Circadia Indigena’s “Resolve”: Hidden clear messages

“REsolve is a courageous perspective of an individual, exploring thoughts and feelings, emotions and actions confronting corporate corruption and the destruction of our biosphere. In this dance we are observing from political cultures the perspectives and personal experiences of hopes, dreams and fears; exploring the thoughts, feelings, emotions and actions when confronted by an increasingly authoritarian system. However, with peace we share the insight of the internal thoughts and decisions of the individual forced to confront losing, one’s human rights and freedoms; participating with nature and fighting back or becoming the oppressors’ to death. But, also REsolveis to be at peace to overcome our present slavery physiological bondage; where you have no choice but to stand up for freedom; inspiring and moving at many levels, politically, culturally, regionally and intercontinental. REsolve inspires to address issues of de-colonisation of self, our tribal dances of spirituality, enhancing the bio connection to landscapes, plants, wildlife above and water, shape shifting and confinement, sexual abuse issues, racism and classism, and the codification of slavery, consumerism, and rural lifestyles, incorporating traditional and contemporary dance in solos, duets and quartets and original music for 30 minutes.” (From the Vancouver International Dance Festival performance catalogue.)

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On Thursday the 3 March, I witnessed a 30-minute contemporary dance performance by the Ottawa-based Indigenous dance group Circadia Indigena, entitled REsolve. The piece was the opening performance for the 2016 Vancouver International Dance Festival (VIDF) and the preceding piece for the performance of Compagnie Virginie Brunelle (which played around 30 minutes after REsolve finished). The performance was held at the Roundhouse Exhibition Hall in Yaletown at 7.00 PM.

At around 6.30 PM my partner and I arrived, paid the $3 membership fee for the VIDF and entered the Yaletown Roundhouse Exhibition Hall. Blue lights illuminated a raised stage, in front of which were around thirty little round tables covered by black tablecloths and fake candles. Sushi, vegetables and dip, crackers and cheese, and profiteroles were available for free consumption. I observed the audience: they were mainly Caucasian (as far as I could tell) and over the age of 40, mingling and chatting as one would at an art gallery opening. I wondered how this chic soirée setting, surrounded by the VIDF’s annual art and photo exhibition, would contribute to how the witnesses were to view and absorb REsolve.

After introductions by Amanda Parris (host of CBC’s Arts & culture Program Exhibitionists) and the Co-producers of the VIDF, Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi, the performance began. Byron Chief-Moon* slowly entered onstage and faced away from the audience, holding a position that resembled shooting a bow and arrow and, twitching, crumpled to the ground. Jerry Longboat*, Luglio S. Romero*, and Olivia C. Davies* slowly entered from the sides of the audience and crept upon the stage. All four performers were wearing zombie-like make-up (white faces and dark eye sockets), and the men sported ripped business suits while Olivia wore a dress with red fabric cascading down the front. Olivia, Jerry, and Luglio squatted whilst Byron made motions of picking things up and dragged himself across the stage by his hair and clothes. The others then rose to join Byron in a circle dance, which was followed by a catwalk-like segment in which the dancers seemed to impersonate monster-fashion models. During most of the first half of the piece, the music was overlaid with a creepy voice performing an often-unintelligible monologue about exercising control over others. At one point, one of the dancers assumed the position of the standing cross, and the other three laid him down on the ground. This was repeated by two more of the dancers. At this point I could hear snippets of the monologue saying “we will guide them” and “we shall extinguish them”.

Soon afterward, Byron ran upstage and stared at the audience. The music stopped, and Byron proceeded to make a speech. He was echoed visually on a screen at the back of the stage on which was projected a live video of him (the cameraman of which was positioned in the audience)—this was reminiscent of the multiple-angle videos of people performing speeches on television. Ironically, the essence of Byron’s speech was “Turn off your TV!” “Television is not the truth,” he exclaimed, it is a circus, or rather a freak show. He advises us to “go to yourself; there you will find truth.” Throughout his speech the other three dancers approached Byron slowly, looking incredibly annoyed and threatening, whispering viciously. After a while Byron noticed them and yields his cause: “Okay. I said okay!”

