Mile Zero Dance’s new work will pay tribute to Edmonton’s Great Western Garment Company, which was founded in 1911 and became the largest workwear manufacturing company in Canada before closing in 2004. At one time it employed hundreds of people, including many immigrant women. The performance, Anything Goes: GWG Dance in 17 Parts, will take audiences behind the scenes to look at the people and process behind the business.
“I had GWGs as a kid. They were called ‘Wee Gees,’” says Gerry Morita, artistic director of Mile Zero Dance. “I never knew much about the factory and its history until Gene Dub opened up the former factory downtown as the Red Strap Art Market and rented space to craftspeople and artists and even had a few performances there. My parents also told stories about it.
“I can vaguely recall when it shut down, but I wasn’t very aware of the history until I began researching it. I often do projects like this that delve into history—usually of a building—to inquire into what Edmonton is today compared to what it used to be.”
Morita says she was surprised to learn that a lot of Edmontonians had never heard of the city’s clothesmaking past. She compares the closure of the GWG factory to the city losing its status as “City of Champions” when its hockey team stopped winning. “For a period of time we were the home of GWG and we were this proud, working-man clothes factory place, but then that got closed down and we promptly forgot about it.”
Morita’s co-creator, Lin Snelling, a dancer and choreographer who teaches at U of A, brings a global perspective to the work. “Blue jeans today are still sewed by sweatshop labour in much the same way that they were 50 or even 100 years ago,” Morita adds.
In collaboration with other artists, they’ve developed a performance piece that combines visual art, dance and sound. The show, running May 26 and 27 at Sugar Swing, will have different stations representing activities such as sewing or dyeing denim, and the audience will be free to move from one to another. At the same time, a soundtrack will play stories about GWG from people who recall wearing the jeans or working at the factory.
It’s not surprising Morita, an advocate for the city’s arts, chose to tell a local story. She regularly includes Edmonton artists in the company’s Dance Crush series featuring Canadian movement-based artists, and invites people from different disciplines to curate other series.
Mile Zero Dance also takes art directly to the people. The mobile show RV There Yet? travels to different Edmonton neighbourhoods in an old trailer, and the company hosts art shows in the storefront windows of its Little Italy studio as a way to engage shoppers at street level.
The Alberta Foundation for the Arts recently named Morita one of the province’s 25 most influential artists of the past 25 years, recognizing her innovation as well as her efforts to bring local artists and audiences from different disciplines and communities together.
“I see lots of gaps, culturally and artistically, in things that could happen—ways to engage young artists and keep them working, ways to have audiences be more proud of work that comes from here,” she says. “By having work that’s a direct expression of here, it gives people a voice about the place they live in.”
And you won’t find local stories like the rise and fall of GWG on Netflix. “That’s the competition now—this global culture that you can consume from your bed…. So I make events that are interesting for people to leave their houses for.”