The spirits of Dance

The Dancers of Damelahamid in „Flicker“

Derek Dix

Canada’s West Coast is world-famous for its potlatch – a lavish gift-giving ritual practiced by First Nations. Long forbidden, the meaning of this celebration seems puzzling today. Yet material expenditure and the immaterial expenditure in dance are a pair. The descendants remain on the trail of the meaning – a journey to modern civilization in search of its roots

editor of Dance International

Let’s start with a description of a contemporary ritual that presently takes place before most performances in Canada. Someone from the theatre or from the company that is performing will step onstage to name the traditional territory people are gathered on, recognizing the Indigenous nations who lived there for millennia before the arrival of European explorers. Such statements are often repeated in artist biographies and on the websites of arts companies. Typically, as in my hometown of Vancouver, land acknowledgments, as they are called, take the form of an expression of gratitude, like the one on the webpage of an influential resource and support organization, The Dance Centre:

We are located on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the xwməθkwəy’əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl’ílwəta?/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. It is an honour and a privilege for us to be guests in their lands. We are grateful”

In other cities, the treaty by which land was acquired is named, as in Toronto (Treaty 13 and the Williams Treaties) and Winnipeg (Treaty One). There is no treaty to cite in Vancouver, which exists on unceded territories. The Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh—three Coast Salish nations who were here long before the forest was cleared and swamps drained for urban settlement—never signed their territories over to the Crown. This means we are living, working and playing on land that was illegally acquired. As a non-Indigenous person, my feelings hearing land acknowledgements before pretty much every show I attend range from guilt to confusion to a sense of indebtedness and even concern over what should follow this recognition of historic theft. Ethically speaking, what kind of action is called for, and how will it affect our lives?

This is my perspective as a Vancouverite of Russian and Finnish heritage, someone now classified as a settler despite being born here. An extended definition of the word has come into use, as found on the City of Vancouver’s website: “Being a settler means that you are non-Indigenous and that you or your ancestors came and settled in a land that had been inhabited by Indigenous people.” As I struggle to make peace with the idea that, by this definition, I and my descendants will forever be in the unsettling category of settlers, I am very aware of the much larger issues Indigenous people face, including some that shocked the Canadian public when the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2008, released its reports, with the final one published in 2015.

The commission gave those directly or indirectly affected by the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools a chance to tell their stories, their truths. Canadians heard, many of us for the first time, of the existence of the government-funded schools and how they operated: children were forcibly separated from their families, forbidden to speak their Indigenous languages and often physically and sexually abused by the priests and nuns in charge. A society-wide grappling with historic injustice, and with ongoing racism, has led to a reassessment of what it means to be a Canadian. For myself, too, a settler writing this story of contemporary Indigenous dance.

“Frost Exploding Trees Moon”, solo by Michelle Olson

Juan Contreras

Michelle Olson and her Raven Spirit Dance

Reclaiming an Indigenous worldview is key to the contemporary vision of Michelle Olson (Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Irish and French heritage). At the heart of her practice is a belief in the power of ritual engagement, through which Olson opens up the usual definition of theatre itself. “Ritual is attached to what the function of performance is in a larger context,” she said when we recently spoke. “When we look at performance with a bird’s-eye view, we see the repetition or recreating of moments and images within a particular space in order to help things make sense. That’s also the function of ceremony, of ritual.” She quotes Floyd Favel, a multidisciplinary Cree artist, who once said to her: “Theatre is the younger brother of ritual, and theatre has much to learn.”

Olson connects these ideas of theatre’s larger purpose to Confluence, the latest production of Raven Spirit Dance, which she founded in Vancouver in 1999. “When we were creating Confluence, it was about finding context, finding meaning in the process. That piece held all of us in so many ways—and it’s not even past tense: it holds our joy and it holds our pain.”

The journey is as important as the destination, and rehearsals followed ritual observances. Olson describes this in a documentary about Confluence: “It has become a practice within Raven Spirit Dance during rehearsals that we sing ourselves in and we sing ourselves out of the work … [It’s] a way of transitioning into the room and into the work. We leave what we need to leave behind to come into the circle to sing and then that’s the working space. And then we close the working space with a song and we leave what we’ve discovered inside of that circle.”

The place of creation, then, is a ritually created space, one to which everyone brings their full selves. Collectively sourced, the work happening within the charged studio flows away from belief in the visionary individual creator fuelling much contemporary dance—away from the aesthetic of the choreographer-god and their astonishing originality to an aesthetic of connection through the creative act in relationship with others.