The music resumed with a fast tempo and the dancers resumed their dance, this time echoed visually on the background screen, which multiplied their images and outlined the dancing figures with radiating colourful contours (perhaps reminiscent of the sensory overload of television). The lyrics of the songs spread clear messages: “We want your soul” and “America, your government is in control again”. Suddenly, each of the performers revealed some sort of sparkly or otherwise outrageous garment or accessory, and guest artist Su-Feh Lee entered the stage. She was dressed in a sparkly corset, fishnet stockings, and high boots, and she whipped an enormous bullwhip. Jerry longboat held out a large dark feather (as one may imagine a Medieval priest held out a cross to a person assumed of witchcraft). Nevertheless, all of the performers made beckoning movements accompanying the lyrics “We want your soul”. All of a sudden, the four dancers slumped to the ground. The music stopped and the lights turned off, and only the repeating crack of the bullwhip remained. When the lights were raised, the four dancers rose quickly and scattered to the opposite end of the stage from the bullwhipper. The five dancers then reassembled in center upstage and, smiling, took a bow.

REsolve was an incredibly confusing piece to witness, riddled with metaphorical imagery and hidden meaning. Possible interpretations that I had were as follows:

  • The crosses laid on top of one another may symbolise the indoctrination of Christianity upon Indigenous Peoples and the consequent deaths of some Aboriginal cultures, traditions, and communities.
  • “Turning off the TV”, in addition to an act of rebellion toward the accelerated and over-crowded superficialities of contemporary society, is also an act of decolonisation and Indigenous resurgence.
  • The “circus” imagery painted in Byron’s speech is reminiscent of the old act of turning Indigenous people into side show attractions. This phenomenon inspired Monique Mojica’s play Side Show Freaks & Circus Injuns (produced by Native Earth Performing Arts), which she discusses briefly in her essay “Verbing Art” (in Me Artsy, page 27).
  • The violent hushing of Byron’s speech by the others is an act of oppression against movements of resurgence and decolonisation.
  • Su-Feh Lee’s bullwhip figure may represent an authoritarian system; this is emphasised by the others slumping to the ground, jumping up and scattering toward the opposite corner as they become overrun by the oppressor.
  • We can spot small acts of resistance throughout the piece, such a Jerry Longboat’s feather and Byron’s more-or-less constant spirit of defiance.

As the audience was left to ponder over the meaning of REsolve, my partner and I exited the Exhibition Hall. Although confused and still digesting, we were certain that we had just witnessed a strong act of Indigenous resistance toward oppressive systems.

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*Byron Chief-Moon is a Two-Spirit dancer and actor and a member of the Kainai Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Southern Alberta. He was born in Carlsbad, California and now lives between Vancouver and Los Angeles with his family. His dance choreography combines traditional Blackfoot stories, dances, and songs with contemporary themes, dance, and music.

Jerry Longboat is the artistic director and founder of Circadia Indigena. He is Mohawk-Cayuga, of the Turtle Clan, from the Six Nations of the Grand River in Southern Ontario. He is a visual artist, graphic designer, actor, storyteller, dancer, and choreographer and has performed with professional dance companies across Canada.

Luglio S. Romero was born and raised in Costa Rica and studied Dance &Latin American Studies at Simon Fraser University. He has performed as a professional member of ballet companies in Costa Rica and BC, and he now teaches Zumba in Vancouver.

Olivia C. Davies is of Aboriginal heritage and studied dance at York University. She co-founded the MataDanZe Collective, a project aiming to empower women through movement. She is an Apprentice with the Dancers of Damelahamid and has choreographed performances for numerous festivals around Canada.

Su-Feh Lee is a Malaysian dancer/choreographer and the founder of the Vancouver-based dance company battery opera.

Visit Circadia Indigena’s website here: http://circadia-indigena.com/

Read the horrible review that I discussed in my class presentation here: http://www.vancouverobserver.com/culture/dance/demalahamid-and-circadia-indigena-dance-first-nations-experience-old-and-new

Lastly, here are some questions that witnessing REsolve provoked for me:

1)How might the setting (the tablecloths, fake candles, sushi and profiteroles, etc.) have played into how the attendees witnessed the evening’s performance of REsolve?

