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Red Sky Performance | Image source: Bruce Zinger with artwork by Andy Moro.

Red Sky Performance presents the world premiere of Flow, a performance created in response to the 1941’s children’s book Paddle to the Sea – a book told from a White lens featuring Indigenous characters. The showcase premiered on October 3rd streaming online from the Fleck Dance Theatre in partnership with the Harbourfront Center for the sixth annual Fall For Dance North Festival. Tickets to the performance can be purchased up until the 18th. Flow can be seen alongside Les Grands Ballet Canadiens de Montreal, Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, and many other talented dance creators. Red Sky Performance’s Artistic Director, Sandra Laronde chatted with Erica Commanda from MUSKRAT Magazine about what it’s like to continue to create art and dance during the COVID-19 pandemic and the political landscape we find ourselves in 2020.

EC: Flow is inspired as a response to Paddle to the Sea. Can you tell me more about the themes surrounding the performance?

SL: When this idea was first presented to me, I had a long discussion about how Paddle to the Sea was outdated and very much a story (1941) and short film (1966) of its time. This beloved tale is highly stereotypical in nature from my perspective. The original story is clearly through a white lens and the “Indian” is literally the quintessential wooden Indian. I suppose it’s a variation of the simplistic and passive cigar store Indian. The good thing is that the 1966 short film addressed the polluted waters, but it fell short in its portrayal of us as Indigenous Peoples. This was so typical of its time, and to some extent, it still is, sadly. This is precisely why we must drive and be at the center of our own stories. As an Indigenous person and as the Artistic Director of Red Sky Performance, we simply could not perpetuate the story as it is. What we could do though is offer is a counter-narrative which establishes a different tone and refocuses the themes on a sense of journey and the connection to water and give it a new title called “Flow”. Third Coast Percussion’s music is quite beautiful. They are excellent musicians in their tone, texture, meter, and rhythm giving us a lot to draw from. They have been outstanding to work with.

EC: How did the project come about?

SL: Initially, Paddle to the Sea was an idea presented to me by Fall for Dance North as they fell in love with the music. I then re-conceptualized the idea, shared it with them and that’s how Flow came into being. Both Fall for Dance North and Third Coast Percussion were quite willing to make the shift and we did it in a very good way. My concept of performance explores the relationship between movement, live music, theatricality, image. My engagement in these disciplines involves collaborators.

Dancers Dancing
In rehearsal | Image source: Marlowe Porter

Our associate artist, Jera Wolfe, choreographed this short new work. He and I have worked together for several years now and we have come to share an impressive short-hand and aesthetic that can move things along quite quickly. I’m so grateful for the Fall for Dance North commission as Red Sky opens their signature program of six world premieres this year.

EC: Red Sky is very diverse in Indigenous representation. Why is it important to showcase this?

SL: Since our inception, Red Sky has worked with Indigenous peoples from across Canada as well as with Indigenous peoples from around the world. It’s so important that people understand that different nations exist right across Canada and Turtle Island and that we have the incredible opportunity to get to know one another through the work. The power of the arts will always bring us together whether it be in song, dance, or some other creative expression. It always has and it always will. I suppose the fact that we’re based in Toronto, with the largest Indigenous population in Canada, is a contributing factor in terms of why we work with whom we do. There are many diverse nations here in the city who come to audition for us whether it’s Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Cree, Metis, Ktunaxa, Tla’amin, Inuit, and so on. We’re so fortunate in this respect. That being said, our projects are sometimes specified in terms of nationhood and themes such as focusing on specific Anishinaabe content because I am Teme-Augama Anishinaabe.

EC: In what ways has COVID 19 affected dance? 2020 has also brought about a new heightened awareness of the negative effects of the capitalist-colonialist-racist system we live in. How have you as an Indigenous person coped with this year? What are your thoughts on 2020 in general?

SL: Well, 2020 has been a tough year that’s for sure. We have all been somewhat pommeled during this time of devastating impact in the dance and arts sector in general. We have all faced anxiety and darkness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, I have to say I’m so impressed by people who don’t get swallowed up by negativity or resort to lateral violence, but rather they remain resourceful, resilient, and remarkable in their will to keep moving forward.

I agree with your point that the capitalist-colonialist-racist system we live in has been exposed and has become a lot more visible. This pandemic has scratched the surface of what’s been there for a very long time. It’s been there just below the veneer and some people could not see it. Of course, we as Indigenous peoples, feel the impact of this system every day in our lives in one way or another – as we have for generations. I’m glad there’s a growing awareness and non-acceptance of the devastation of lands and waters, of Indigenous and racialized peoples, women, two-spirited, and the widespread mistreatment of Elders in old age homes. It’s utterly deplorable and this devastation is based upon an extraction mentality of “take, take, take”, dispossession and epistemicide.

All of this is hard on the heart and soul. I’ve been so fortunate to go to my homeland or I should say my ‘home-water-land’ in Temagami because this gives me so much strength. I’m so lucky to have been raised on my ancestral lands that I love so deeply.

In terms of Red Sky, we’re fortunate that nothing was canceled but simply postponed – at least so far. We’ve been able to embrace new opportunities and new ways of working. I’ve enjoyed looking at new creative possibilities that have surfaced that I don’t think would have happened otherwise. New partnerships and collaborations have emerged, and new ways of programming are now part of how we are planning and moving forward.

I’d like to take this opportunity to say chi-miigwetch to all of our artistic collaborators, cultural Elders, thought-leaders, movers and shakers, staff, and friends – all of whom are integral to Red Sky Performance’s distinct productions. We have accomplished so much over our 20 short years. Thank you to Muskrat Magazine for shining a light on what we do.

For tickets go to Fall For Dance Tickets

Two dancers
Jera Wolfe in rehearsal | Image source: Marlowe Porter

BIO: Sandra Laronde is of the Teme-Augama Anishinaabe (People of the Deep Water) and an award-winning arts innovator and cultural leader in Canada. Her mission in life is to reveal the hope, promise, and vibrancy of Indigenous peoples through the expression and dissemination of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit artistry. As an arts leader, Sandra creates, produces, and disseminates world-renowned Canadian works of artistic value and significance.

As the founder of Red Sky Performance in 2000, Sandra’s exceptional artistry and programming contribute to building vibrant Indigenous communities across Ontario, Canada, and worldwide. Because of her mentoring and leadership, there has been substantial growth in place-based culture and innovative new approaches to programming that has raised the artistic ceiling of contemporary Indigenous artistry in Canada and throughout the world. Sandra was also the Director of Indigenous Arts at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity from 2007 to 2016. During her 9-year tenure as director, she realized her vision to create exceptional cutting-edge programming informed by Indigenous cultures and worldviews and excelled at bringing world-class faculty to the Centre. Substantial growth for Indigenous Arts at the Banff Centre was achieved under her leadership involving hundreds of Indigenous artists across Canada and from around the globe.

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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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