This article is published through our Regional Reporter Program. We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts through the Digital Now initiative.
On March 28, six films created as part of Chautauqua: The Interlake Trail premiered at Cinematheque in Winnipeg, showcasing the possibilities of non-hierarchical community-based arts models.
Commissioned by Theatre Projects Manitoba, the films were created by artists in collaboration with community members of the Interlake Region in Manitoba through extended visits, community-building and studio time.
The films featured performances, original music and choreographies by artists including Emily Solstice Tait, Tanner Manson, Claire Thérèse Friesen and Daniel Jordan. The artists took on a variety of roles, some choreographing, performing in and directing multiple films.
These projects were filmed throughout 2020 and 2021 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Theatre Projects Manitoba and Ardith Boxall, the departing artistic director, provided the foundation for these works to flourish, the films hinged on organic relationships developed between Manitoba’s urban and rural communities.
These relationships began in 2018 when Theatre Projects toured a play – Mary’s Wedding – around the Interlake, a geographic region between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba, and hosted a series of community workshops. The programming was free and public and involved sharing dance styles and musical collaborations. City artists were supported by Interlake community members who gave them places to stay and helped them find venues.
In 2020, Theatre Projects Manitoba decided to facilitate Chautauqua: The Interlake Trail using the community connections that had already been established. Lead artists, including Tait, Manson, Friesen and Jordan, took different approaches to collaborating with the Interlake community, including hosting online workshops, visiting in person and writing letters.
At that point, certain Interlakers, including dancer Averie Johannesson and percussionist Sage Stoyanowski, took on more significant roles in the projects that were being developed. The final films developed organically, and the city artists took the lead from Interlake community members who contributed content, performed and advised the artists on shooting locations.
“It’s about serving both those communities and having not just the city provide art for the rural people but actually having community and conversations and having an artistic practice that flows both ways,” Tait says, noting that what she valued most about the project was the way it was conducted from a place of decentralized power.
Referring to Boxall’s role in the projects, Tait explains: “[What] she did was facilitate artists and facilitate community members and the projects. The actual artistic programming came from the artists and the communities themselves.”
For a child in the Interlake to take a dance class or a theatre class or a pottery class … there’s an accessibility issue. Sometimes it’s economic; sometimes it’s geographic or social.Ardith Boxall
Chautauqua, an Iroquois word, refers to groups of travelling minstrels in the early colonial Americas who would “go from community to community in a covered wagon,” explains Tait. She noted that Theatre Projects Manitoba liked the name because it reflects the importance of place, situatedness, roots and community that their projects were aiming to emphasize.
Boxall says that the goal of the projects was to “work more closely in rural communities” and “learn experientially about the land that we live on,” placing a special emphasis on the Interlake Region, which includes the towns of Arborg, Eriksdale, Riverton and Selkirk. The Interlake is home to a large Icelandic community as well as Métis and Indigenous communities. The area is rich in history and culture, but, as Boxall noted, there is limited access to arts programming at the higher levels in some of these communities.
“For a child in the Interlake to take a dance class or a theatre class or a pottery class … there’s an accessibility issue. Sometimes it’s economic; sometimes it’s geographic or social,” Boxall says.
Johannesson, a dancer from Arborg who performed in multiple films including Tait’s Wind and Water, says that growing up, she had to take dance classes in Winnipeg and often felt like there were no opportunities where she lived.
As someone who stayed in Arborg after high school to open a competitive dance school, Johannesson spoke to the importance of bringing creative projects to rural communities and fostering dialogue and connections across the province.
“We rehearsed in Arborg and we danced by the water and the land there, and then we kind of went over off into the lake,” she says. “I think they filmed some portions in Riverton, so it was kind of a nice connection of the area for me too. And special, being able to dance everywhere I grew up.”
Choreographing the movement of the camera operators is such a fun thing to play with.Tanner Manson
After about 18 months of Zoom workshops, brainstorming and virtual collaboration with the communities, the artists were finally able to make their way up to the Interlake in June 2021.
Since they couldn’t be together indoors, they stayed in individual trailers. The group spent a week getting familiar with the environment and having conversations with community members about filming locations and what they would like to see in the performances.
The initial plan had been to perform the works publicly, but pandemic restrictions didn’t allow in-person performances yet. However, adapting live performances for film and moving from indoor to outdoor spaces ended up opening new avenues for creative exploration.
The works – including Rain Breaker, Wind and Water and i carry your heart – had initially been imagined as live performances, but the artists suddenly had to account for camera angles, weather and other unforeseen circumstances.
Manson, who is a physical theatre artist and playwright, discussed the experience of performing in Tait’s Rain Breaker, in which the two danced on the grounds of the Marine Museum of Manitoba in Selkirk. He likened the experience of working with the camera during this performance to working with another live dancer.
“I’m so used to thinking archival,” he says. “You just set up three angles in your theatre and shoot them. But choreographing the movement of the camera operators is such a fun thing to play with.”
Thankfully, the artists were supported by Winnipeg filmmaker Buio Assis, who shot all the projects. Tait noted that although Assis is experienced behind the camera, he was “very responsive” to their offers and “used his knowledge and artistry to shoot the ideas” that they brought forwards.
