Red Sky Performance’s Anishinabe choreographer and artistic director, Sandra Laronde, long wanted to do a project involving Mongolians. Her First Nations dance company, based in Toronto, has a mandate to connect indigenous cultures from around the world, and Mongolia is rich in living traditions with links throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. The seed for Tono lay dormant, however, until Red Sky toured China three years ago.
“I was in a Muslim part in the west and saw these big mountains in the distance,” says Laronde, reached in Calgary on a tour that brings Tono to the Vancouver Playhouse next Thursday to Sunday (February 11 to 14) as part of the Cultural Olympiad. “It reignited my interest, and when I got home I researched the potentially common themes.”
The indigenous Mongolians and the First Nations of the Great Plains inhabited gently rolling grasslands—steppes or prairies—and in both cultures the horse was held in profound respect for its strength, its intelligence, its beauty, and its speed.
Laronde learned much about Mongolia, its history, and its indigenous people, and went there later in 2007 to attend the Naadam festival in the capital, Ulan Bator. The celebration involves artistic and cultural events, and what’s known as the “Nomadic Olympics”.
“I saw horseracing through the wild grasslands, the dust coming up, many people sitting on the rolling hills, watching. It was very beautiful. And the horse riders were five- to eight-year-old boys primarily.”¦At the end of the race someone sang a praise song to the winner.”
Fascinated by that paean, Laronde discovered it was an example of “long-song” singing. “I asked for the best artists and auditioned them there and then, because I knew immediately it had to be included in what I had in mind,” she says. “Long-song singing isn’t really known in the western world and I loved it because of its epic nature, its sweep, its grandeur. It gets its name because they sing in one breath.”
Laronde then looked at aspects of the horseracing and at wrestling—a major sport in Mongolia. Tono incorporates some wrestling moves. After leaving Ulan Bator, Laronde went to Inner Mongolia, where she auditioned dancers, choosing three who were also contortionists.
Back in Canada, she worked on Tono’s creation at the Banff Centre, choreographing it with Roger Sinha. Composer Rick Sacks wrote the score, which mixes taped and live music, with three Mongolian artists. “Rick plays a malletKAT, a kind of electronic marimba....Much of the score is based on Mongolian music, and we also have some First Nations singing.”
Tono includes a thrilling stampede sequence and the birth of a shaman whose dream brings the horse to the Mongolian people. The music-and-dance piece takes place beneath a wheel-like wooden object known as a ton—from which the title of the performance was taken.
“Ton was loosely translated to me as ”˜gateway to the world above’, and I love that concept,” says Laronde. “It was a perfect fit because the shamanic thread runs through Tono. The ton sits on top of yurts.”¦When nomads travel, it’s always at the highest point of the cargo, because the ton has an important role to play—to keep the structure in place.
“I wanted one shared, strong symbol onstage,” she continues. “The ton also to me looks like a medicine wheel of the First Nations people, which is an image and a way of talking about our world-view, principles, values, philosophy, where things come from, where the intellect and the emotions are, and how spirit, mind, and body have to be aligned.”