Heart of the City Festival's Connect brings communities together
The beat of First Nations drums will echo down East Hastings Street on Sunday (November 3) to mark the opening of Connect. The processional performance by the Carnegie Dance Troupe and musicians, part of this year’s Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, draws inspiration from primal rhythms that cut across cultural lines. As the group’s choreographer and mentor Karen Jamieson points out, they take us back to our earliest experience.
“We all spent our first months in the womb hearing ‘ba-boom, ba-boom’, and that rhythm stays deep inside us,” she says, interviewed at her Yaletown office. “For First Nations the heartbeat is very powerful—the earth itself has a heartbeat. It provides us with a common language to connect the diverse traditions within our group. People talk about the DTES community, but it’s actually multiple communities that are really distinct. It’s important for us to make overt that we aren’t a melting pot.”
Those communities will be represented throughout Heart of the City, with everything from the drum and dance spectacle Taiko Roots on Friday (November 1) at the Vancouver Ballroom to Bread and Salt, a multimedia tribute to the East Side’s historic Ukrainian community, at the Ukrainian Hall on November 8. As for Connect, its more than 20 performers are all DTES residents and come mainly from aboriginal, East Asian, and European cultures. Some have been part of the project since its inception, two years ago.
“Other than the musicians they’re all self-selected,” says Jamieson. “I decided from the start to work with absolute inclusivity, so a role is created for everyone who joins. I often ask people to write down what they want, and that’s where we begin.”
Jamieson brought her long experience as one of Vancouver’s leading choreographers to the workshop-based project, slowly developing with participants the outlines of Connect and giving it shape. “The literal meaning of choreographer is the person who draws the circle,” she points out. “I like that because the form of the circle implies lack of hierarchy. I’m really interested in what people come up with, so we have a lot of improvisations and the subjects are often very simple, such as the expression of basic emotions. We do a lot of work connecting to each other, not necessarily on the social level but trying to sense each other’s energy. Much of it is unconscious.
“Out of what I see the piece surfaces, and I draw the circle around it to create the structure. It gives a kind of safety but also holds the energy of everybody. It’s a communicative process I’m looking for, and it goes beyond my community-engagement work to all that I do professionally. I believe that at some point the piece reveals itself, and you have to be sensitive to listen to it and go with it. Then the piece rules and comes into the space—and my job is to serve that.”
Connect has emerged from its lengthy gestation as a vibrant spectacle that takes the performers from the steps of the Carnegie Community Centre to SFU Woodward’s, where they present most of the 14 scenes. It opens with Deborah Charlie’s First Nations smudging ritual, and includes such diverse elements as Swallow Zhu’s “Gong Fu” song and dance, a “Duets” sequence that the dancers largely improvise, and a series of animal transformations in which they in turn become fish, wolves, eagles, hummingbirds, loons, deer, and butterflies.
The performance concludes with a Friendship Dance that Jamieson learned from a Salish artist. “It opens with the dancers in two lines and becomes a circle that turns inside out, so first they thank each another and then the audience. We project videos and photographs of past participants who’ve left, and one who died, to introduce the idea that everybody who’s taken part in the workshops has left behind an imprint. There’s a pretty strong undercurrent of healing in Connect.”
In the course of the project Jamieson has noted a change in the participants. “I feel they’ve become better able to live in their bodies. To me the power of dancing is that it brings you back into the body, into the present where I think most joy is. I love to see people experience that—and even if it’s just for five minutes, it’s enough to know that it’s home.”