Canadian Stage's 2017-2019 Berkeley Street Theatre Company-in-Residence is Red Sky Performance, one of Canada's leading companies of contemporary Indigenous performance in dance, theatre and music.
Founded in 2000 by Artistic Director and accomplished arts and culture leader Sandra Laronde of the Teme-Augama-Anishinaabe (People of the Deep Water), Red Sky has garnered 5 Dora Mavor Moore Awards and two Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards, amongst other recognitions, for its significant influence on the artistic evolution of contemporary Indigenous performance in Canada and around the world.
What are the origins of Red Sky Performance?
The name itself "Red Sky" has deep personal meaning for me because they are the first two words of my Anishinaabe (Ojibway) spirit name.
Our desire is to create inspiring experiences of contemporary Indigenous arts and culture. I wanted to create a company that reveals the power, beauty and resiliency of Indigenous peoples by illuminating themes, aesthetics and values of importance to Indigenous peoples and sharing this with all. I am especially keen to show the world through an Indigenous lens.
Our very first work was a multidisciplinary piece that premiered with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall in 2002. We then performed a smaller version of that work across Canada, United States, Australia, Iceland, China and Switzerland. We were off to a highly successful start.
How did Backbone come into being?
I was intrigued by how people see nature, such as mountains, as a "vista" or a "postcard"- as somehow lifeless and for consumption of the human eye. As Indigenous peoples, we perceive mountains as the column of "spine", as if seen from a bird's eye view.
Backbone is inspired by the mountainous backbone of the Americas, which spans North, Central and South America, to Antarctica ranges. Looking at a map of the Americas from a Western lens, we would see a series of mountain ranges — the Canadian and the American Rockies, the Andes — each separated by the borders of countries. I am deeply fascinated by different ways of seeing land, Western cartography and Indigenous mapping, which is much more intact, fluid and continuous. Indigenous mapping would see the spine of this continent with no borders or boundaries as such - a spine that is very alive, intact, sentient. The "spine" of the Americas is our Earth Mother's spine, and much like in the human body, it has a nervous system, complete with circuitry and electricity. I wanted to help others to see/feel/experience the tremendous power of this rocky mountainous spine.
Backbone explores our physical relationship with land; how is that depicted through movement?
At Red Sky, we are known for our athleticism and Backbone is a highly physical, raw and demanding show. The performers are not only extraordinary dancers, but also high level athletes.
I am interested in exploring how nature and our land can be truly connected, rekindled, and transmitted through the human body, and how this informs contemporary Indigenous dance. We explore this connection through both dance and live music, whether it is tectonic plates grinding, smashing up, and the seafloor spreading, or the most nuanced sound imaginable in nature. The live music of Backbone really connects the dancers to their own physical impulses and bodies, so they are much more alive and in the moment. I seek to create an embodied experience not only for the artists, but also for audiences. Backbone really is about performing the land, and then how it, in turn, performs us.
How would you define your own relationship with land and place, as it shifts with passing time?
It's a love story. The more that I know and experience land and place, the more deeply I fall in love. I am always finding new things, noticing the most exquisite detail of nature and realizing its infinite wisdom and force; I am forever rich with the images that swim in my head and heart, and ideas are constantly springing from land and place – and landing on me.
There are sections in the choreography where audiences will also experience two different kinds of time at once: big time, deep time, Indigenous time... but also industrial, Western clock time - human time. We often experience different time zones simultaneously in our own being, but we carry our ancestral time with us wherever we go.
Red Sky has a very busy year ahead. What other projects are you working on?
It's a year of world premieres - three in fact! The first is Backbone at Canadian Stage, which will also tour to Nova Scotia and Alberta, followed by Europe and Asia in 2018. We have the world premiere of Miigis at Fort York from Sep 15 – 17. Miigis fuses contemporary Indigenous dance with five live musicians, exploring the catalysts, trade routes and stories of a journey of the Anishinaabe from the Atlantic Coast to the Great Lakes, and the seven prophecies marked by Miigis. The music will be part of National Aboriginal Week in Toronto on June 22 and 23 at Fort York, and on June 27 at Harbourfront Centre as part of Here in the 6ix: Celebrate Multiculturalism Day. The music is stunning, exciting and evocative; five musicians make a big sonic impact.
Our third premiere is Adizokan, a genre-bending creation that explores an image-rich potent experience of Indigenous dance, video, music, electro-acoustic and orchestral music. To make this happen, we are partnering with the TSO for a one-night event at Roy Thomson Hall on October 7.
At Canadian Stage, we are also in development on Trace, a sumptuous new dance and live music production that explores Indigenous connections to ancestral origins and all things traceable. There is so much more that we are doing this year, but this paints a quick picture of what is ahead. Whew.