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  • A decolonizing dance

    Robin J. Miller

    The Dancers of Damelahamid confront us with the richness of Indigenous art, past and present.


    IT SEEMS UNTHINKABLE NOW, but the third section of the Indian Act, signed on April 19, 1884, once declared that:
    “Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the ‘Potlatch’ or in the Indian dance known as the ‘Tamanawas’ is guilty of a misdemeanour, and liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than six nor less than two months in any gaol or other place of confinement…”

    “The Potlatch ban,” says Margaret Grenier, artistic director and choreographer of Dancers of Damelahamid, “made it illegal to practice song and dance and wear regalia. And that meant, for many families and communities, they lost their song and dance. Their very histories were wiped out.” Fortunately for her Gitxsan family, however, “my grandmother, Irene Harris, made an effort to document it and, after the ban was lifted [in 1951], we had someone who knew the songs and dances.”

    Irene taught them to her children, who taught them to their children, who have now taught them to yet another generation—the result of which you can see on stage this January at the McPherson Playhouse in a visually vivid and beautiful production called “Flicker.”


    Jeanette Kotowich, Margaret Grenier and Raven Grenier in “Flicker” (Photo: Derek Dix Image and Design)


    A flicker is a woodpecker native to the Northwest Coast. It appears often in coastal art and mythology. “For this production,” says Grenier, “the flicker is embodied by a young man who is on a personal journey, a journey to find self, and is about his ability to navigate through different worlds, including the spirit world of his ancestors. But ‘Flicker’ is also a metaphor. It’s also about the flickering of light and how a flame needs to be nourished to stay alive––just like our art forms of song and dance need to be nourished.”

    Margaret Grenier’s parents, Ken and Margaret Harris, founded Dancers of Damelahamid in the 1960s as a way to ensure that the songs, dances and regalia of their ancestors were not lost, and to allow the public to experience what once had been a private practice, seen only within Gitxsan feast halls.

    Named after the original city where, according to Gitxsan legend, the first ancestors were placed on Earth from heaven, the company has always been primarily a family affair. Margaret started dancing in it when she was a child. “I think what I realized growing up is that it was a lot more than dance for me,” she says. “It helped to define me as an Indigenous person and really shaped my identity.”

    Today, based in Vancouver, she continues to dance in the company while her husband Andrew Grenier, a former Damelahamid dancer, now sings and serves as creative producer, responsible for creating the sets and magnificent regalia for each new production. Her two children also dance, and her mother, Margaret Harris, continues to cast her eye over each new production. “In my heart,” says Grenier, “I know that what supports a healthy community, a healthy family, is having all the generations connected. Elders and young people sharing knowledge and teaching each other.”

    The works created by Dancers of Damelahamid today are not simply a continuation of ancient practices, of Elders teaching youngsters the old songs and dances. As “Flicker” demonstrates, Damelahamid is also an up-to-date dance company, combining elements of coastal masked dance with the very latest in high-tech lighting and immersive, multi-media projected environments. (Anyone who saw Pacific Opera Victoria’s production of “Missing” in November will recognize the impressive design work of Andy Moro here, too.)

    Grenier, who took over the company in 2006, also trained in contemporary dance, and performed with companies including Vancouver’s Karen Jamieson Dance. “I realized that when my parents started in the 1960s, it was all about bringing back and saving the hereditary dances,” she says. Every gesture and movement needed to be as authentic as possible to ensure their preservation, but now, “my intent is to remain open to the beautiful, creative abilities of different contributors, to be still rooted in our traditions, but not stifled by them.” The company’s current productions are therefore no longer based on hereditary songs and dances. “‘Flicker’ is a newly-created work with an original narrative, original songs and dances, as well as newly-created regalia.”

    The result, says Stephen White, executive producer of Dance Victoria, “is a performance that my colleague, Bernard Sauvé, believed we absolutely needed to share. He was completely enthralled and said he felt privileged to be in the audience when he saw ‘Flicker’ at the Canada Dance Festival in Ottawa last year, which is why we decided to present it as the big event of Dance Days 2018.”

    A pre-show, on-stage discussion—“By Invitation Only: Dance, Confederation and Reconciliation”—will delve into stories of how women and dance were essential to the 1864 conferences that led to Confederation, and how Indigenous dance was banned after Confederation in an attempt to culturally suppress and assimilate Indigenous peoples.

    Says Grenier, “‘Flicker’ is a work that’s a reflection of my world as an artist, set on the foundation taught by my parents. It is these voices from the past that I believe will help us get to a better place. When we talk about things like reconciliation and decolonization, what it boils down to is helping people know and be their true selves. There is so much richness to Indigenous art and artists, but most people have not had an opportunity to really hear and know the diversity of those voices, those pasts. I hope that our work will help open up the world to hear and see these other artists too.”

     Dance Victoria presents “Flicker,” with Dancers of Damelahamid, January 19, 7:30pm, at McPherson Playhouse. Dance Days 2018, January 19 - 28: Free dance classes across Victoria, six new contemporary dance pieces at the Metro Theatre, and free community workshop by Dancers of Damelahamid on Indigenous coastal dance at the Songhees Wellness Centre on Saturday, January 20th, 10:00 - 11:30am. Tickets and information: dancevictoria.com.

    Victoria-based Robin J. Miller writes for national and international arts publications, and for business and government clients across Canada.

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