Presented by New Dance Horizons (Regina), Peterborough New Dance and Tangente (Montréal) under the auspices of CanDance Network, Indigenous Dancelands offered a fascinating amalgam of traditional First Nations and contemporary Western dance practices. Featured was the premiere of Saskatchewan-based filmmaker Anthony Dieter’s Show-Down; Manitowapan by Montréal-based choreographer Gaetan Gingras; Elmer and Coyote, which was co-choreographed by Byron Chief-Moon (Alberta) and Karen Jamieson (British Columbia); and an excerpt from Ontario dance artist Santee Smith’s Kaha-Wi.
As a Saskatchewan resident, when I think of aboriginal dance I think first and foremost of powwow. While perhaps the best-known aboriginal dance form — which in recent years has been embraced by First Nations outside the prairies — it’s certainly not the only one. By including artists with Iroquois, Mohawk, Algonquin, Mic-Mac, Blackfoot and Cree backgrounds, the organizers of Indigenous Dancelands provided viewers with an insight into the dance and narrative traditions of disparate First Nations. Adding further spice to the mix were the different Western dance practices the choreographers and dancers had been exposed to and influenced by. Smith, for example, attended Canada’s National Ballet School from 1982 through 1988, while Gingras, via his studies at Concordia University and Toronto Dance Theatre, and Chief-Moon, who is currently pursuing a BFA/Multidisciplinary degree at the University of Lethbridge, are steeped more in the Modernist tradition.
If there is a commonality among the works, said Peterborough New Dance’s Artistic Director Bill Kimball in a pre-show interview, “it’s that there’s a real connection to nature that we find missing in modern society, that’s why we called the show Dancelands.” That sensibility stems, in large part, from the role dance has traditionally played in aboriginal culture. Like other art forms, it did not exist in its own sphere, as the arts in Western society have for several centuries now, but instead was an integral part of life, used to transmit family and community history, values and spiritual beliefs. Hence came the rationale behind Canadian authorities outlawing traditional Plains First Nations dances under the Indian Act in 1891, in the hope of hastening their assimilation (a law that was not repealed until 1951). Among Euro-Canadians, the perception has long existed that traditional aboriginal dance and other art forms are static and one-dimensional, and therefore not worthy of consideration as “true” art. During a 2003 interview, New Dance Horizons’ Artistic Director Robin Poitras recalled being greeted with skepticism by some members of the Canadian dance community when she drew a parallel between powwow and modern dance based on their common reliance on improvisation. But thanks to such programs as the Aboriginal Dance Project at the Banff Centre for the Arts, that (moderately colonialist) attitude is slowly changing.
The evening began with Dieter’s Show-Down. Employing stop-action digital animation, the fifteen-minute film consists of a series of close-up images of a male powwow dancer. Rather than a traditional drum beat, however, Dieter scored his film to a pulsing techno beat. By juxtaposing the most popular Plains Indian dance form with the most popular genre of social dance music in Euro-Canadian society (among youth anyway), Dieter may have been trying to portray a clash of cultures. But knowing how popular rap, hiphop and breakdancing are among urban aboriginal youth, it was more likely his intention to celebrate a synthesis of cultures. If I had one quibble, it would be that the volume could have been louder to better capture the dance club ambiance.
When the lights go up on Gingras’s Manitowapan, the audience is greeted by a slowly rotating ring-shaped platform. As an ethereal soundtrack plays, a cloth-shrouded form rises up. After freeing herself from the cloth, which evoked thoughts of the primordial ooze from which life originated, Sophie Lavigne, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, takes a few moments to gather her strength before moving energetically inside the circle. Soon overtaken by exhaustion, she lies on the platform. As she is transported to the back of the stage, a man emerges from the wings carrying a wooden rattle and takes her place on the platform. More storyteller than dancer, Robert Bourdon represents humanity in its corporeal form. While on the platform, whose circular shape is emblematic of the aboriginal worldview that life is cyclical in nature, he walks in both a pro-grade and retrograde direction. Accustomed, as I am, to the linear mode of thinking that predominates in Western society, the latter movement seemed to suggest an ability to travel back in time. But what it likely dramatized was the link that exists between the present, the past and by extension, the future, as stories are handed down (and subtly altered) from generation to generation.
Like Manitowapan, Jamieson and Chief-Moon’s Elmer and Coyote derives narrative momentum from a creation myth. “In the beginning was only ‘Thought’ and she was a Woman,” intones Beverly Hungry Wolf in a voice-over recording, as Jamieson wanders aimlessly on a dimly lit stage. Eventually, she encounters a sleeping Chief-Moon. Among Plains Indians, the coyote is regarded as a trickster figure, capable of great cunning and great foolishness, great altruism and great mischief. During his duet with Jamieson, Chief-Moon (as the embodiment of his people) experienced periods where he is both confident, strong and tranquil; and weak, confused and tormented. The latter state, presumably, occurrs when he allows himself to be led astray by coyote, so that he becomes disconnected from spiritual values that sustained his ancestors for millennia.
In choreographing her piece, Smith — who recently became the first dance artist to perform at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. — took as her starting point the traditional Mohawk family name of Kaha-Wi (which translates as She Carries). In five separate scenes, which incorporate steps from Iroquoian social dances like Women’s Shuffle Dance and Stomp Dance set to traditional and contemporary arrangements of Iroquoian folk songs, she and co-dancer Tatiana Ramos honour the role women play in perpetuating the cycle of life by symbolically enacting the birth and bonding of an infant girl with her mother. Joyful, yes. Life-affirming, undoubtedly. But also poignant, especially when Smith and Ramos simultaneously touch their abdomens and then wince in acknowledgment of the pain and discomfort women endure during pregnancy and childbirth.
During a post-show chat it was observed that aboriginal artists sometimes feel constrained by those members of their communities who hold too tight to traditional notions of how an art form should be practiced. Such an attitude, in my mind, dooms an artist (and the culture they represent) to the status of a museum relic. Rather than bend to that pressure, the dance artists here, while certainly drawing inspiration from their respective cultures, positioned themselves very much in the contemporary realm. The result was both enlightening and entertaining.
Following its Regina stop, Indigenous Dancelands traveled to Lethbridge (April 26), and will be in Peterborough (April 30-May 1) and Montreal (May 5-8).