The good news from the Edge is that it got off to a great start. Margie Gillis, the opening headliner for the 17th annual Dancing on the Edge Festival of Contemporary Dance, drew excellent houses for both nights of her “Voyages Into the Interior Landscape”. Gillis appeared at the mid-sized, close to 700-seat Vancouver Playhouse, an upscale, downtown theatre, and to see it well filled and bustling made for a festive launch to the ten-day event.
The rest of the festival took place at a number of smaller venues, including the Firehall Arts Centre, which is home base and where the six, hour-long mixed bills were presented. The majority of work came from Vancouver-based artists, ranging from emerging choreographer and Ballet British Columbia dancer James Gnam to experienced, butoh-inspired dancer/choreographer Barbara Bourget. The rest of Canada was well represented, including choreography and dancers from Nelson, B.C., Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montréal and Gatineau, Quebec. “Triptych Self”, choreographed by England’s Shobana Jeyasingh and danced by Natasha Bakht, and “Dances for Isadora”, a 1971 piece by Mexican-American José Limón danced by Jolene Bailie, comprised the international component. A number of local works were remounted on the mixed bills, and festival producer Donna Spencer also programmed two full-length remounts: Martha Carter’s “The Spell Remains” and Wen Wei Wang’s “One Man’s…”, a solo that premiered at the Vancouver International Dance Festival just this past March.
The festival of theatrical dance also featured one rather unusual offering — a solemn memorial that was a collaborative project between modern dance artist Karen Jamieson and the Haida community in Skidegate, a village of less than a thousand people on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands) off the coast of northern British Columbia. The “Percy Gladstone Memorial Dance” took place in a beautiful, glass-enclosed hall at the Museum of Anthropology on the University of British Columbia campus, with admission free to museum-goers.
After the processional entry of singers and dancers, my first impressions were of nature transformed: cedar bark hats, leather leggings, fur trim and a fan of dark feathers (carried by one of the elders). Then the distinctive black and red designs of Haida art became apparent, particularly on the button blankets worn by some of the participants, one of which had a stylized raven filling the back. Contemporary, urban life was evident in the footwear: many of the women wore black sandals, including a pair with platform soles, although others were barefoot or wore moccasins.
The hour-long presentation included traditional dances by a few of the Haida performers and sections of chanting, song and movement by the whole group. Jamieson herself made brief appearances in a long, rust-coloured gown, moving in a more modern dance tradition. She seemed to be giving a blessing to the event, gently curving her torso around, reaching out with soft hands and arms, sighing forward and back. She was quietly focussed, yet danced with more outwardly directed energy than the Haida performers. Everyone was quite solemn on opening night, and although later performances were reportedly more light-hearted, this was, after all, a memorial.
Some of the sense of solemnity had to do with the protocol involved. Before the processional entry, the 7:00pm opening show on July 12th began with speeches (as did subsequent ones, which were all matinees). One was by Larry Grant, an elder from the Musqueam Nation, who welcomed everyone to the museum, which is on traditional Musqueam territory. Another came from Gladys Gladstone, an elder from the Haida Nation and a relation of Percy Gladstone, who thanked the Musqueam for allowing us on their territory.
As well, shortly after the processional, a Haida chief related a little of Percy Gladstone’s history. Born in Skidegate in 1911, Gladstone was a fisherman who became an officer and a pilot during World War II. He was politically active on behalf of the Haida people, and died in 1982. The program note includes the information that Gladstone was a close friend to Jamieson’s family throughout her childhood in Vancouver.
There didn’t seem to be a great deal about Gladstone in the song and dance itself, aside from the Recollector’s Dance. The program note suggests that the Haida song for this dance, one of four commissioned from composer Vern Williams, is about “fragments of memory” of Gladstone. It was lovely to hear the Haida language, which sounds like a deep stream calmly running a rocky course, although it meant, of course, that the meaning of this and the other songs, also in Haida, was not apparent. The subject matter of later songs, according to the program notes, told of the devastating effects of contact with Europeans and traditional tales about Raven and Foam Woman. It wasn’t clear how these related to Gladstone, aside from being part of his cultural history, and such wide-ranging topics stretched the meaning of the work rather too broadly.
Jamieson has been at the Museum of Anthropology before, in 1991, with “Gawa Gyani”. In this collaboration with the Gitksan Nation, a full contingent of professional modern dancers performed with First Nations dancers. “Percy Gladstone Memorial Dance” was a very different project than “Gawa Gyani”. For one thing, Jamieson was the only full-time professional dancer and the only non-Haida person involved in the performance, travelling alone to Skidegate many times since 2002 to work with the community there.
Unlike “Gawa Gyani”, which was a very athletic and formal work, in this piece, much of the movement consisted of processional steps. The participants danced for themselves, expressing their Haida culture rather than trying to project the formal values of theatrical performances. There was one gesture that I found out later did come from the collaborative process with Jamieson: the performers would reach out their arms as if gathering something from the air. A simple thing, the integration of this movement is important for the way it suggests that Haida dance is a living tradition, and not one closed off to new influences. Authentic change happens slowly, particularly for a people whose dance was once made illegal.
Despite the concentration on inward experience rather than outward form, there was some very expressive dance during the evening. James Parker, a young boy in a raven’s mask, tiptoed energetically about, animating his mask through the sway of his little body and by pulling a string that made the beak open. I appreciated Shawn Edenshaw’s full-bodied portrayals of both the Warrior and of Raven, and Sue Gladstone’s spry leadership during the Paddle Dance. Each of these three expressed something that was clearly very real to them and, while I am not familiar enough with Haida culture to know the stories, I could appreciate the dancer’s inner inspiration and the way the movement arose from that source.
A version of “Percy Gladstone Memorial Dance” was performed in January 2005 at the annual dinner of the Raven Wolf clan of Tanu, to which the Gladstone family belongs. There were apparently sixty performers that night, as opposed to the twenty to twenty-five at the Museum of Anthropology (not everybody could make each performance). In Skidegate, the audience was present as part of the whole social event – participants and witnesses rather than spectators watching a theatrical performance. The two ways of presenting and experiencing “Percy Gladstone Memorial Dance” in Skidegate and Vancouver suggest fundamental cultural differences that projects such as this must navigate, and which contribute to broadening the understanding of the possibilities of dance in the world today.
By Kaija Pepper
Tagged: Contemporary, Indigenous, Performance, BC