How this local artist persevered through COVID-19 to create art
Astrid Cunanan, Arts Editor
The day dawned clear but the brisk wind cancelled it all out. Jocelyn Mah was at her usual spot, Kensington’s beloved Higher Ground Cafe. She sat across from the large bay window, her face buried in her notebook while she twirled her pen with the tips of her fingers, she was in deep thought.
Mah is a Calgary born and raised artist who has created a name for herself through dance. At three years old she was already enrolled in Carl Orff’s music program where she learned the fundamentals of music and got into playing the piano. After seeing how intertwined music and dance were, she asked her parents to sign her up for weekly jazz classes at the age of 11.
“[Music and dance] goes into the tradition of authentic and vernacular jazz dances in which music and dance are married.”
“I felt this need, it was even before I started the [dance] classes, I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do,” said Mah.
After high school, Mah moved to Toronto to pursue dance at Toronto Dance Theatre, where she received intense training in her class of six students. Her dancing has taken her all over the world, from Toronto to Portimão, Portugal.
While completing her master’s degree, Mah toured Europe with Edge Dance Company and artistic director, Jeanne Yasko. These years were formative to Mah’s artistic development.
One day while walking down to the theatre in the streets of Portugal, Mah recalls being pulled aside by Yasko. “I want you to perform your piece,” said Yasko.
Mah stood in shock. At the age of 22, the artistic director had picked out her choreographed piece to be performed by the entire group in front of a full theatre.
“It wasn’t about being famous and being the one who got picked. It was [Yasko’s] faith in me. It just felt really, really good and really important,” said Mah.
In addition to Yasko’s faith in Mah, she continuously pushed her students to better themselves because of her high expectations. Mah recalled that many of the students adored her supportive yet critical nature.
In March of 2020, Mah made the decision to move back to her hometown Calgary, just before the pandemic began. Returning home meant leaving behind the Edge Dance Company’s home base of London with one of the world’s largest art scenes. Finding herself in a much smaller city felt a little isolating. At times she says she felt discouraged by the lack of value placed on art when professional artists are not as prevalent.
“We are small and mighty as Calgary artists, and we’re just going to continue. I mean, if the pandemic has shown one thing, it’s that artists are insanely resilient,” said Mah.
Throughout the beginning of the pandemic, artists still made art, often without being paid or without being presented to an audience.
“I’d like to see Calgary continue to support artists, to educate ourselves on arts and culture, to support our artist friends and realize that the arts are necessary for everybody,” said Mah.
During the pandemic, Mah was fortunate to work on numerous projects, one being a stop-motion animation in which she also collaborated with composer and musician, Nathaniel Chang, to create the score on Dancer Studio West’s website. Another project was with Springboard Performance to curate a show for Fluid Festival, a night best described as where “music becomes visual and movement became audible.”
“That was my first experience curating and that was a wonderful, wonderful gift,” said Mah.
In addition, the Calgary Animated Objects Society, also known as CAOS, worked closely with Mah to create all sorts of puppetry and mask performances with the Suitcase Theater Arcade.
Her mask collaborations with CAOS also made its way to King Edward cSPACE for Alberta Culture Days. Here, Mah also collaborated and performed numbers with other local artists such as Lana Skauge and Mackenzie Bedford; Mah, Skauge and Bedford are all a part of cSPACES’ first-ever cohort for their incubator space.
While Mah continues to do freelance work in Calgary, she does not know where she may end up in the near future.
“I can’t predict, but I have my values and I write and I reflect upon my artistic values, which could change. I hope whatever my values are and whatever is pulling me in that moment that I run in and catch it.”
After Mah said her goodbyes she reached for her pen and notebook. On a blank page her pen began to dance and the page quickly filled up. Once again, she was in deep thought.