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Sandra Laronde in Miigis | Image source: Red Sky Performance

Sandra Laronde, (Teme-Augama Anishinaabe – People of the Deep Water) is the dynamic creative and cultural leader behind the boundary pushing contemporary Indigenous dance company Red Sky Performance. This year Red Sky presents three compelling dance and live music productions in the backdrop of Canada’s colonial sesquicentennial celebrations and discussions. These performances also lend a powerful voice to important societal issues which include the unprecedented climate changes that are adversely affecting Mother Earth in irreversible ways. Executive and Artistic Director, Sandra Laronde spoke with MUSKRAT Magazine about these performances and how their teachings are interconnected with our world.

MM: Red Sky Performance is coming out with three productions this fall, Miigis, Adizokan and Backbone, can you tell me a bit about your creative process behind these three productions?

SL: Yes, we have three exciting new works to offer Toronto audiences. Since all three of these productions are quite distinct, they have different creative processes. I find that each project has its own way of unfolding and discovery. That being said, what is always involved in each project is research, structured improvisations, strengths-based collaboration, a search for original vocabulary, expression and innovation.

To give you a sense of scope, Miigis has 6 dancers, 6 live musicians, and 12 traditional dancers involved. Adizokan involves 75 musicians and is a mix of electro-acoustic, Indigenous and orchestral music. Backbone has 8 dancers and 1 live musician. All productions are original, new, and I believe quite exciting.

MM: Miigis is inspired by the Seven Fires Prophecies and the migration route of the Anishinaabeg. Why is this story so important to tell now?

SL: Anishinaabeg travelled. As Elder Alex McKay mentioned, “Anishinaabe did not migrate; they travelled. Migration is for others.” I like that comment. He has a point.

I’m interested in the third fire prophecy given to us which was ‘to move westward until you come to a place where food grows on the water.’ I’m interested in what happened along the travel and water routes, what got exchanged, what happened. The food that ‘grows on water’ is known as manoomin or wild rice which the Anishinaabe are renowned for harvesting. It’s harvest life cycle is part of the structure of the Miigis production.

Miigis has many layers as it is an origin story, a guide on the travel route, a symbol of the perfect breath of life, and seven fires prophecies associated with miigis. It’s a little shell with a big life.

Miigis is important now because it reminds us of our seven fires prophecies. It reminds us how inextricable we are to nature. In fact, we are nature. It reminds us of original knowledge that needs to be remembered and activated, more than ever, now.

Backbone, Indigenous Arts, The Banff Centre, 2015 | Image source: Red Sky Performance
Backbone | Image source: Red Sky Performance

MM: The last part of the Seven Fires Prophecy includes an eighth fire, where society could choose go down either a dark path or a bright path. In your opinion, which part of the prophecy do you think we are living now?

SL: We are definitely living in the eighth fire now. All of the warnings are here – now – especially with regard to the environment, nature, and the loss of many species. The question is can we turn this around? Can the dominant culture move beyond a ‘take, take mentality’, an ‘extraction mentality’ where there is a sense of strong entitlement and ownership. This taking more than what we need is what is killing this planet.

MM: Adizokan has been commissioned for Canada 150. Can you explain the significance of the word Adizokan in Anishinaabemowin and what you hope audiences take away from the performance during such an important time?

SL: Adizokan means “a spiritual being that has knowledge’ in Anishinaabemowin. Notice that it does not mean ‘a human’ who has knowledge. Thinking in terms of human life only is very limited as it’s only a tiny slice of the spiritual experience in this world. There is so much more knowledge and wisdom that does not live human form, and lives in animals, rocks, trees, and water. I would love audiences to see nature with new eyes, that embraces Indigenous worldview and care for nature. I would love audiences to take away images, moments, and knowledge nuggets that swim around in their heads and hearts for years to come. I would love them to feel the urgency and to want to do something about it, now.

MM: Backbone, which will be showcased in November, explores the human landscape and “the electricity and impulses of our rocky mountainous backbone.” What was your inspiration behind this performance?

SL: I am intrigued by how people see nature, such as mountains, as a “vista” or a “postcard”- as somehow lifeless and for the 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. The mountains are not only something to be climbed or extracted from, but that they actually grow, erode, and they have a spirit.

I am deeply fascinated by different ways of seeing land. In fact, that is at the root of all of Red Sky’s work. Backbone is about how Western cartography and Indigenous mapping are quite different. Indigenous mapping is much more intact, fluid and continuous. We would see the spine of this continent with no borders or boundaries – 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, electricity, and impulses. I wanted to help others to see/feel/experience the tremendous power of a rocky mountainous spine, and to feel how alive She is.

Backbone is extremely physical. I would say that the dancers are akin to high-level athletes in this production. It’s robust. Backbone starts with the formation of mountains and you can image the crunching, smashing, grinding, and sublime movements and music that this would involve. From there, it just gets even more physically demanding.

MM: To people unfamiliar with Red Sky Performance and Indigenous dance, how would you differentiate Indigenous contemporary dance from mainstream contemporary?

SL: Culture. Our contemporary Indigenous dance forms carry culture. The content of our form is distinct from mainstream. We see the sentience in nature and in everything. Everything is much more animate, alive, and spirited beyond a limited human world, and this is revealed in our contemporary Indigenous dance forms and expression at Red Sky. I am interested in exploring how nature and our land can be truly connected, rekindled, and transmitted through the human body. All of my inspiration comes from n’Daki Menan (our land), the traditional lands of the Teme-Augama Anishinaabe.

Sandra Laronde
Sandra Laronde

Artist Bio 

Executive Artistic Director of Red Sky, Sandra Laronde, O.M.C., B.A. (Hon), Hon. LL.D is originally from the Teme-Augama-Anishinaabe (People of the Deep Water) in Temagami, northern Ontario. An accomplished innovator and leader in arts and culture, Sandra has conceived, developed, produced, and disseminated award-winning productions that are Indigenous, multinational, multi and inter-disciplinary, and intergenerational in scope. Sandra creates exceptional new work and programming that raises the artistic ceiling of contemporary Indigenous artistry, and contributes to building vibrant Indigenous communities across Canada and worldwide.

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About The Author

Erica Commanda

Born in Toronto, Erica Commanda (Algonquin/Ojibwe) grew up in the small community of Pikwakanagan. From there she moved across Canada living in Ottawa, Vancouver and now Toronto, working in the bar/hospitality industry, mastering the art of listening to stories from her regulars while slinging and spilling drinks (at them or to them). And now through a series of random decisions and events in life she is on a journey discovering and mastering her own knack for storytelling as Associate Editor for MUSKRAT Magazine.

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