Still, she added: “I would never want to take credit for some of the magic that happened.”
The weather was also a factor, adding depth and intensity to these entirely outdoor performances.
“We learned to watch the speed of the wind,” Tait says, “and we now know that 15 [kilometre] wind is more possible than a 25 [kilometre] wind on that specific spot on the water.”
“Andraea Sartison was our cloud watcher,” Manson adds, explaining that the artists would only have small windows of time to get certain shots while the sky was clear.
Working entirely outside, “There’s an intensity of, OK, this is the moment; this is what we’ve got to do,” he says. He explains that the urgency of these moments and the artists’ reliance on the natural environment led to challenging but beautiful moments of artistic creation.
All of the films are tied to the environment, but Tait’s Wind and Water perhaps plays with the elements most explicitly, using them to unpack themes of femininity and transference. The film features two main scenes: Boxall dancing within a rock spiral near Arborg, and Johannesson dancing in the waves at Finns beach on Lake Winnipeg.
“Dancing in the water, things were so heavy, it almost felt consuming,” says Johannesson, explaining that sensations of the natural environment were at the crux of Tait’s choreographic process.
“After not dancing for so long, dancing in nature … was therapeutic,” she says. “I feel like it helped awaken something that was kind of put to rest with the pandemic, being in nature and moving creatively with the land and the natural resources.”
Tait’s creative vision for the performance hinged on the idea of an intergenerational transferral of power, which was fitting considering Boxall had recently resigned from her position as artistic director.
Boxall recalled the day that she made the announcement was the same day she drove to Arborg to begin working on the performance with Tait. Prior to working in theatre, Boxall had been a dancer and explained that returning to this role felt fitting in that moment of change.
When Boxall and Tait first met, Tait was a student representative from Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, and now, Boxall says, “She was the choreographer; she was putting the dance on me.”
“Nothing could have made me happier that day to announce that I was stepping down and to go back into this studio in the Interlake, just her and I, and to move as a dancer and not an actor or a leader, but just a body.”
“And to be 53 years old, and I felt so safe and yet so vulnerable.… Those two things together are really special.”
Discussing the projects in retrospect, the artists and collaborators all emphasized the importance of community connections and being in nature during a long period of isolation.
Friesen’s project, i carry your heart, arose through exploring the theme of isolation, which she had actually started working on before the pandemic.
She engaged a large number of community members through physical letter-writing and in-person visits. People contributed audio and written content that Friesen included and diffused into her film and music, allowing the Interlake community to express what isolation meant to them and what they were going through.
Boxall described Friesen’s final product as “about loneliness, fragility of the spirit,” but added, “It’s a very beautiful and eclectic piece.”
Tait explained that all the projects were either “expressing things with [the community’s] help,” like Wind and Water that relied on Johannesson and Stoyanowski’s artistic contributions, or “supporting what they wished to express,” like Friesen’s project.
Agnes, Mable, and Beck (the Three Sisters), which Tait also choreographed, was another project based on community knowledge. The performance was inspired by stories from Ruth Christie, a Métis Elder, who separately met with both Tait and songwriter Jordan to impart her stories.
“It was like this beautiful thing … where we got our own impressions of a story, and then we got to both go away and come together without knowing,” Tait says. “The piece just came together.”
On the day the group filmed Friesen’s piece, Boxall watched Manson, Tait and Friesen perform a movement sequence on Finns beach that took them from the sand to the water.
“I had this moment, and I knew I had completed my work, that Theatre Projects was in great hands with this next generation of artists,” she says. “I felt this sublime peace of letting go of it, as an arts leader and woman and person.”
“And that’s not even just the company, but that new things are going to come.”
The other artists expressed similar sentiments – that creating these projects had gifted them the sensation of a much-awaited hopeful release.
Spending time in controlled atmospheres during the pandemic lessened many artists’ familiarity with flux and unpredictability. Undertaking creative projects that not only blurred the boundaries between roles such as choreographer and performer and allowed for organic community contributions but also relied on the natural environment reoriented the Chautauqua artists towards the world of chance.
“The whole experience was also imbued with the feeling of letting go,” Manson says.
“Making discoveries in your process and not holding anything too close was something we’ve all had to learn this year.”
Manson, Tait and Boxall agreed that the discoveries that occurred over those two years could not have happened without showing up in the communities, creating bonds and developing relationships.
How do I know what a small community north of Riverton in a small little pocket needs or wants?Ardith Boxall
Tait mentioned that the ships that she and Manson danced under in Rain Breaker were actually vessels used to transfer medical supplies during the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic, which made this performance feel especially significant in the context of the current pandemic.
This was one of many discoveries, which Manson called “happy accidents,” that occurred while creating the Chautauqua projects. And, as he pointed out, discoveries don’t happen overnight but by making space for them – through time, commitment and relationship-building.
That’s why spending time in the communities and having a roster of both Winnipeg and Interlake-based artists and collaborators was crucial for the performances, which hinged on these human relationships and the nature that surrounded them.
“I didn’t want us to say, ‘We’re going to create these plays and bring them to you,’ ” Boxall says. “How do I know what a small community north of Riverton in a small little pocket needs or wants? You have to go there; you need to ask them.”