2)In her essay Verbing Art, Monique Mojica discusses “playing Indian” as a perpetual stereotypical role for mainstream Indigenous performers. She writes, “Our choices are either to put ourselves at the mercy of the artistic vision and politics of non-Indigenous directors, playwrights, artistic directors, designers and public relations machines and to stalwartly try to affect change from within those institutions, or to struggle to create [our] own theatre where our Indigenous artistic visions are in control and we unapologetically hold power over our voices, our stories and our images” (from Me Artsy, page 23). How does Circadia Indigena communicate this issue in REsolve? Additionally, how does the group maintain power over their own artistic visions and voices to change the common view of Indigenous performance art?

An Act of Medicine: From Huff to Hobiyee

On February 6th, I witnessed two performances back to back with only a 20-minute bus ride in between. Both Huff and Hobiyee were intense, with some beautiful moments, audience participation, and ceremony. Yet it was the combination of both recognizable similarities and stark contrast that struck me the hardest after having witnessed the two performances.

Huff, written and performed by Cree actor Cliff Cardinal and directed by Karin Randoja, was honestly incredibly hard to watch. The story of three brothers struggling to live on a reservation included insights into the prevalent issues of substance abuse, incest and sexual abuse, mental abuse used as punishment in the reserve school system, inadequate parenting, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, domestic violence, depression (in both adults and children), and suicide. In Medicine Shows, Yvette Nolan discusses this act of exposing poison (pages 7-19), and it is obvious that Cliff Cardinal is intentionally exposing these poisons to the wider public through his nationwide tour of Huff. The discomfort that the performance provoked testifies to this; there were more than a few moments when I felt my pulse racing, my face flushing, and my head become dizzy as visceral reactions to the trauma that was being revealed onstage. Nevertheless, Huff can also be seen as an enormous act of medicine (which Nolan discusses throughout her book). The humour felt in some moments of comic relief showed us that we were still able to laugh, and toward the end of the play Kokhum (the grandmother) conducts a healing ceremony for Wind (the middle brother) after his younger brother Huff’s suicide. Overall, the play can be seen as an grand act of good medicine. Cliff Cardinal, an Indigenous actor who is familiar with the traumas of everyday life for children on reserves, raises awareness of this in front of a mostly-elite audience. (Tickets cost $23; therefore, only those who could afford it attended the show.) In addition, the events that Cardinal depicts can reach deep inside witnesses for whom these traumas trigger certain memories, perhaps making them reconsider something they’ve forgotten or bringing to light repressed thoughts in need of healing. Throughout the performance, it became clear that Huff serves to bring together individuals and communities in order to find support in one another.

Upon exiting the Firehall Arts Centre on East Cordova Street in the Downtown East Side, I seemed to suddenly be aware of my surroundings. Exiting an environment full of awareness-raising and calls for healing into an area in which all of the poisons previously exposed are still very prevalent was absurd. I could not help but feel an enormous discomfort whilst walking to the bus stop and riding the bus for 20 minutes on my way to the PNE for Hobiyee—the Nisga’a New Year celebration.

When I arrived at the PNE, I was still feeling some leftover visceral reactions from Huff. Yet upon entering the great hall and finding myself in a crowd of thousands of people—all revelling and celebrating the largest annual gathering of Northwest Coast First Nations dance groups—my spirits were lifted. I remember feeling absolutely in awe whilst witnessing a group of hundreds of drummers (amongst whom was Professor Dangeli) perform a set of songs with synchronised movements to what truly felt like the heartbeat of the Earth. Soon afterward a friend of mine arrived, so we found some seats in the bleachers and watched a number of dance groups perform. My favourite performance (both because of my connection to Professor Dangeli and because of the inventiveness and elegance of their choreographies) was her group, the Git Hayetsk Dancers. I especially enjoyed their innovative “Photographer Dance”, which I suppose was inspired by Professor Dangeli’s PhD research. I was also very impressed as to how quickly the dancers, especially Professor Dangeli, changed regalia in between each dance. Revelry surrounded us, as seen by the food, the packages of fresh fruits handed out to guests, and the smiles on people’s faces. Between many of the songs, a leader with the microphone would sing a joyous “Hooobiyeeeeeee”, which was then echoed by all of the witnesses in the stadium. What a change to the tears, shivers, and headaches that we had experienced earlier at Huff.

