonderful when the movement comes from the sites so that the generation of the movement starts to germinate right there in the site. So, I don’t typically try to do something up in a studio and then bring it to the site. Of course, sometimes weather will change that. And also it’s hard to just do general conditioning at a site. So I definitely spend time in studios just exploring my own personal dance technique and conditioning for whatever it is I’m working on. The movement for a site work, I think, has to start at the site.

Sarita Persaud: (04:13)

I love that. So, what does dance mean to you or has meant to you in your life?

Laura Cannon: (04:21)

Well, dance is at this point in my life, I feel that dance is my religion. It is my spiritual practice. I have taken time to not dance in my life when I’ve had my kids. I’ve taken chunks of time where I just haven’t danced and even considered myself to be retired. And I lost my internal compass. It was hard to find my identity or really to understand things that are really hard, things that evade language, things like why are we here? What is here? What happens after we’re here? Why is the world so mean? Or why is the world so beautiful? All of those things I think are unanswerable questions, but when I dance, I feel like I can get as close to those answers as is possible for me. It is the way to explain what is unexplainable. I must have it in my life to really feel this spiritual connection to the rest of the world. I hope when I make work that I am giving people a chance to also ponder these unanswerable questions and perhaps get a little bit of insight from my perspective.

Sarita Persaud: (06:17)

Beautiful. I feel like whenever I take a break from dance, it just feels like I’m not living life. It just feels wrong.

Laura Cannon: (06:25)

Right. Well, and they always say that exercise raises endorphins, and I always roll my eyes like shut up. But they are right, and it does feel better when you move. But beyond that, I do feel like the art of dance just connects me to a deeper plane.

Sarita Persaud: (06:46)

Beautiful. Can you speak to challenges that you have faced as a dance artist?

Laura Cannon: (06:53)

Sure. Burnout is real. I have definitely spent time in a company with a choreographer where after a few years, it feels like I want something else that I’m missing. I no longer feel the adventure of discovery with that person, and it’s not any fault of theirs. Of course, it’s just that I need to keep growing. So, I think when I get complacent in dance is when I can experience burnout for sure. 

It can be a struggle to go from project to project. When I first started dancing there were a lot more jobs that just had a salary, you were just a salaried dancer and that took a lot of stress away. Those aren’t so prevalent anymore. Going from project to project can be intense, because you pour your entire heart and soul into this one work, and then it happens and then you don’t know what comes next, and that can be scary financially and also just a huge emotional drop. So, I think that is a challenge. 


Getting healthcare has been a huge challenge. That is the reason that I left Austin and moved to Portland, because we were following a job that had insurance. And we had gotten to a point where we couldn’t gamble without it.

So that has been a big challenge, but I think mostly that being a dancer is a pretty lucky thing to be. I mean, we get to move, which automatically makes you feel good. Like we said, endorphins, but also we get to do it with other people and that sort of collaboration is just the best, laughing when you fall on your face with a bunch of other people is so fun. And then when you get it, you know, when you’re all like, ah, we put this show on together, guys, like that, you can’t beat that. And to be able to keep doing it throughout your life is a really great gift. 

Sarita Persaud: (09:33)

What people, resources and opportunities do you feel have helped you the most?

Laura Cannon: (09:51)

I have had kind of a long career. But, I think getting to study dance in college was huge. And not because you have to study dance in college to be a dancer, not at all. But it just allowed me to try so many things. I feel like I got to use that opportunity to try so many styles of dance and also to try on creating things and in a really low-stakes situation; I could just create the weirdest stuff and, you know, my class was gonna see it. I was going to have an audience, and I didn’t have to worry about selling tickets or any other, it was just great. It was such a great experience. So, while I don’t think dancers have to study dance in college, it’s such a wonderful experience if you can, to just take advantage of somebody else taking care of all the administration and you just dance, just do it all.

Sarita Persaud: (11:00)

You’re just immersed in it for four years.

