Miigis: Underwater Panther premiered in Toronto at the Berkeley Street Theatre on Jan. 22 and will tour cities in Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec and the United States.
When introducing Miigis: Underwater Panther, director and choreographer Sandra Laronde described Red Sky Performance’s newest production as a “journey of hope.” The show takes its inspiration from a piece of foundational Anishinaabe history: a prophecy that urged them to travel westward or else perish, moving from the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean to the freshwater of the Great Lakes region.
“Journey” might be an understatement. Though the cast size of six is modest, and the production tight yet lean, Miigis has all the force of an intimate epic, capturing as it does the power of origin and prophecy, the upheaval of migration, the expanse of history and future. However you characterize it, Miigis stands tall in Red Sky’s repertoire as a moving and skillful dance work, one that enlivens its important cultural story.
The show’s central and clever set piece is a bowed wooden frame, like a ship’s hull or a shell. When the piece starts, the cast is contained within it, a faint, fetal throbbing. Before long, each dancer tests its porous boundaries, with yawning limbs that stretch and prod outward, introducing the theme of exploration. Throughout the piece, dancers clamber on top of each other, forming an architecture that accentuates a stolidity of connectedness and multiple vantage points. Sensing is a motif in Miigis: dancers often perch on each other’s backs and shoulders, looking out, considering something intently. The journey to come, perhaps — and the future generations that will come, too.
The dancers are by turns playful, serene and assured. Their voyage begins when they overturn the shell and board it, pulsing their chests forward to mimic the rhythm of waves. (Dancing within the confines of the bulky shell while also manipulating it naturally is no small feat.) Red Sky’s well-known athleticism is exhilarating as ever, though it reveals itself slowly. Laronde uses patient, smooth movement that exists on an edge, capable of snapping to action in an instant.
Embodying the titular underwater panther, Kristin DeAmorim delivers my favourite section of the production, an absolutely ferocious and transfixing solo. Her body contorts and brims with a steely tenacity fit to rival the raw power of the element. Eventually, this underwater spirit and the travellers settle into a form of coexistence, something seemingly peaceable and almost idyllic (perhaps modelling a relationship of dependency and respect for the natural world). Dancers roll and leap over each other spiritedly, reminiscent of fish bounding out of water.
A stark change in style and tone comes midway through the production. A scourge of white dust leaves the dancers immobilized on the ground as photographs of residential school children and decimated buffalo herds flit across the screen. Jason Martin, a colonial personification, is commendably agile and menacing without tipping into melodrama (though I wouldn’t miss the wheeled stool prop he zooms around on). Contrasted with the show’s predominantly suggestive choreography, scenes of traumatizing assimilation into European customs and culture are dramatized more literally. Their bluntness may be the point; suggestion alone doesn’t suffice when addressing horror of this scale.
I can’t overpraise the beautiful sound design and composition (Rick Sacks, with Julian Cote, Pura Fé, Marie Gaudet, Marc Meriläinen and Pierre Mongeon) and live music accompaniment. You can stream the Miigis soundtrack online, and it’s well worth a listen on its own. But it soars in the context of the performance. Beating percussion drives the journey, enhanced by restless instrumentation and sounds of nature. Textured vocals (live from Ora Barlow-Tukaki and Gaudet) range from steady, sustained chants and guttural rasps to comforting lullabies. As audiences were exiting the theatre, many were stopping to speak with the musicians. Applauding them, I’m certain.
The show ends, as Laronde said, on a hopeful note. The dancers are loose, vigorous and, above all, unified, maintaining strong gazes directed outward and ahead. Laronde and the company can be proud that Miigis achieves its important aim, to bring to the stage and elevate a story from the Indigenous canon, artfully so. After this world premiere at Canadian Stage, Miigis is about to embark on a journey of its own, a North American tour. And well it should. It deserves to be seen widely.
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