This aesthetic is evident in the invocation of artistic contributors to Confluence found in the performance program: Olson first, as artistic lead, with choreographic visioning by Olson, Starr Muranko and Jeanette Kotowich, in collaboration with the performers: Olson, Muranko, Kotowich, Tasha Faye Evans and Emily Solstice. The litany continues with six more names of those involved in earlier stages, or, as the program puts it, in the work’s “artistic lineage.”

Confluence

“Confluence” by Raven Spirit Dance

Erik Zennström

Confluence

“Confluence” by Raven Spirit Dance

Erik Zennström

“Spine of the Mother” by Raven Spirit Dance

The choreography, “the container,” was built through deeply sourced imagery—“images of a bird, of mountains, the resonance of a song.” Performing, or rather existing within the work—‘performing’ doesn’t quite capture the intentions—is like living in Vancouver where the North Shore mountains can be glimpsed in the distance throughout the city: “We know they’re there. But what matters is how we live in and around those mountains, those images,” says Olson. Life is always changing, and while the container is solid, the content is not static. “When we get into the room again with Confluence, we’ll all be in different places in our lives and we’ll bring that into the work.”

Raven Spirit premiered the ritual called Confluence at Vancouver’s Dancing on the Edge contemporary dance festival in July 2022. The work’s dreamy aesthetic was inviting, with the women acknowledging each other with welcoming smiles as they entered. They also smiled at the audience, recognizing our presence as witnesses. Onstage, there was performance energy and charisma, those qualities that draw you to engage with a performer, growing quietly from the presence of each woman as their bodies flowed and rippled like the water the title evokes: not a confluence of rivers, but of dancers.

A new cast member might one day be needed. “People’s schedules are full or they move on, so it will probably come up at some point,” says Olson. That person will need to be familiar with the territory of Raven Spirit’s work, with its requirement of immersion into imagery and the need to be in relationship with each other in the studio and onstage. “We’re always cultivating relationship, weaving people in and out of the company,” Olson says, “and that will be what brings someone into the room for Confluence.”

The joy of jigging: Jeanette Kotowich

Excerpt from the film “Nimîhtowin Askîhk | Dancing the Land”

For many in this new wave of artists, the first step in building relationship has been to reclaim connections to heritage, including language, often lost or disrupted for Indigenous people in Canada due to colonial assimilation policies. Jeanette Kotowich (her heritage is Cree, Métis, German, Polish and Scottish) tells me about her grandmother, who grew up speaking Cree in Northern Saskatchewan, where she ran a trapline as a young woman. After moving to Regina following marriage to a non-Indigenous settler, there was no one to share her Cree language with, so her grandmother spoke only English. In any case, Kotowich says, she “would have seen the future, and try to white-pass her children, to get them as much into the European settler culture as possible.”

Kotowich grew up in Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan, knowing her Indigenous roots, but not actively engaged with them. She would occasionally attend powwows with her dad, but “felt abit estranged there.” Powwow dances, she explains, were not as familiar as the ballet and modern dance classes she had taken from a young age.

Although she never learned to speak Cree, the language has become an important part of establishing her creative voice. “I use Cree words to infuse my work with values,” says Kotowich. In her artistic biography, she calls herself a “multi-disciplinary iskwêw” (woman) and “Nêhiyaw” rather than Cree, a word that came from the colonizers to describe the Nêhiyaw people.

Like language, dance—the steps, the intentions—also need decolonizing. Moving past historic disruptions, past what was not there in the wider culture for many decades, Kotowich’s freelance career as a dancer in Vancouver has blossomed in Indigenous creative soil. After struggling to engage with the dance program at Simon Fraser University, she discovered contemporary Indigenous dance practices—where, Kotowich says, “I found a safe space in which I could be myself.”

Jeanette Kotowich

Chris Randle

Shortly after meeting Yvonne Chartrand (Métis) at one of the Banff Centre’s Indigenous dance programs in 2009, she began dancing with Chartrand’s company, V’ni Dansi. The name translates as “Come and Dance” in Mitchif (the language spoken by the Métis), an invitation to share felt throughout Chartrand’s body of work. Kotowich was a perfect fit within the group, and recalls picking up Métis jigging “really easily” because, although the steps are challenging rhythmically, “it’s in my blood, it’s in my DNA.”

In the past, she says, “jigging was done in community halls as people got together inside during really harsh winters; it was about being in community, finding a sweetheart. Jigging is so joyful, it’s so elevated, and that element of joy relates to my practice now.”

Kotowich soon became one of the busiest freelancers in Vancouver, but, during the pandemic shut-downs when work dried up, she began to create her own choreography. There are “snippets of jigging” in her latest work, Kisiskâciwan. The title comes from the Cree word for “swift-flowing river,” kisiskâciwanisîpiy, which became Saskatchewan.

