Red Sky Dance a Delight to the Eye

By Susan Walker

Toronto Star, June 15, 2006

Shimmer, Delight to the EyeIf Sandra Laronde ever gets tired of making theatre, she might want to consider international diplomacy. The artistic director of Red Sky is a persuasive talker who’s message is embedded in the works she puts on stage and has taken around the country and abroad.

Don’t try to tell her there is no audience for indigenous dance among the concert-going public. Last week at the Canada Dance Festival in Ottawa, the world premiere of Red Sky’s Shimmer drew the first big audience at the 2006 Canada Dance Festival and brought them to their feet at hour’s end. The show gets its Toronto run starting tonight in the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, and then goes on to Banff and Vancouver.

The 10-member cast, all men, is a coming together of Australian, Canadian and Mexican indigenous performers. Their collaboration had its beginnings in The Dreaming, an international indigenous festival held last year in a village north of Brisbane in Australia’s northeastern state of Queensland. Artists of all kinds came from Canada, the Solomon Islands, Australia, and New Zealand. It was there that Laronde saw aboriginal dancers Albert David, from Thursday Island in Torres Strait, and Earl Rosas, a Yidinji/Gugu-Yimithirr performer from Queensland.

Seeing each of the Australians perform, Laronde knew she wanted to create a piece with them. The dance she was seeing was “so beautiful and so rich and mysterious and evocative.”

Laronde and Ontario native dancer Michael Greyeyes did a two-week intensive in Toronto to establish a concept they could share. “We were exploring ways that contemporary dance situates itself within traditional grass dance,“ she says. She was interested in the idea of a warrior. Raised on the reservation in Temagami, Laronde knew her father was from the warrior clan and her mother from an artist clan.

We have this stereotypical notion of warriors being aggressive, but I was taken with the notion of a natural radiance that a warrior has because he’s connected up with all the different forces in the world. We’re talking about dignity and gentleness and grace. In Anishnabe culture, the word for warrior means 'helper’ and implies serving people.” says Laronde.

The title Shimmer incorporates a sense of movement and the light-giving qualities she associates with the lake and the land where she grew up among the Teme-Augama-Anishnaabe people. “I remember watching our chief when I was a little girl. He was just shiny to me: the beadwork, and his hair and his skin and teeth and everything had a shine.”

She was very motivated to do something uplifting. “I wanted to go for something positive because so much of our expression can get heavy with the history and the atrocities we have to face. We have to go forward and bring these things with us but not lose our own magnificence.”

David first learned song and dance from his elders. “When you’re born you have a mother and father, but then your uncle and your grandfather show you everything. They teach you how to hunt and they teach you all the dances. I was kind of an abnormal kid, I used to sit around with the old people rather than running off somewhere. That’s how I learned.”

When he was 17, he went to a college in Sydney for formal training in contemporary dance, but went home to learn what was really motivating him to dance. He was able to complete his studies by integrating traditional movement into his dancing. David was a prominent member of Australia’s indigenous dance company, Bangarra, and now puts on shows under his own name.

There are many points of comparison for the North American Indians and the Australian Aboriginals. Both peoples suffered under a repressive colonial system that nearly destroyed their cultures. But their basic understanding of the universe is very similar, as are their singing styles and close-to-the-ground dance techniques.

The roster promises a dynamic evening: Matthew Pheasant (Ojibway champion Grass Dancer from Manitoulin), Carlos Rivera (Mixteco, based in Toronto and Mexico), Rosas, David, Nigel Schyuler (Oneida/Odawa champion Fancy Dancer, Ontario) and Arthur “Turtle” Tamwoy, Aboriginal didgeridoo player and songman.

The four Morningstar River singers from Toronto will add their voices over a score composed by John Gzowski. Laronde has big plans for Red Sky, which has already mushroomed in its five and half years of existence, spending more than four months on the road last year in tours that included a five-city visit to China.

Red Sky is interested in working with other indigenous cultures, working with other kinds of cultural communities no matter where they’re from. It goes back to the spirit of generosity in indigenous peoples, I think we’ve always operated that way.”

Photo by David Hou

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