Sunday, March 8, 2015

Coastal First Nations Dance Festival at MOA

Two years ago at the Dance Centre, while sitting on a panel with Alex Lazaridis Ferguson and Deborah Meyers at the World Dance Critics-Americas Conference, the subject of locally produced dance festivals came up. Dancing on the Edge, Dance in Vancouver, and the Vancouver International Dance Festival (opening this week) were all duly mentioned. Mique'l Dangeli, co-artistic director with her husband Mike of the First Nations mask-dancing troupe Git Hayetsk, was in the audience and quickly piped up that we were leaving one prominent dance festival out.

The Coastal First Nations Dance Festival, produced by West Vancouver's Dancers of Damelahamid in connection with UBC's Museum of Anthropology, celebrates the vibrancy and sustainability of the stories, songs and dances of the Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America. Drawing inspiration from the pioneering efforts of Ken and Margaret Harris, who oversaw the Haw yah hawni nah Festival in Prince Rupert from 1967-1986, CFNDF began in 2008; it brings together dance groups from BC, the Yukon, Alaska and Washington, and also features guest artists from across Canada and other countries, thereby allowing the CFNDF, in the words of Executive Director Margaret Grenier, "to connect with a global community of Indigenous dance." Among this year's invited international artists are Urseloria and Nikollane Kanuho, Dine' sisters from Arizona who, judging from yesterday's brief display of their artistry, are amazingly accomplished Fancy dancers.

In addition to its weekday series of school performances and its ticketed evening mainstage shows, the CFNDF also features two weekend afternoon programs that are accessible to anyone who buys admission to MOA. Yesterday I arrived a bit late, just in time to see the second group on the program, Dakhká Khwáan, begin a song in the main rotunda of the museum before processing down the ramp to the great hall of totems where, against Arthur Erickson's signature wall of windows, a stage had been set up. Dakhká Khwáan is an Inland Tlingit group from the southern part of the Yukon. Their lead singer and spokesperson, who in teaching us a few phrases in Tlingit insisted we weren't speaking correctly unless the spit was flying in front of us, was incredibly adept--and funny--at contextualizing the significance of each traditional dance in contemporary terms. For instance, he noted that the mask dance in which raven tries to woo a woman from the wolf clan is essentially a lesson in how to flirt; raven eventually succeeds in his task by giving the woman a shiny new purse, which prompted our MC to crack that "Tlingit ladies love their blingit."

Next on the stage were the Dancers of Damelahamid, producers of the Festival. Representing the cultural traditions of the Gitxsan peoples, the group shared four masked dances. Grenier, who was one of the group's two main singers and drummers, explained to the audience that Coast Salish singing and dancing is an intergenerational practice, which accounts for why we see very young children alongside elders on stage. In the case of Dancers of Damelahamid, a little boy of four who had only been dancing with the group for two months very nearly stole the show, especially during a song about a dragonfly and a sleeping frog; when the buzz of the dragonfly awakens the frog, this is the cue for the little boy and his older masked partner, both of whom are sitting on their haunches, to begin leaping all over the stage.

Indeed, in terms of technique it behooves Coastal First Nations male dancers to have strong knees, for the lower they are to the ground, the more accomplished the dancing. By contrast, most of the female dancers in all of the groups were more upright and their footwork more intricate. This is just one of the commonalities I noted in the different offerings; to be sure, given their regional proximity and common connection to the land, the different Coast Salish First Nations are bound to have shared stories, similarly patterned regalia, headdresses, and masks, and complementary symbolic traditions (including the use of eagle down as a marker of peace between peoples, and which by the end of the afternoon festooned the floor). However, it would be a mistake to homogenize these groups solely based on an analogous art form comprised of singing, drumming, dancing and storytelling. For one thing, they all speak different languages and have distinct cultural and hereditary protocols--which is something that George Me'las Taylor noted in introducing a traditional Kwakwaka'wakw song danced by his Le-La-La Dancers.

Then, too, there is a history of cultural displacement and recovery that is in operation here. This was brought out by David Boxley, leader of the Tsimshian group Git Hoan. At the end of their set, which included a dramatic eagle song featuring three men who roamed the audience delighting children with the clacking beaks of their masks, Boxley noted that in the 1880s his people had followed a missionary from BC to Alaska. As part of this relocation, they had to give up their singing and dancing. It was only when Margaret and Ken Harris came up from BC nearly a hundred years later to teach the community what had been lost that they began reconnecting with the traditions of their ancestors.

What this story, and the entire afternoon of which it was a part, has taught me is that in my talk about Vancouver dance in this blog and elsewhere there is a huge gap--one that is comprised largely of these ancient and yet very much alive talking dances. I've got some serious learning to do--thank you, Mique'l, for giving me the kick in the pants I needed on this front.


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