Huff and Hobiyee can, on one hand, be seen as performances on opposite sides of a spectrum: one exposing the extreme difficulties of everyday life for Indigenous residents of reserves, and the other celebrating an occasion that has taken place annually for thousands of years (the enormous number of attendees more than testifying to, but rather shouting: “We are still here!”). On the other hand, both performances are acts of medicine. Huff brings together those in need of healing, and Hobiyee can provide that healing through community, tradition, and celebration. Witnessed one after the other, these two performances together told an incredible story of struggle, healing, and resurgence.

“People might pay attention and hear our message”

While on this day we invoke our culture bringing forward a copper ritual, seldom seen outside of our homelands. We bring this copper from the great Pacific where it was washed and touched by people of the ocean and then in a journey across this land touched by elders and children, washed in the rivers and lakes, blessed in Sundance and ceremonies, carried by Powwow dancers, and touched again by the people of the land. It has been cleansed with smoke and brought here to be broken. This is our wealth of place, of culture and everything that is dear to us including life itself and all that the great nature provides. We name the copper Taaw in respect for the great life-giving oolichan oil, in contrast to the poison from the Oilsands. With this in mind we break this copper. We break it at the doorstep of the Government of Canada with a great sense of celebration. We break this copper not as a slight to Canada or an insult to Canadians who have shown us nothing but support and encouragement. In breaking this copper we confront the tyranny and oppression of a government who has forsaken human rights and turned its back on nature in the interests of the almighty dollar, and we act in accordance with our laws.” –Guujaaw, prayer from Parliament Hill quoted in the Lalakenis/All Directions: A Journey of Truth and Unity exhibition brochure, pg. 21

“Beau thinks that traditional indigenous culture is something we can all learn from as a way of being with, dealing with, and dialoging with nature that would lead us away from resource extraction and domination model.” –Scott Watson, quoted in the Vancouver Sun article “Lalakenis recounts indigenous journey that shamed the federal government”, published the 14 January 2016, http://blogs.vancouversun.com/2016/01/14/lalakenis-recounts-indigenous-journey-that-shamed-the-federal-government/

“Of course, being Beau Dick is an advantage sometimes! Being a well-known artist as well as Hereditary Chief meant that people might pay attention and hear our message.” -Beau Dick, Lalakenis/All Directions: A Journey of Truth and Unity exhibition brochure, pg. 8

Beau Dick/ Walas Gwy Um

Beau Dick (Walas Gwy Um) is a Kwakwaka’wakw Hereditary Chief and artist. He was born on Village Island, Kingcome Inlet, BC and raised speaking only Kwakwala. When he was six years old, Beau was relocated to Vancouver where he spent the rest of his childhood. Beau began carving at an early age under the tutelage of his father (Benjamin Dick) and his grandfather (James Dick). Beau later studied under the renowned artists Henry Hunt and Doug Cranmer. He now resides and works in Alert Bay, and is currently in his third year of residency at UBC.

Beau’s work is known for its power, emotion, originality, and creativity. He not only explores traditional Kwakwaka’wakw artistic styles, but he also incorporates a wealth of other Indigenous and Western practices and media. In 2012 Beau received the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Foundation’s VIVA Award for Visual Arts, and his work is exhibited in numerous museums and galleries around the world including the Canadian Museum of Civilization (Gatineau, QC), the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, and the Vancouver Art Gallery.