Despite her Indigenous roots being in the background growing up, Kotowich says she “always self-identified more with the Nêhiyaw and Métis parts of my heritage.” But she honours her settler side, too, and has “a deep relationship” with her mother, who is of German heritage. “We ate cabbage rolls two ways growing up: the way my dad’s mom made them and the way my mom’s mom made them.”

Kotowich wants to make space for people “in a healthy way.” She tells new collaborators: “I prioritize our humanity before our artistry. I would like to be a good human before a good artist.” In a world that has mythologized the stereotype of the tortured artist who sacrifices all for their art, an ethical priority is a radical position.

Starr Muranko’s „Chapter 21“

Ethics can be a tricky proposition: easy to imagine, often difficult to manifest, at least in business and creative practices as we typically know them. For this group of dance artists, ethical creativity includes being in right relationship with themselves and others, maintaining safe spaces in which to work and, when the opportunity arises, mentoring younger artists.

Starr Muranko (Cree, French and German) told me how important it was to her to meet Margaret Harris (Cree), an Elder at Simon Fraser University’s Indigenous Student Centre, and the co-founder of Dancers of Damelahamid along with her husband, Chief Kenneth Harris (Gitxsan). Margaret Harris quickly became a mentor to whom Muranko, then a dance student at Simon Fraser University, grew close. “You should meet my family, and come to the dance practice,” she recalls Margaret saying. “And that was that. Grandma and Grandpa Harris welcomed me, and I pretty much jumped into the practice right away. Grandma would say, ‘That’s the Cree in her, she can pick it up quick.’”

Starr Muranko in “Chapter 21”

Muranko has a background in ballet—happily participating in competitions and festivals as a teenager—and minimal familiarity in her youth with powwow songs and dances through excursions with her Cree grandmother. But Indigenous dance practices make her the artist she is today. “I am a woman living in 2022 in Vancouver and very much of this world,” says Muranko, “yet my work has an Indigenous worldview and way of being.”

Returning to the land her grandmother came from—Moose Factory in Northern Ontario, home to the Moose Cree First Nation—helped strengthen her Indigenous identity. “I took the time to travel there, to show up and say, ‘Here I am, I want to come home and I want to know about you.’ It gave me a sense of place, a confidence and security in who I am and who my Ancestors are.”

On that first visit—when she researched her first choreography, about seven generations of Cree women in her family—Muranko was gifted a pair of moccasins that years later became a key prop in her most recent work, Chapter 21. Also autobiographical, this present-day story is set during an intense period when Muranko received a diagnosis of breast cancer just 21 days after the birth of her son Sami, who has an extra chromosome 21 (Down syndrome).

Inside the contemporary dance-theatre work, however, are choreographic references to traditional Indigenous steps and teachings. At one dramatically intense section, a softer moment allows “the pêyâhtak teaching” to come in. The Cree word, which means to go slowly and with care, to take it easy, is something an Elder said to Muranko when she was in the middle of chemotherapy. “Pêyâhtak, pêyâhtak,” he said, hugging her.

Chapter 21, like most of the work Muranko and her Vancouver colleagues are making, does not separate ideas of modernity and tradition; instead, she suggests, they are creating something that goes beyond that binary and toward “this third thing.” She felt it beginning to emerge during the choreographic lab at Ballet BC that she and Margaret Grenier (Gitxsan and Cree) have run for the last two summers. Ballet BC is known for its cutting-edge contemporary aesthetic in the Euro tradition, which is very different from the Indigenous-led aesthetic of Muranko’s contemporary style or Grenier’s more traditional one as Dancers of Damelahamid’s artistic director.

Tasha Faye Evans in “Spine of the Mother”

Each day began and ended with everyone coming together in a circle to sing. Jacob Williams, in a video made by the company at the inaugural intensive, says, “I remember looking around at each of the dancers when we were in a big circle all together and seeing them as more than just my co-workers, but as a community Starr and Margaret really created a space for.”

Everything Muranko and Grenier introduced—the ritual, the song, the teachings, the sharing of stories and dances—was connected, as dancer Anna Bekirova discovered. “None of it is one theme or another, it is all part of this complex web,” she says in the same video.

“Maybe that third thing is what happened between us,” reflects Muranko, “when our work was interpreted by the Ballet BC dancers. And it only happened because we took the time to build relationships, to listen and to share who we are.” A new aesthetic, responsive to both traditional and contemporary ideas, develops in collaboration between past and present, and between artists.

