November 17, 2018

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MARGARET GRENIER ON INDIGENOUS DANCE, DAMELAHAMID & NOURISHING A FLAME

MARGARET GRENIER ON INDIGENOUS DANCE, DAMELAHAMID & NOURISHING A FLAME

Dancers of Damelahamid premiere Flicker  in Toronto for Dance Works | Image source: Derek Dix

Dancers of Damelahamid returns to Toronto with the production Flicker for The Next Steps Dance Series at the Harbourfront Centre February 9 and 10, 2018. The dance company originates from the Gitxsan Nation on the west coast of BC where they have a rich history of masked dancing used to pass down traditional stories from generation to generation.

In Flicker, a young man journeys through space and time, in and out of the spirit world of his ancestors to discover his true potential. The production is a creative combination of traditional and contemporary art practices that guides the audience through the diversity and complexity of Indigenous dance and identities. Before Flicker’s Toronto premiere, Margaret Grenier, Artistic Director of Dancers of Damelahamid spoke with MUSKRAT staff writer, Erica Commanda about the production and how she hopes to see Indigenous dance and art evolve.

MM: The Gitxsan, “People of the river of mists,” are part of the coastal group of cultures with a rich history of masked dance. Can you tell me more about the significance of masked dancing in the Gitxsan Nation?

MG: Masked dance is something that has been used over many generations to pass down our oral history, our stories, even going back to our Creation stories; and they were shared within our feast halls. We also went through a time between 1880 and 1950’s where we had the potlatch ban, but before that time everything was practiced in the feast hall and was passed down through family lineage. A lot that was lost during that time [potlatch ban], afterwards there was a number of decades where we worked on the revitalization of the dance practice. Since the 1960’s it has been primarily within the format of performance.

Flicker | Image source: Derek Dix
Flicker | Image source: Derek Dix

MM: What inspired you to share this style of traditional dance on a broader scale?

MG: I was really fortunate to grow up in dance and I recognize that that opportunity came from the work of my parents and grandmother. It was a really big decision for them, within their generation, to make the choice of sharing our dance within the space of being a performance. If they hadn’t done that I wouldn’t have been immersed in it as I have been. It has certainly shaped my identity and understanding of who I am as an Indigenous woman. I wanted to continue that – it’s what I see as being a gift from them. I do my part to help bring understanding of the uniqueness of what this work is. It’s not something that we see a lot within mainstream dance. It’s important that we bring a diversity of voices to the conversation of what we are experiencing in the dance community.

MM: The Fliker- the woodpecker- is an important and often used symbol in West Coast Nations. What was the inspiration of inserting the woodpecker’s presence the way you did for this production specifically?

MG: What’s unique about the Flicker production is that even though it’s based within a coastal dance form, it’s not a piece that is drawing upon hereditary story, song and dance. The tale of the Flicker is one of the primary elements in our visual arts. Within our visual arts we see a lot of work that has been done where you really work to see what the essence is of the art form, so we took that approach to Flicker. We also used a second metaphor that is derived from the flicker idea: of how this is really a process, it’s not something that is just done over a few years, it’s something that has to be nourished constantly, just like you need to nourish a flicker of a flame in order to be able to make it work. It’s much more significant than just creating a dance piece, it’s really nurturing yourself and nurturing the work we are creating.

MM: There is a shift happening with Indigenous arts – with more Indigenous artists creating art in more Indigenous spaces. What are your thoughts on the future of Indigenous dance: how do you see Indigenous arts, including dance and appreciation for it evolving?

MG: What I see is that it is only just shifting into a space where there are a lot more audiences that are being exposed to and are developing an understanding of what Indigenous dance is. There is so much diversity, there’s just a breadth and beauty of what we have when you look across Canada. Right now we are not at a place where you can see that diversity. You see some companies that are starting to be included in what’s being shared in a lot of the mainstream venues. What I hope to see for the future is a strengthening of that diversity of practices so that we can really see a better representation of all that we have here in our Indigenous communities across Canada.

MM: You have travelled across the world with Dancers of Damelahamid. Who are your favourite Indigenous dancers internationally?

MG: I think about what has really been meaningful about my experiences when we work internationally is to see all the parallels and the differences. When we were in South America, there was a beautiful integration of Indigenous artistic practices, it wasn’t so separate as it is here in Canada. I think we are much more conservative and careful of holding onto or maintaining something without letting it change. What I appreciated about my time there was that there was just a real open heartedness to express – the dance is to express themselves and to integrate the many influences that are there. I think that when we can open our heart in that way, we really have a wonderful opportunity to grow and to develop what we are doing. I really appreciated that when we were in South America.

Margaret Grenier Bio:

Choreographer Margaret Grenier is the Executive and Artistic Director for the Dancers of Damelahamid. Under her guidance, the company has produced the annual Coastal First Nations Dance Festival since 2008. Grenier’s choreographies for the company have reached national an international audiences and include Setting the Path 2004, Sharing the Spirit 2007 (New Zealand in 2008 and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, China), Visitors Who Never Left 2009, Dancing Our Stories 2010, Spirit Transforming 2012, In Abundance 2013 and Flicker 2016. It is the current directive of the Dancers of Damelahamid to redefine their practice in order that dance may continue to be tangible and accessible for the next generation. Margaret Grenier holds a Masters of Arts in Arts Education from Simon Fraser University and was a faculty member for the Banff Centre Indigenous Dance Residency 2013. She serves on the Board for Vancouver’s Dance Centre as well as the Canadian Dance Assembly.

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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 a Staff Writer for MUSKRAT Magazine.

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