In 2013, Beau and an entourage comprising his daughters Linnea and Geraldine and other community members walked from Quatsino, BC down Vancouver Island to Victoria in order to break a copper (named Nunmgala) on the steps of Parliament. In 2014 they magnified their previous journey and travelled cross-country to break the copper Taaw, made by Haida carver and former president of the Haida Nation Giindajin Haawasti Guujaw, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. They thereby conducted traditional copper-breaking ceremonies, “marking a ruptured relationship in need of repair [in this case, between the government and the First Nations of Canada], and passing the burden of wrongs done to First Nations people from them to the Government of Canada” (Watson, Lalakenis/All Directions: A Journey of Truth and Unity exhibition brochure, pg. 3).

Now is an exciting time for First Nations of the Northwest Coast. Through media coverage and a new exhibition at the Belkin Art Gallery at UBC, Beau Dick’s journeys to Victoria and Ottawa are just now being published and spread in order to raise awareness about the vast range of injustices committed by Parliament to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. As a part of this awareness-raising, Beau decided to host a public feast on the 15 January to honour the opening of Lalakenis/All Directions, the premiering of the Great Hall at the new UBC Student Nest, and the third year of his residency, and to spread a strong message about the current state of Canada and the necessity for change.

 

The Lalakenis Feast, 15 January 2016

I am trying to think of how to write a short blog post about a feast that lasted for at least 12 hours and that incorporated a plethora of presenters, speakers, ceremonies, dance and music, food, and community engagement, in addition to profound silence, tears, laughter, love, meditation, self-reflection, and a tremendous sense of communal support. Because there were so many individual elements of the feast that merit their own blog post, I will focus for now on the overarching message that the event sought to spread.

I was volunteering to help prepare food (“for 1000 people”, we were told two nights prior to the event), and I came out of the kitchen in the middle of the pipe ceremony conducted by Gyaaustees. Although my seat toward the back corner of the hall prohibited me from viewing what was happening within the circle of participants around the central altar (which displayed belongings that Beau and his entourage had taken with them to Ottawa, in addition to the coppers and other ceremonial items), I nevertheless felt the silence and the overbearing emotion of the participants. This testified to the pipe ceremony’s ability to heal individuals and to bring together communities through the sharing of both sacred tobacco (as Yvette Nolan discusses in Medicine Shows, pages 2 and 61) and profound communal experiences and understanding. The sense of community that was thus established served as a basis for the rest of the evening’s events as we welcomed guest speakers, dance groups, and music performances and enjoyed food and drink, a fashion show, photography, and the Grand Finale.

Some of my favourite portions of the event included the Fancy Dances performed by Rebecca and her family, during which one could observe how their regalia were designed to be danced. The Haida Procession was also fantastic with their dramatic entrance, their incredible masks and regalia, their animated movements embodying the characters of the masks, and the confidence, heavy footsteps, and powerful eye contact of each member of the group. The Grand Finale was enormous—with the amount of beautifully-crafted masks (more than $2 million worth, as Gyaaustees had informed me earlier in the evening), the number of participants who took part in embodying and displaying the masks to the witnesses, and the energy involved both within and leading up to this moment— and was well worth the wait until the end of the feast.

The range of speakers at the event included Jasmin Starrchild (who spoke emotionally about world peace), David Suzuki, guests from the Oceans and Fisheries Research Centre and Greenpeace promoting sustainable resource extraction practices, the curators of the Belkin Art Gallery, Chief Bob Joseph on his work as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the planned TRC research centre, and Dr. Mique’l Dangeli. As one of the last speakers, Dr. Dangeli stated that when she first saw the feast’s proposed schedule, she could not see the through line between the different elements and topics covered by the presenters and performers. However, now that the event was drawing to a close, we all understood the message implied in the links between the artists, dancers and musicians, lawyers, activists, and leaders in environmental science and policy. Dr. Suzuki seemed to have summed it up well when he stated that the lifestyles that settler colonialism has attempted to eradicate are actually those that we must assume for the sake of sustaining our planet and supporting ourselves. Yet every speaker, performer, dancer, artist, helper, participant, and witness contributed to the grand message of the evening, reinforced by the ongoing support of the community and finally heard (judging by the amount of witnesses in attendance at the feast) by the wider public: We must stop the mass exploitation of the earth’s resources and the abuse of Indigenous peoples!