Laura Cannon: (11:03)

That’s great. And yeah, they’re gonna just throw opportunities at you and just take them even if it doesn’t feel like it’s your thing, just try it out. I love that. Of course all the people I’ve danced with, all the choreographers, I feel like I’ve learned a lot from. There’s a choreographer named Deborah Hay who I studied with and performed with in Austin. And she really helped me with my core approach to performance and creating choreography. She has this very intentional improvisational approach that is so effective. And she is, actually I never ever knew how old she was, but she’s got to be in her eighties now. And she dances every day. I think learning the discipline of daily practice from her when she would have me work with her, she would want me to come at like 8:00 AM in the morning.

Laura Cannon: (12:29)

And I was just like, what are you cra… It’s like, yes, I do this every day. And, she would just dance for an hour every day. And I swear, 20 year old me was like, how? This is awful. How could you possibly do this? But I have tried this out throughout my life. And it really is such a wonderful path to discovering who you are as an artist and to developing movement and performance styles that are really authentic to you without even worrying about whether or not it is original, or I don’t know if you worry about that?

Sarita Persaud: (13:14)

I was just thinking about that. I would be in my head so much, but it seems like if you do it enough, then yeah, it’s just normal.

Laura Cannon: (13:20)

Exactly. And I would be in my head a lot too when I was younger, and sure enough, if you just keep showing up suddenly it doesn’t matter. Like the question of is this original? It is not even a real question anymore, because it doesn’t matter if it’s a second position grand pliĆ© because you are doing it from your most present and right now place. And so that is yours, all yours, and then it goes away and it’s never there again. I think it’s just the only way I would like to approach dance anymore.

Sarita Persaud: (14:01)

Really? How did you meet Deborah?

Laura Cannon: (14:03)

She is famous, in a dance history sort of way. So I met her through the dance history teacher. She was one of the original members of the Judson Church and she was in Merce Cunningham when he first started. So she’s got some history behind her, and then she taught a workshop at The University of Texas and we connected and she’s really wonderful, very enigmatic. And she actually also, this is a funny story. So I performed with her. It was wonderful. It was so, so wonderful. And she was doing these solos at the time, all over the world. She writes scores for her work, but it’s not like scores that tell you very specific things. The one I performed with her was called “Fire” and there were things in the score like, she touches a ball of fire to her head and then loses, oh now I’m messing it up. Anyway, it’s prose meets stage direction, and a mind expanding experience, it was like nothing I had ever seen before. Anyway, you might have to take that part out, because that was rambling, that was terrible rambling. She asked me to design a costume for her new solo that was gonna go all over the world. And I was new at costume design. So I was like, oh my gosh, she is, and I did, I made this post-apocalyptic costume with mesh, and this backpack and these huge, big steampunk goggles and boots. And it looks so cool. And she was like, I love it! And she did wear it for a while. But then she came back from her tour and she said, I had to stop wearing it. And I was like, well, what, why? Well, people would comment on it too much in the talkback, they would talk too much about the costume. So she elected to just do the performance naked.

Laura Cannon: (16:38)

So instead of the costume that I decided, which I, I love…and then she gave this costume back to me and, like I’m living in an apartment with three other people or something, I’m like, oh, okay. And she said, well, save it for a museum or something like that. And I laughed, because I thought she was joking. And she said, no, I’m serious. And sure enough. Now there is at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, they have her archives, so I need to contact them and tell them that I have the costume that was so good, in my opinion that she couldn’t wear it.

Sarita Persaud: (17:18)

Wow. That’s incredible. 

Laura Cannon: (17:20)

She is an incredible artist, and I hope I get to work with or even just talk to her again. She’s wonderful.

Sarita Persaud: (17:29)

Yeah. Oh my gosh. So we have to talk about the not so fun side of the dance world, administrative work. And how do you balance that with your own art, artistic pursuits and training?

