This summer, Raven Spirit Dance’s Michelle Olson is getting back to the land and spending a lot of time outdoors—not for her vacation, but for her work. The Vancouver choreographer is overseeing two separate productions at opposite ends of town at this year’s Dancing on the Edge festival (which runs from today to next Saturday [July 7 to 16]), and both of them take place outside, in parks.
Olson, who hails from the Yukon’s Tr’ondí«k Hwí«ch’in First Nation, says the pieces drew on aboriginal themes and naturally found their way outside the theatre. “Sometimes I’m surprised how it seems to happen that I’m outside creating,” explains the dance artist, who is fitting both projects in while being nine-months pregnant, from her home. “The ideas of the land and geography and place and space come up and seem to be very important—so much that we feel like we have to be outside.”
Ashes on the Water, a coproduction with Neworld Theatre, ended up centring in Crab Park because of its historical tale. It takes the form of a podplay (a guided audio play that walks audiences through the geography of the city) and a site-specific dance by Raven Spirit (choreographed by Olson and Kimberly Tuson). Ashes tells the story of the great Vancouver fire of 1886, and the way the First Nations on the North Shore came across in canoes to rescue people from the shores of the city near the spot where the dance will take place.
“It’s very close to where the event happened—from the shore you can see the church where the people at the First Nations, at the mission reserve, first came out and saw the fire that afternoon,” Olson says. “We were rehearsing on June 13, which was the actual day of the fire, and being down in that area was very emotional. It’s one of those things where you’re there 125 years later, and it’s about being in the space and marking that place in history.”
The dance is based around the Squamish First Nation’s “Women’s Paddle Song”. It’s a melody that’s been passed down through generations, one that Olson learned from Squamish artist Bob Baker, and it is aid to have been the spontaneous creation of the women who rescued the Vancouverites that day.
“When they went over, they gathered survivors, and when they had them in their canoes and brought them across the water, the song came out,” Olson explains. “It was to comfort the people going through the devastation of having Vancouver burn down.
“Songs do come out when you’re on a canoe journey—the rhythms of paddles, of your breath, create this underlying beat that will help you on your journey,” she says, adding that the dance builds on those rhythms and themes as well. Meanwhile, over at Queen Elizabeth Park, Raven Spirit’s Frost Exploding Trees Moon joins a mixed program with other companies. Created with Cree playwright and essayist Floyd Favel, it follows a woman travelling her trap line and setting up her tepee.
The solo for performer Jeanette Kotowich (who replaces Olson herself) draws on the body language of the traditional aboriginal hunting culture—though Olson also sees it as a larger metaphor for a person trying to find a home in the city. “When we were in the studio, we talked about our elders, who have a certain way of being in the bush and being out in nature and just their gestures,” Olson says. “It’s how we have seen our grandmothers or our aunties in those spaces on the river, or in the berry patch, or in the bush: there’s a certain way they carry themselves that is so different than the way we carry ourselves in the city.”
And while there will be audiences for that journey, and for the one in Crab Park, Olson could very well be setting off on her own: her baby, it turns out, is due July 15—one of the days that both shows happen to see performances.
Ashes on the Water is at Crab Park next Thursday to Saturday (July 14 to 16), while Dusk Dances takes place at Queen Elizabeth Park from Wednesday to next Saturday (July 13 to 16).