The Nature of a Warrior
By Melanie Little
FFWD Weekly, July 13-19, 2006
Red Sky Performance's Shimmer Connects Aboriginal Cultures
Sandra Laronde is a cultural ambassador in the best sense of the term. Not only does she take her much-lauded company, the Toronto-based Red Sky Performance all over the world, she strives to bring the best of what she sees in her travels back to Canada in collaborative form. The resultant works are both grounded in tradition and propelled by a resolutely forward and positive drive.
Formed in 2000, Red Sky’s mandate is to bring together artists from different cultures and, in particular, to explore a shared indigenous experience. In June of 2005, Red Sky performed at The Dreaming, Australia’s International Festival. There, Laronde took in a performance by dancers from the Torres Strait Islands, an archipelago off the northern tip of Queensland. When Laronde saw islander Albert David and mainlander Earl Rosas, she knew she’d found her next collaborators.
Shimmer debuted to enthusiastic audiences in Ottawa and Toronto last month, and has been praised as a potent blend of cultures, as well as of traditional and contemporary dance forms. Laronde is quick, though, to point out that these divisions are essentially false ones. “Tradition evolves as well, it does move, just like the contemporary,” she says. “For example in grass dance alone, you will have a traditional form, but you will also have contemporary moves within that form.”
Shimmer does indeed feature a grass dance, by an award-winning Ojibwe dancer from Manitoulin Island, Matthew Pheasant. Also on offer are a show-stopping pow-wow-style “fancy dance” by Detroit’s Nigel Schyuler, and, of course, the dances of Torres Strait islander David and mainlander Rosas. Rounding out the performers are core Red Sky member Carlos Rivera (of Mixteco indigenous descent) and Australia’s Arthur Tamwoy, one of the world’s most celebrated didgeridoo players. Live drummers and a string quartet, performing original music by composer John Gzowski, add to the dynamism for the evening.
The piece is an unapologetically all-male production, and as such is something of a departure for Laronde. As the founder of Native Women in the Arts, Canada’s only organization for First Nations, Inuit, and Metis women artists, she’s drawn praise for fostering the careers of thousand of Aboriginal women. But, an all-male indigenous production – on a mainstream stage, at least – is something of departure itself, and that’s exactly what drew Laronde to it. “This is a first-time ever!” she exclaims. When asked if working with an all-male cast was a unique experience, she gives a long, warm laugh. “you know, an all-male dynamic is just different,” is all she’ll say.
That elusive something may well be the artistic heart to the piece. Shimmer, if it can be distilled to a single theme, is a meditation on the nature of the warrior. “I’m interested in warriors because a lot of our nations still have a warrior clan intact,” says Laronde. What seems to interest her most, however, are the aspects of the warrior that is overlooked. She points out that the Ojibwe word for warrior is oshkaabewis which means “a servant to the people, a helper to humankind.” Too often, she says, we think of the word “warrior” and see only images of aggression. “And that’s a very important part of what a warrior is. But what really touched me was the idea of the warrior as being someone who’s really connected to the forces of the world. There’s a natural radiance, and there’s a dignity, and a gentleness, and a grace. It’s these parts of the warrior that we hear less of, and I was interested in those.”
Dancer Albert David, who also serves as one of Shimmer’s two choreographers, has a similar perspective. On Torres Strait Island, his grandfather is a warrior, and David is keenly attuned to the warrior’s inherent duality. “We did bring in a strong warrior dance that talks about a journey to war and a victory dance,” he says, noting with some glee that the bow and arrow he brought over is three times the size of those belonging to his Canadian collaborators (boys will be boys?). “But we wanted to show other aspects of the warrior, you know, the softness, the feminine side. To be a warrior you can feel that other side, which we all have. We wanted to play with all that, the hard and the soft, the tension between them.”
Was there tension between David and his co-choreographer, acclaimed Canadian dancer-choreographer Michael Greyeyes? Again, Laronde laughs. “You know, for what was pretty much a blind date, it all went very well,” she says. David points out the deep connections between the Canadian and Australian Aboriginal cultures, particularly their shared affinity to the spirit of the land. He and Greyeyes discussed this affinity with the whole cast, and much of the content of Shimmer grew outward from there.
“Even before I was a dancer, “says David, “I felt a connection. I remember seeing black and white TV when it first came out on the island in the ‘80s – I was 14, 15 and just seeing the people from over here in this country. Mostly what I saw was their struggles and what they went through.” At 16, David was accepted into a five-year dance course in Sydney, after which he joined the prestigious Bangarra Company and is now one of Australia’s top dancer-choreographers. “When I moved to the city, I was always thinking about different indigenous cultures and how I could be involved with them,” he says.
In conversation, both David and Laronde are animated by the love of what they do and the understanding they hope it fosters. David explained that he’ll often wake up at one in the morning, go out to his back yard, and dance for four straight hours, trying to work out the ideas in his head. Laronde discusses future Red Sky dream projects with infectious excitement. Among them are a potential collaboration with Mongolia, a theatre piece on the life of Pauline Johnson (“not straight biography – something really kind of twisted”) and a new show for children.
The warrior can be a symbol for human potential – potential that springs from the abundance of the earth (“in trees, in stars, in a glass of water, in very basic things”) and which is shared by all peoples. Shimmer promises to be a testament to how creative, open-minded people can come together and be forces of nature in themselves.
Photo by Don Lee