Laura Cannon: (17:47)

I really don’t balance it well, honestly. I have not found that balance. I’m the one doing the grants at like 11:59 to get them in on time. It is very stressful to me. I think sitting still is really hard, and forming my thoughts into words, and then into words that are concise and to the point, woo, that’s tough. But I find talking about it with someone else. My husband is a wonderful listener and can help me to organize my thoughts. I think it’s so great if it’s a challenge to have someone just listen and just say, okay, so what I’m hearing is, you know, kind of say it back to you, and then it makes way more sense than when you spout it out of the ether of your brain. That, also, coming to people like you guys, DanceWire, again like Emily [Running, DanceWire Founder] has multiple times just, I’ve said something kind of lamenting the impossibles of fundraising or grant writing, and she just breaks it down. Like, you break it down into steps, and it really is not so bad. I have not yet learned to do that for myself. It still freaks me out. But yeah, you just got to get in there and do it. And just like the endorphins thing where I’m always like, shut up, I don’t wanna hear about your endorphins, but it’s right. When people say, oh, once you start doing the grant writing, it gets easier. And I would always be like, shut up. I don’t wanna hear it, but they’re right. It does in fact get easier. The more you write about your work it helps you to feel a little more validated and yes, this is what I do, and this is why it is important. So while it’s asking these questions that feel really challenging, like what community did you serve? You’re like, well, mine, this one, me and all the people here. But it actually is very helpful to articulate those things. So just doing it, it gets better.

Sarita Persaud: (20:12)

It sounds like it gives you a new perspective on your work. So, going off of that, what stage do you feel like you’re at in your career? How do you want to move forward? Do you have any goals for the future?

Laura Cannon: (20:28)

Yes, I do. I think I am in sort of a second career right now. I had a career as a dancer, just kind of running from, trying to be in as many things as possible, running from project to project. Doing a lot of other people’s visions or collaborating, but definitely being, wanting to stay in the role of dancer and really not wanting to take on the responsibility of making the schedule, and I didn’t want the responsibility of raising the money. When I took a break and had kids, I kind of thought, well, I’m just done. But of course, then I realized that it wasn’t done, because it was my spiritual practice. And I had to revive that. And the fear about doing the administration and the fundraising myself was really keeping me from being able to manifest my own ideas.

Laura Cannon: (21:43)

I realized that there was a lot of self-talk about oh, you’re a dancer you only need to know 5, 6, 7, 8, you know, those sort of jokes. That had become a bit of a real thing in my head. And I had to say, hey, you are just gonna learn to do this, and you can, it’s not something you can’t do. So now I feel like I am at the beginning of my second career as a person who does what I’m doing now, trying to envision something that may be a little bit outside of the box, and then make it happen. 

I forgot the second part of the question…where am I in my career? How do you want to move forward? I want to make more work. I would like to be someone who can move from site to site creating work. I’ve been working here Zidell since the summer doing choreographic studies here. And I feel like I have learned a lot about the place here. I’ve learned a lot about the history, but I’ve also just learned a lot about what is here, the angles of the cranes and the way that the concrete feels as it gets closer to the water. And the sounds, I heard a sound today I had not heard before, some frogs and I was like, oh, that’s a new Zidell sound for me, which must mean something. I am now trying to put all that I’ve learned together into a film that will hopefully someday then turn into a live performance, but it still feels too soon to go to live performance land. But I would like to take this model of, hey, I spend a long time in one place. I get to know it so well that I know when the frogs arrive, and then I make a dance that is like the kinetic embodiment of this place. And I wanna then be able to go do that in another place of significance somewhere, or not of significance, but that is just interesting. So that’s what my goal is.

Sarita Persaud: (24:08)

Just quick side note, can you describe the Zidell property for people who can’t see it?

