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Backbone: dance performance inspired by the ‘spine’ of the Americas

Scores of people gathered into the dimly lit and hushed lower-theatre of Berkeley Street Theatre to see the latest production featured by the Canadian Stage, a not-for-profit contemporary theatre company. It was the opening night, on Nov. 3 of Red Sky Performance’s latest indigenous contemporary performance —Backbone. Nothing could have prepared me for the invoking performance that was presented before me.

In anticipation of the performance, I had a chat with Red Sky’s founder and artistic director, Sandra Laronde. Laronde was inspired to create Backbone using her indigenous beliefs based on the ‘spine of the Americas.’

” I wanted to show the ‘backbone’ of the Americas in dance and music, a rocky spine ( Rocky Mountains) that has life, circuitry, electricity, and impulses that are alive and dynamic—much like the human spine. For indigenous peoples, there is a strong connection between the earth’s backbone and a human one, we are inseparable.” Laronde said.

Laronde’s connection to indigenous culture and interest in indigenous mapping inspired the core of Backbone. Indigenous mapping sees the land as a live and spiritual space. Instead of seeing the mountains (Rockies and Andes) as divided by borders, as traditional western mapping does, Indigenous mapping marks it as a continuous fluid.  Many characteristics of Indigenous mapping lays respect to Mother Earth and speaks about the meaning of the land instead of naming an area after a person or a discoverer.

Laronde asked herself how she could translate this concept into movement? With a team of nine dancers and one live musician, Laronde partook in collaborative choreography training with Jera Wolfe, Ageer, and Thomas Fonua to create the contemporary aesthetic of Backbone that visually and audibly appeals to the viewers.

The sounds that accompanied the dancers movement on stage was crucial to create visuals and situations that allows your mind to imagine and feel the moment. In the opening sequence of Backbone, dancers present themselves as a spine, with each movement in cohesion with the cracking  and popping sounds of human bones. The spine coming to life, unfolding, separating, and eventually merging together again.

This stunning performance was only possible through the use of talented dancers using every bit of their intense training. On average, the dancers trained from 10 AM to 6PM, Monday to Saturday, their training is akin to a high-level athlete, with many training since childhood.

With music being such a big component to this performance, Laronde turned to percussionist and composer, Rick Sacks, a long-time collaborator with Red Sky. Sacks was the 10th, but most crucial performer on stage, delivering sounds to accompany the dancers.

“Most of the music was performed live except for about 10 ambient cues from a computer in a booth. Rick played and/or triggered all the music. He triggered sounds from an electronic drum set and an electronic MalletKAT. The composition is made vital by ornamentation and punctuation that he could change each night depending on the dancer’s movements and the energy of the performance. This could only be the result of a live performance— it keeps it spontaneous,” said Laronde

Backbone marks the third back-to-back Toronto premiere that Red Sky has had since August. This is also their first collaboration with Canadian Stage, where Red Sky will be in residence for two years — the 17/18 and 18/19 seasons. Red Sky Performance was founded in 2000 and for the past 17 years they have focused on highlighting different traditional areas of indigenous dance theatre and music in a contemporary form.

Backbone runs from Nov 2-12 at the Berkeley Street theatre in Toronto. Red Sky Performance has also been invited to perform Backbone at Live Art Dance in Halifax, Nova Scotia on Nov 17. they will tour to Europe and Asia in January and February 2018-19. For more information visit redskyperformance.com.