On the night of the worst snowstorm of the year in Montréal, I trekked through the sleet and wind to a small dance space called Tangente to see the touring performance of Indigenous Dancelands, a program of three works by aboriginal Canadians: Gaétan Gingras performing “Mémoire de sang”; Michelle Olson and Kimberly Tuson (Raven Spirit Dance) in “Songs of Shär Cho”; and Santee Smith and Michael Greyeyes (Kaha:wi Dance Theatre) in “The Threshing Floor”. Of the three, I was most intrigued by the last piece, featuring performances by Smith, a luminary in the world of dance, and Greyeyes, best known for his roles in the films “Dance Me Outside” and “Crazy Horse”.
In “The Threshing Floor”, the choreography serves the story. Rather than relying on abstraction, the dancing emerges from the narrative and concentrates primarily on storytelling. The movements are exaggerated and theatrical, conveying the plot more effectively to the audience. It’s storytelling with movement instead of text. Composers Russell Wallace and Donald Quon have created a haunting, emotional score that, perhaps contrary to expectations, does not rely on traditional Native music. The sound has a techno-like electronic edge that is atypical but fits well with the contemporary feeling of the piece. Art designer Shelly Niro’s stunning film, which screens in the background, offers a sub-textual series of black and white images that amplify the meaning of the overall narrative. Quick glimpses tell more of the story than we see onstage and effectively move the dance along.
The dance opens in darkness, with the sound of high heels clacking across the floor. These purposeful steps set the stage for a powerful performance. As the lights come up on artistic director and choreographer Santee Smith in black tailored pants and a white button-down shirt, we are given a view into a fractured existence. The stage is strewn with broken chairs and an old mirror in an abandoned house — remnants of a broken life.
The story starts, as stories do, at the beginning. We are introduced to the first of three characters that Smith will play — the “wife and mother”. Her movements are strong and she moves gracefully across the stage. She is soon joined by co-choreographer Michael Greyeyes — a tall, imposing figure dressed in a suit playing the “husband and father”, a carefree man and somewhat of a risk-taker. This is the moment in which they meet for the first time. The chemistry between them is palpable and their courtship quickly turns from innocently flirtatious to passionately breathless. The dance is almost acrobatic and the dancers entwine themselves together in a show of deep desire.
As the wife goes through a pregnancy and then childbirth, the husband takes a mistress — the “woman in white”. Sultry and strong, Smith also plays this character to perfection in a flowing dress that shows off her impressive physique. Her athleticism is breathtaking and equally matched by the powerful Greyeyes. Through some implied act of negligence on the father’s part, the child drowns and the family is torn apart by the loss. As the husband reaches out to comfort his wife and to find comfort himself, she turns on him and unleashes her anger and sorrow, beating him mercilessly with her fists, and then throwing herself repeatedly on the floor. Their agony is so tangible the audience can almost reach out and grasp it. Greyeyes stands helplessly by, and Smith looks up with a silent scream that could be understood, loud and clear, throughout the room. Guilt, loss, anger, loneliness and wave upon wave of agony wash over the scene at this gut-wrenching heartbreak.
As Greyeyes grieves, we meet “She Who Might Have Been”, the person whom the lost child could have become if she had lived. As the carefree girl dances in a childish white dress (again performed by Smith), the tone becomes equal parts wistful and heartbreaking. The child is a ghost to the father. He can never touch her and his guilt is overwhelming. This is the moment in which he has to move on and learn to forgive himself. Greyeyes communicates this with incredible grace and vulnerability. Crawling on the floor, he seems unable to look at her, although he desperately wants to. In despair, he scoops water into his hands and washes himself in a symbolic baptism, rinsing away the sins of his past. We are returned to the present with Greyeyes and Smith meeting each other once again, in the same spatial configuration as their first encounter, and we are left wondering if their hearts have healed enough to move forward together.
Audience members attending an Indigenous Dancelands performance for the first time might expect to see traditional dance works, not contemporary portrayals of Native life. It is relatively rare to see a piece by Native artists that isn’t tied explicitly to a traditional culture. In bucking that tendency, “The Threshing Floor” challenges perceived notions of aboriginal identity. Not denying a rich history and culture, the piece focuses on a contemporary couple’s very human experience. Without the trappings of Native-ness, the audience sees these incredibly strong characters as people, and not specifically as Native people. This story could truly be anyone’s story and, in this performance, Smith and Greyeyes have asked the audience to connect on a more personal level and not be separated by differences.
Choreographed and performed by two critically acclaimed First Nations artists, it is simply the casting that makes “The Threshing Floor” a distinctly Native dance work. By portraying the relationship as an aboriginal couple, Smith and Greyeyes explore a story not often told, and in doing so they make a strong political statement. It’s an old fashioned concept in a (post-) modern dance world. Smith and Greyeyes have embraced the challenge of passing on their own traditions and creating a unique work that gives audiences a glimpse into contemporary aboriginal society.