Laura Cannon: (24:15)

The Zidell property is an old barge building shipyard and ship breaking yard. It is in downtown Portland, well, it’s kind of a little bit south of downtown on the waterfront. And this used to be a really industrial area where ships were broken apart. There’s lots of scrapyards. But in the last decade, it has really built up there, a world class hospital is here and they have built up a bunch of buildings. There are these high-end condos that are glittering and very tall, and everything is brand new and sparkling and fancy, except this property here that was building barges until 2019. And so, it has just stayed the way it was, and it is beautiful. It’s rusty, and there are cranes that are no longer functioning. There are all these weird old metal parts that were from ships, and they started taking ships apart, I think at the end of World War I, so anyway, some of this metal is old and it’s so weathered, some of it is even so weathered and then taken over by moss. So it’s this ecosystem that is incredible. 

I’ve been coming out here for about six months, I think, dancing on these sites, and with these things and relating to them, and bringing out different people, like other movers or visual artists, or there’s a composer that comes here and we go into these blades of a windmill. So, imagine the big windmills that you see, like to generate power. This one has been disassembled and is laying on its side, and has been like that since the eighties I have learned, and they are hollow. And you can get into these tubes, they’re kind of at the end, like you can stoop and get into them and then they get progressively smaller. But one of them is on top of another one, a little bit, so that there is air almost all around it, like it’s kind of tipped up and because of that, it is really resonant.

Laura Cannon: (26:45)

I’ve been going into this, we call it the cave, the windmill cave, with this composer and she is singing and banging on the sides while I’m dancing. And it’s just so cool. All these elements are here and we’re trying to elevate them, and people who have worked here for a long time have said, you know, I look at things here that I have looked at for 20 years now with a completely different lens because of what I have seen you doing. And that, that’s like the highest compliment I think a site specific artist could get, because that’s the whole point, to just offer people a different lens to look at a place through.

Sarita Persaud: (27:34)

How would you describe the current dance scene in Portland?

Laura Cannon: (27:42)

It feels like it’s waking up after the pandemic. I think there’s a lot of energy, so much excitement for live performances and classes coming back. I still feel like it’s a little fractured, like there are pockets of people and this is sort of human nature, you find the place that fits for you and then you are there. But I would like to, and this could be my own nature as well. I like pockets also, but I would like to find more people from different pockets and bring them together and have a bit more of a connected community.

Sarita Persaud: (28:34)

Absolutely, I feel that. Paint an idealistic picture of Portland in the next 10 years.

Laura Cannon: (28:49)

Well, dancers are paid well. And people no longer ask them to perform for free. They have access to healthcare. Preventative healthcare, not just emergency kind of healthcare. They have lots of opportunities to share their work with each other and with the community. There is some kind of supported studio space that is affordable for dancers to use, perhaps even some subsidized ways you can apply to get free studio space. Yeah, but more shows all the time shows everywhere.

Sarita Persaud: (29:54)

Everywhere in the theaters, on the street.

Laura Cannon: (30:00)

Yes! Well, and frankly, more shows that have more accessible tickets. And I know like a lot of the big shows are able to do Arts For All. And that is a really big deal because a lot of times I am doing shows with people who their friends can’t come and see the show because, you know you get one comp each and then the tickets are $20, and $20 can be a lot of money. And especially if you have to decide, you know, oh, am I gonna go support my friend, or am I going to go eat dinner? Yeah. So I would love to see more pay-what-you-can at shows and it has to make sense for the company to do that. But I would love to be able to do that. I would love to be able to make all my shows pay-what-you-can. I haven’t had a show yet, but when I do, maybe it’ll be pay-what-you-can.

Sarita Persaud: (30:56)

Do you have any shows on the horizon for you, or you said you’re specifically working on a film project right now?

Laura Cannon: (31:02)

I am. I am. I’m really focusing on this film project. I still feel really afraid to count on live shows. I know a lot of people are doing it, and it’s working out, but I want the pandemic to be a little bit more behind us.

Sarita Persaud: (31:19)

Yeah, absolutely. Well, Laura, this has been such a treat, getting to learn more about your work and more about you as an artist. So thank you for taking the time today.

Laura Cannon: (31:32)

Thank you, Sarita.