Iroquois-Mohawk by ancestry, but cut off from his roots for most of his life, at fourteen Gaétan Gingras learned that his maternal grandparents were aboriginal. The truth had been hidden for many years. Once a dancer for Robert Desrosiers, Ginette Laurin and Gilles Maheu, in 1993 Gingras created his first aboriginal-inspired dance, “In the Land of the Spirits”. Praise came for the Drummondville-born dance artist, and when he won the prestigious Clifford E. Lee Award for choreography in 1998, he perhaps rightly expected a warm embrace and fanfare. Instead, Gingras subsequently found himself without contracts, neither for his services as a choreographer or a dancer. To counteract the literal lack of momentum in his dance life, he eventually left the profession altogether for a breadwinning career in computers. By the time he reached the age of forty-five, though, as he told me in an interview, he began his “mid-life crisis”, questioning why he left dance.
The remount on this program of “Manitowapan”, first shown in 2005, is a welcome return. This significant piece opens on a large-sized wheel, placed in the centre of the stage floor. Throughout the hall we hear the voices of what can only be described as ancestors filling space. It’s a beautiful moment, in which you feel the presence of unseen entities seemingly right next to you in the darkness. Fitting, it seems, for a work whose title, an Algonquin word, loosely means “winds and spirits from the east”.
Gingras exhibits a strong understanding of space in this stimulating work. The wheel represents a medicine wheel, itself a timeless symbol. A cloth-covered earthen-like mound rests at its centre. Slowly, that cloaked mass begins to rise up, taking on the shape of a human. The apparition of moments ago is finally revealed as Woman (Sophie Lavigne). If we are linked to the Earth, then the landscape is Woman, the choreographer seems to be saying. Slowly, Lavigne’s upper body arches back, over and over, as if swept by forces from within. She seems to be welcoming and embracing them.
A man (Robert Seven-Crows Bourdon, of Micmac and Métis origin) enters and stands on the wooden wheel structure that is now circling (via some mechanical device). He is the storyteller for the evening, transforming texts (written by his life partner Johanne Parent). He first recounts the tale of a man vaccinating people and the fear it engendered in the community. Other stories ensue — about hunting, or warm, beautiful, magnificent bedding. The beat of a drum that he plays reverberates as he speaks his tales. The drum is like the heartbeat of the land, the heartbeat of creation.
Created by Annie Gélinas, the various masks worn by Lavigne (the only dancer in the piece) add to the mystery. These are not sacred face masks used in religious ceremonies, but carved dramatic forms made from single pieces of wood and emphasizing animal symbols. Animal masks in First Nations’ societies communicate a certain symbolism, myth or status. Also, clan members descend from specific animals, which carry meaning in certain societies.
Wearing her mask, Lavigne becomes a changing entity. In one particular sequence, she evokes a reptilian creature, crouching, swallowing flies. All the action in the mask sequences takes place within the inner circle of the wheel. The music, composed by François Beausoleil, is pulsing and rhythmic. Women’s voices, speaking and chanting, are heard on the soundtrack.
After taking off her mask, Lavigne begins writing in chalk on the surface of the massive spinning wheel, manifesting expressive characters and symbols. Eventually she places her hands on Bourdon’s sternum. He remains seated, as if anchored, drum in hand. There is a strong sense of shifting energies. She leaves the stage. The beat of the drum remains the only sound. Then he tells more tales, for instance of a grandmother who cooks medicinal roots to heal a community, knowing that apparently fear could take on form, hiding deep inside the body. When Bourdon leaves the stage, the sound of the wind and the voices remain and blow across the room.
“Manitowapan” beautifully evokes primordial elements and an attachment to oral culture. Gingras has managed to bridge the worlds of dance, music and storytelling, delivering a multi-faceted expression of rich, lively First Nations culture — no mean feat — and one that totally transports, taking this reviewer to a state way beyond the limits of time and space.
Questions of identity, loss and recovery are central to the night’s premiere performance, “Mon Père M’a Raconté/My Father Told Me”. The multimedia production retraces stories and traditions transmitted across generations. Ostensibly the more contemporary work of the two on the program, I didn’t discern any specific or literal references to First Nations symbolism. It is also the piece that feels less finished, less inhabited.
A boy (Frédéric Gingras, the choreographer’s son) is seen playing in front of a large rectangular scrim on which black and white historic photographic images of First Nations men are projected. The sound of an airplane signals a crossing of boundaries. Images of trees further suggest connections to nature. There are no comments on the images themselves. However, the Indian Act that dates back to the late 1800s — in which First Nations people were stripped of their religion, and the Catholic faith imposed upon them — is central to one of the stories, told by Bourdon. Even though that Act was officially abolished in the 1960s, it still lingers in the minds of many First Nations peoples in Canada. The commentary is sobering, but the presentation is a bit static. The images, full of history and lore, are simply projected. Gingras is not into technical manipulation or wizardry and that’s fine, but his media elements lack oomph. The less-is-more subtlety and mastery in the first piece seems to have escaped Gingras in this work.
Later, Bourdon performs a smudging (a spiritual practice of purification). The smell of sweetgrass wafts through the theatre. The boy runs by, disconnected from the ritual, but Bourdon doesn’t take notice. He persists, and talks of a song that was sung about a dying grandmother, who would have been ninety-two if she had continued to live and was by this account fearless. Dancers Marie-Ève Demers, Jessica Serli and Patricia Iraola enter with an energetic dance, full of steps and unison, taking up space. There is a purposeful busy-ness, but no one gesture really stands out in this mass movement sequence. We scan these women and wonder about their connection to the stories. They advance and then retreat. And so did I, frankly, at this point.
Later, there are some nice evocative hand gestures for the dancers. They seem to skim the water and reach for the sky. The choreographer chooses a modern dance–inspired vocabulary: bodies rise and fall; the women roll on the ground. One of the most lasting images in the piece involves a cautionary bird creature, with a long beak (mask by Catherine Cuggy, costume by Anne Gélinas), which points a long finger. We hear the sound of the wind as the breath of nature, again connecting us with something ancient and wise.
The drum, too, reappears in this piece. The older man teaches the boy to play the instrument. Curiously, the lad remains mute throughout. The man moves behind the scrim, and takes on the image of the phantom, a spirit floating, perhaps seeking out the young boy. The boy ultimately cuddles up to his skateboard, which had suddenly appeared as a prop in the piece moments before, and falls asleep. He is literally under the spell of technology, as a shaft of light captures him overlaid with projected video images.
“Mon Père M’a Raconté/My Father Told Me” is a new work that hasn’t quite gelled. The theme of the piece — the attraction to what is current or in our midst, and the bittersweet reality that a people’s heritage (full of “nostalgic ecstasy” as Saul Bellow might put it) might no longer be nourishing their lives — is sometimes sensitively handled. But the elements need more work. The modern and percussive music (again by Beausoleil) set against aboriginal chant isn’t totally effective either. And Gingras’ choreography doesn’t have a vital energy. The dancing bits seem perfunctory, leaving the spectator to matter-of-factly accept the ideas about cultural heritage in the work rather than engage with them or question them.