Vancouver-based dancer, Justine A. Chambers’ pieces Family Dinner and Family Dinner: The Lexicon will be performed in St. John’s on October 3rd-6th as part of the 26th annual Festival of New Dance.

Family Dinner is an immersive dinning experience that Chambers has been performing in different Canadian cities for four years. At each performance the audience joins Chambers and a small team of dancers for an intimate dinner party. Over the course of the meal each dancer commits a single gesture from one guest to memory.

At the following performance of Family Dinner the newly captured gestures are added to a choreography of hundreds of movements collected at previous dinners. As the dancers eat with the audience they strive to genuinely connect with their guests while also performing the intricate choreography, and memorizing a guest’s movement.

“The way the dinner works is that we perform the gestures of everyone who has ever eaten with us. So at this point there’s about 227 gestures that we perform over the course of the dinner,” Chambers said. “…basically we steal movement from our guests, just one movement per guest. It’s all about honouring the guest and our delight at what their body brings to the table.”

Family Dinner: The Lexicon is a more traditional dance performance; in St. John’s it will be performed at the LSPU Hall with the dancers eating on stage facing the audience.

“You see all the eating gestures, all the napkin wiping gestures, all the drinking gestures, all the conversational gestures. We go through it like a catalogue of movement,” Chambers explained.

“At the dinners we’re seated at the table amongst our dinner guests and some of the gestures are so natural that it’s almost an invisible choreography sometimes. The Lexicon gives people a moment to gaze upon what was going on alongside them.”

Chambers’ father is a diplomat and Family Dinner is in part inspired by the large role that dinners played in her childhood.

“I grew up in many places in the world but a lot of my life was at dinners, both formal and informal, having people for dinner or going somewhere for dinner. A big part of life in the foreign service is dinning,” Chambers said.

At the dinners Chambers would observe how the guests behaved, noting whether the atmosphere was formal and stilted or informal, loose and comfortable. She even remembers ducking under the table as a kid to see what was happening in the secret world beneath the tablecloth.

As an adult Chambers became more interested in remembering how her mother transformed at the dinners. In Family Dinner Chambers’ work is slightly different than the other dancers. While she incorporates gestures from past guests into her performance, she also embodies her mother.

“My mother doing the performance of hostess has become really interesting to me as I get older,” Chambers said. “…knowing she had two ways of being, there was the diplomat-wife-hostess and then there was my mom. For me it’s also a social thing because my mother is black and she grew up on the south side of Chicago. So she grew up in a very different socio-economic situation than the one she married into.”

Chambers’ prepares the food for every performance of Family Dinner and asks her mother to suggest a menu for the evening. She describes her mother as an incredible chef, citing her homemade marshmallows as one example of her prowess.

“For me it was important that she be at the table in that way, and also and that she had her hand in the project,” Chambers said about her mother.

Typically the menu is shaped according to what food exceptions (i.e. vegan or non-dairy) the guests request and the culinary trends Chambers’ mother is exploring around the time of the dinner.

Chambers is very excited to be building a menu around vegetables donated by local farmers for the Festival of New Dance performance of Family Dinner.