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Robin J. Miller

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  1. Robin J. Miller

    A decolonizing dance

    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.
  2. Former Ballet Victoria star returns to Victoria with renowned Alonzo King LINES Ballet of San Francisco, March 10 & 11. AS WE GROW OLDER, it becomes easier to brush off criticism and disappointment. We’ve been through enough, we know that life will go on and we will somehow survive. But imagine being 12 years old, already knowing exactly what you want to do with your life, and then being told that you will never be able to do it. That’s what happened to Robb Beresford. Born and raised in Elmira, Ontario, Beresford was accepted into Toronto’s National Ballet School of Canada, which starts at Grade 6. He thought he was doing well at the prestigious and rigorous institution, which requires two to four hours a day in the dance studio on top of a regular school day. After Grade 7, however, “I was not re-accepted into eighth grade. They said it was because of my body, a shape thing––I didn’t have the right proportions to be a dancer.” Instead of crushing Beresford, however, the rejection “made me even more determined, more convinced that this is what I was meant to do. Their decision to let me go is what led me here, to Alonzo King LINES Ballet. If they’d kept me, I might not have made this journey. I am so happy here where I am now, it’s hard to have bad feelings.” It’s certainly true that Beresford has landed in a privileged spot in the dance world. Among many other honours, Alonzo King––choreographer, founder and Artistic Director of LINES Ballet––was named a Master of Choreography by the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, in 2005, and has received a Jacob’s Pillow Creativity Award, the US Artist Award in Dance, and a New York Dance and Performance Bessie Award. In 2015, King received the Doris Duke Artist Award in celebration of his ongoing contributions to the advancement of contemporary dance, and his choreography is in the repertoire of classical and contemporary dance companies around the world. “I never thought,” says Beresford, “that I’d make it into the company. I thought it was impossible.” After the National Ballet School’s rejection, Beresford found a less well-known school willing to take a chance on his odd body shape (I challenge anyone to figure out what’s wrong with his 6-foot, 4-inch physique today). The Quinte Ballet School in Belleville, Ontario, “had wonderful teachers,” he says, who prepared him well for his first professional company, Kelowna Ballet. A year there in turn led to four seasons with Ballet Victoria, starting at age 19. “I remember Ballet Victoria very fondly,” says Beresford. “I loved being there. It was small and young and everyone worked so hard—did a million roles each, with a tonne of outreach in the community, a lot of touring. I had so much time on stage, made so many great friends, found so many people I loved.” Ballet Victoria’s Artistic Director Paul Destrooper sounds like a proud papa talking about Beresford today: “I was thrilled when Alonzo King chose him. He deserved it. He’s a brilliant dancer.” But that brilliance took a little polishing. “When Robb came to audition for me,” says Destrooper, “I saw so much potential in him. He was very statuesque and had a lovely, natural movement quality, but his artistic side had not been tapped into.” Over time, with a few suggestions from Destrooper, Beresford found a way to “unlock his emotions on stage. By the time he left, he was such a wonderful, generous partner.” That artistic and emotional development, says Beresford, has continued in the four years he’s now been with LINES. “I came to San Francisco to audition for LINES in 2013, after seeing the company in Victoria. It was my first time seeing them and I was so moved by the show. I fell in love. I like to think Alonzo saw my willingness to go on his kind of artistic journey. He’s not interested in having dancers do what he says. He pushes us to personalize the movement, to understand it for ourselves. It was a completely new way to work for me. You have to be ready and willing to dive in.” For Paul Destrooper, Beresford’s entry into the company was also “a testament to what we are doing here in Victoria.” Others from Ballet Victoria to go on to larger stages include Matthew Cluff, Beresford’s successor as male principal, who is now with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens; Io Morita, who dances with Oklahoma City Ballet; and Mahomi Endoh, also with Les Grands. “When a dancer is willing to do the work,” says Destrooper, “it’s wonderful to see them bloom and develop and go to the next level.” Robb Beresford will be dancing in both pieces presented by LINES Ballet here at the Royal Theatre on March 10 and 11. The first, the 30-minute Shostakovich, premièred in San Francisco in 2014. Set to music from four of Dmitri Shostokovich’s string quartets, “it has great, athletic pas de deux,” says Beresford. Not what you would call a “light” piece, Shostakovich represents Alonzo King’s attempt to capture both the suffering and the poetry so apparent in the Russian composer’s music. It’s “a little darker, a little bolder,” says Beresford, than the second piece, Sand, which is more of an ensemble work, “very poignant and heartfelt.” First performed in April 2016, Sand is set to a jazzy, bluesy score by pianist Jason Moran and tenor saxophonist/flutist Charles Lloyd—a score that has been described by one critic as “effusive, sophisticated and lyrical.” That same critic also called the piece “an instant classic,” and said Robb Beresford was “never better.” Beresford himself says the work is not really “about any one thing. One of the things Alonzo believes in strongly is that your experience watching a piece is as valid as anything he or anyone else might tell you about it.” The choreographer also believes in allowing his dancers the room they need to grow. “Alonzo has helped me figure out who I am and what I want to say,” says Beresford. “When I was a young dancer, I was very focused on dancing like I’d seen other people dance. I wanted to fit into what I thought dancers should look like, move like. Now, I am not afraid to be an original, to honour who I am, my voice. It’s scary to be yourself on stage. It’s a difficult thing to do, to be in such a vulnerable place, but totally worth it.” Plus, says Beresford, in a few short years he’s gone from never having travelled outside of Canada to “now running out of pages in my passport. I get homesick, definitely, and I will be so happy to be back in Victoria, in Canada, to show everyone what I’ve been up to. But for the time being, I know I am where I should be.” For ticket details see www.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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