Margaret Grenier and the Dancers of Damelahamid

Margaret Grenier has trained only, and fully, in Indigenous dance. It gives her a unique purity and depth of style: her grounded movement is engaged in space and time with clarity and purpose, free of performative flourishes. Grenier, the daughter of the late Margaret and Chief Kenneth Harris, Dancers of Damelahamid’s co-founders, told me, “I don’t remember being directly taught dance, it goes back to such early memories of what our family did together. I didn’t know it wasn’t what everyone did.” Despite being steeped in and committed to traditional family dance practices, Grenier understands tradition not as a static concept, but as alive and responsive to the ever-changing world in which each generation must make their lives.

Dancers of Damelahamid in “Mînowin”

As a child growing up on the northwest coast of British Columbia, in the land of the Gitxsan (the People of the River Mist), Grenier kept her dancing secret from friends at school. At a symposium in 2020, Redefining the Contemporary, she spoke movingly of the shame she carried back then around her identity as an Indigenous person, contrasting this with how happy she felt dancing within her community. Grenier did not elaborate on the reasons for this cultural shame, but the racism Canadians commonly expressed toward the Indigenous people who were here before us, and our general ignorance of First Nations cultural history and practices, are hard to process now with the Truth and Reconciliation findings well known.

Grenier’s early immersion into dance within the family was very much not the experience of the previous generation. It was her mother’s duty, as the wife of a Gitxsan chief, to reclaim dance practices that were forbidden during the potlatch ban, lifted just two years before she married in 1953. She was trained by Matriarch Irene Harris in knowledge that had been maintained within the family, working one step, one song, one piece of regalia, one teaching at a time. When she went to a museum, asking to borrow a few artefacts, and was refused, she managed to purchase a traditional drum from a collector.

Margaret Grenier

Chris Randle

To the general public, Dancers of Damelahamid—whose name means Paradise, the place where the first Gitxsan community was established—might appear purely traditional. Yet just the fact that Margaret Harris was involved represents a break in tradition: Kenneth Harris should have married within hereditary lines to maintain political and family ties, but she was a Cree from Manitoba.

As well, while Damelahamid’s work features elaborate regalia and carved wooden masks, and is typically set to traditional songs and drumming, staging the works—with multimedia elements and high-tech production values—is itself a break from the community experience of the past. And, of course, the company is no longer based in Gitxsan territory, but in Vancouver on Coast Salish land, where the family moved in 1987.

Scene from “Flicker

Derek Dix

Nor are the works, choreographed by Grenier, based on hereditary songs and dances, which the company stopped sharing publicly in 2010. For instance, Flicker (a northern woodpecker) has an original story about accessing one’s true self, and original songs and dances. The choreography includes powwow steps from daughter-in-law Rebecca Baker-Grenier (Squamish and Kwakiutl) during her solo set to a song recorded by Cree Elder Lawrence Trottier. New family influences and high-tech innovations speak to the complexity of contemporary Indigenous identities.

Olivia C. Davies and her Festival „Matriarchs Uprising“

Olivia C. Davies

Dayna Szyndrowski

A sign of the times: “Indigenous choreography sharpens this year’s Edge.” This was the headline in the Georgia Straight newspaper for a preview of the 2022 Dancing on the Edge festival. The story features Starr Muranko, who discusses Confluence, and Olivia C. Davies (Anishinaabe, French Canadian, Finnish and Welsh), about to premiere Maamawi: Together Through the Fire.

Maamawi, inspired by the Anishinaabe Eighth Fire prophecy, is mostly a duet, in a setting defined by digital designs of nature—animals, forest, fire—projected onto a stage-wide screen. There is also a smaller projection onto the floor of fire surrounding a heart. Davies, who is in the piece briefly, opens by weaving shapes with her body around this fire, drawing us in like a storyteller might around a campfire. Soon, we are no longer in a theatre: we’ve gathered in the wilderness, in the dark, welcomed by the light of the fire, ready for that age-old experience of story.

When Davies crossed the country from Ontario to arrive on the west coast in 2011, she tells me: “I was ready to look for my tribe, my arts community, who would hold me in recognizing my Indigeneity.” After an Ottawa childhood in typical Western dance school fare, and studies in dance at York University, she was searching for the right soil in which to flourish.

As soon as she attended her first Vancouver performance, Davies knew she had found her place. Raven Spirit’s Ashes on the Water unfolded outdoors by Burrard Inlet, with the audience following the dancers as they moved from the beach to the ocean. Davies recalls being “struck by the magic, by this elegant forming of bodies and land.” She took Raven Spirit’s next Indigenous Ground training intensive, feeling she had found “the chance I needed to break free.” Through mentorship from people like Michelle Olson and Starr Muranko, Davies re-evaluated what it means to be a dance artist in her own terms as an Indigenous woman.

