Dances with Warriors: Australian and First Nations Artists Shimmer in Festival Premiere
Ottawa Xpress, June 1-7, 2006
For most people, “warrior” is an archaic word. For Australian dancer Albert David, “warrior” means “family.”
“We’ve got many warriors up there where I come from. My grandfather is a warrior,” says David, a Torres Strait Islander who left his Pacific island home at 17 for Sydney to become one of Australia’s leading contemporary Aboriginal dance artists.
Along with other Aboriginal artists, including a didgeridoo player, David will join First Nations dancers and musicians on the stage of the National Arts Centre, June 6, for the world premiere of Toronto based Red Sky Performance’s Shimmer.
A landmark cultural event between indigenous peoples, Shimmer celebrates the warrior’s connection to nature and marks the first time an aboriginal work has been commissioned by the biennial Canada Dance Festival since its founding in 1987.
It’s a decision that wouldn’t surprise anyone who caught Red Sky’s Dancing Americas, presented as part of the closing night gala of the 2004 Ottawa festival. Blending Mexican and Canadian dancers, the emotionally transporting work used the metaphor of the monarch butterfly to trace migratory patterns and ancestral memory.
“It’s always very powerful when traditional dance is part of the spiritual life of a people,” says Brian Webb, CDF artistic producer and the man who brought Red Sky into the country’s pre-eminent dance showcase.
“What is so incredible about Red Sky is their dedication to finding a contemporary way to express that they are an indigenous people working creatively, alive in the here and now.”
Like Shimmer, Dancing Americas was conceived by Sandra Laronde, the versatile artistic director and visionary behind Red Sky, a six-year-old company devoted to bringing aboriginal cultures together in artistic production.
After merging Mexican and Canadian talent in the female-centred Dancing Americas, Laronde knew it was time to stretch her wings.
Born in Temagami in Northern Ontario, her Ojibwa name means “Red Sky Eagle Woman” and it aptly proclaims not only her company, but the radical breadth and beauty of her vision.
Instead of dwelling on the atrocities her people have faced – “As soon as you start with an issue, as an artist I’m already bored,” she says – Laronde wants to show “the fire and the beauty at our core.”
“People tend to think that whatever First Nations people create, it’s going to be small. And what I do is push into that small place and I push it out and stretch it and stretch it. I do not let anybody make us small. We stay big and magnificent as we truly are and show our true size.”
Last year Red Sky was invited to perform in Australia and Laronde had the chance to see mainland Aboriginal dance as well as dance from the Torres Strait Islands, part of the Australian state of Queensland but close to Papua New Guinea. “It was awesome and I just knew our next piece had to be with Australia. I wanted it to be all men because I have never seen an all-indigenous male cast ever in my life on mainstream stages!”
It was while researching the concept of the warrior in traditional culture that Laronde dancer, actress, cultural activist, producer and U of T philosophy grad – began to conceive the work that would eventually become Shimmer.
“In traditional culture, warriors need to have gentleness and grace and dignity from their deep connection to the forces of the world,” she explains in a voice that, even on the phone from Toronto, casts a hypnotic spell. “And outwardly I started to look at the natural world, shining, precious and alive in darkness, taking the fire and beauty of Australian indigenous dance as our inspiration.”
Shimmer was co-choreographed by Michael Greyeyes, a Cree and former National Ballet of Canada dancer, working with David, and award-winning dancer-choreographer with Sydney’s pioneering Bangarra Dance Theatre and a guest artist with the Australian Ballet.
Now a globe hopping solo artist and choreographer, the 35-year old David describes his first-ever experience working with First Nations artists as “a dream.”
“I feel as if I’ve been involved with the native peoples in North America for a long time because of the things I feel as a human being, the philosophy of taking care of Mother Earth. We are so similar and we share so much,” says the dancer, who hails from Thursday Island where his warrior grandfather was also the king.
“So in Shimmer we’re kind of bringing all these natural elements together to show not just the strength and proudness of the warrior, but also the humbleness.”
Asked to describe the appearance of the male dancers on stage, he’s playfully cagey: “Well, we’re bare-chested, painted sometimes with ochre, and at one point I transform myself into a bird. I hope that’s not giving away too much.” Told that Shimmer might just blow the roof off the National Arts Centre, he laughs: “ Don’t jinx us now!”
While Dancing Americas was a mostly contemporary dance piece, Shimmer draws strongly on traditional dance forms, with a grass dance and “fancy dance” from Canada and distinct Aboriginal dances from Australia. The First Nations performers include champion grass dancer Matthew Pheasant, Odawa/Oneida champion fancy dancer Nigel Schuyler, Ojibwa/Cree drummer and singer Eddy Robinson, and from Australia, dancer Earl Rosas and didgeridoo player, dancer and songman Arthur Tamwoy.
After Ottawa, Shimmer will go across the country, ending up at the Banff Centre for the Arts, and countries have shown strong interest in the production.
Red Sky was in China earlier this year, where they performed Caribou Song, their popular dance-theatre piece for children based on a Tomson Highway story, and already a future project with First Nations people and Mongolia is firing Laronde’s imagination.
“I’m really just going for a vision that I see and that vision goes back to Temagami. I come from a beautiful land that has 1,600 islands, 2,000 miles of shoreline, and my eye was able to travel the distance and imagine."
Photo by David Hou