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In “Maamawi: Together through the Fire”

Now, through her company O.Dela Arts, Davies carries the support forward with the Matriarchs Uprising festival, through which she creates space for more Indigenous presence in dance. It’s part of her efforts to decolonize the art form, although it’s also important to Davies that the space is inclusive for audiences. She typically asks herself: “How does this story get shared in a good way, so that our witnesses are welcomed in and feel changed or moved, or see the world in a different way through our work?”

This inclusive philosophy goes back and back and back, back to that Indigenous worldview these women are working so hard, and so productively, to resurrect in rehearsals, in creation, in performance. There is an Indigenous saying, “All my relations,” with which Davies closes her curator’s message for Matriarchs Uprising (on O.Dela Arts’ website). The phrase evokes the fullness of an Indigenous worldview, as explained by the late Richard Wagamese in his book Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations. All my relations, he writes,

“points to the truth that we are all related, that we are all connected, that we all belong to each other. The most important word is ‘all.’ Not just those who look like me, sing like me, dance like me, speak like me, pray like me or behave like me. ALL my relations. That means every person, just as it means every rock, mineral, blade of grass, and creature. We live because everything else does.”

“Maamawi: Together Through The Fire”

Erik Zennström

Coda for Coast Salish land

More cultural scene setting: In 2018, I received a media invitation to a theatre production but was requested to refrain, as a non-Indigenous settler critic, from writing about it; only Indigenous voices were given permission to do so. Though I felt discomfort over the exclusion, it made an important point about who was being heard, and what kind of analysis and appreciation gets to be made, in Canadian media.

Playwright Drew Hayden Taylor (Ojibway) wrote about such exclusions (there were a number of them for a couple of years) in the Globe and Mail in 2020. Taylor admits, humorously, that he wasn’t “aware of any Indigenous theatre reviewers out there willing to step up to bat and earn one of those lucrative play-reviewing paycheques.” But he also writes about how non-Indigenous reviewers don’t always tune in to Indigenous concepts of theatre, specifically how reviewers of one of his plays felt he didn’t, as Taylor puts it, “milk the conflict” enough. The criticism came, he suggests, from mistakenly applying “Western European/Greek concepts of theatre to dissect and deconstruct Indigenous storytelling.” Indigenous theatre tends to approach the use of conflict in playwriting differently:

Living in small family groupings for untold generations has given us a different way of dealing with dramatic disputes, which can and do differ from what evolved historically in European cities with populations numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands. Many times I have been approached by artistic directors curious about how I told a particular story, telling me there should be more “fighting” to draw out the drama and information. Unlike in Hamlet, most Indigenous plays don’t end with two-thirds of the cast dying.

That’s the kind of conversation that has to continue: sharing information and perspectives, analytical but not divisive. As we have learned through the pandemic that has made the world seem a very small and crowded place, healthy connections are more important than ever.

A woman in moccasins, travelling her trapline, finds a place to set up camp for the night and creates a shelter with a few sticks. Moments from her life are etched as quietly onstage as they might be experienced in the northern wilderness.

Michelle Olson’s solo, “Frost Exploding Trees Moon,” tells a traditional story inside a contemporary theatrical frame. The 2012 solo has been remounted several times on Vancouver stages and beyond, most recently this summer in Yukon at the Arctic Arts Summit and Adäka Cultural Festival. After one show, Olson tells me, an Elder came up and said, “Yeah, I would tie those sticks the way you tied them.” She considers his words of connection to be “a great compliment.”

When I ask about the ongoing popularity of “Frost Exploding Trees Moon,” and its wide audience—from the urban dance crowd to Indigenous Elders in the north—Olson responds by “dropping into the Laban world,” as she puts it (she is a Certified Movement Analyst). “The work has a shift in the sense of time and weight. In the pauses and in the silences, questions come up, even for me when I’m building the little house: I think about spirit, the earth, longing, being alone, being at peace.”

Michelle Olsons Solo „Frost Exploding Trees Moon“

Juan Contreras

The First Nations and Métis dance artists creating on this Coast Salish land we call Vancouver are skilled in their ability to create community with each other, with other artists and with audiences. Their presence is felt as they persevere through the usual creative struggles, looking beyond any single choreographic work as experienced through the different lens of Indigenous, settler, community member, arts insider, fan, intellectual, critic. Those are just some of the ways we bring ourselves to the theatre in this place called Canada—a place only known by that name since 1867, not for the thousands of years that came before. That fact gives some perspective to the territory of dance we now share, Indigenous and settler, a territory that is forever changing, forever in relationship to the great river of time.

Translated by Arnd Wesemann