Métis arts find a meeting place with multicultural Sokalo at the Talking Stick Festival

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      In Mexico, a zócalo is a meeting place, often a town’s central plaza, where inhabitants gather during the day to buy and sell produce and other wares, enjoy a refreshing coffee or agua fres­ca, and converse. Canada’s weather being what it is, we don’t often enjoy the same kind of amenity—or if we do, it’s purely a seasonal affair.

      Never mind. The folk-inspired dance troupe Zøgma’s multicultural Sokalo, which makes its local debut as part of the Talking Stick Festival of Indigenous arts, offers a suitably warm and sunny place for different dance traditions to meet and exchange ideas. This year, its guests will be Vancouver’s Louis Riel Métis Dancers—and for Zøgma’s artistic director, Mario Boucher, it’s a natural fit.

      “The Métis people, they have a few dances, traditional dances that I wouldn’t say really come from Quebec, but they’re really similar to things we might do in Quebec,” he explains, in a telephone call from his Montreal home. “So what we might do is create a piece where we’ll put both cultures together, one next to the other. We might choose a dance that is really similar, and we’ll do parts of it as the Métis would do it, and parts of it like we would do it in Quebec.

      “The interesting thing is that they, too, are also working on contemporary dance,” he continues. “So we might want to add some contemporary movement to what we’re doing while we’re working together. But we’ll see… It’s really a work in progress!”

      So far, Zøgma has performed Sokalo in countries as diverse as Ireland and Korea, with the ever-evolving piece absorbing elements of everywhere it’s been shown.

      “We’ve taken our travels, and put them with images from Montreal,” says Boucher, noting that this is a strategy that Zøgma has employed ever since its first production, 2003’s Chantier, which drew equally on the “gumboot” dances of South African gold miners and the similarly percussive clogging styles of rural Quebec. “As you know, Montreal is quite a big city, but like many big cities we have the Chinese quarter, the Haitian quarter, et cetera. So, really, Sokalo is a mixture of things that happen around us and things that have happened to us while we were travelling—sometimes really stupid things. Like, for example, one day we were in Korea, in Seoul, and we were crossing a river, but instead of having a bridge, they’d put some rocks in the water so people could cross. The dancers started crossing, and at one point they were all in a line—like, one behind the other—and they started doing all the same movement. We took a picture of that, and later on we said, ‘Oh, that was cool!’ and we created some choreography from that movement.”

      Sokalo offers a sunny place for different dance traditions to meet and exchange ideas.
      Vitor Munhoz

      The Louis Riel Métis Dancers’ artistic director, Yvonne Chartrand, points out that Zøgma’s all-embracing approach to art-making fits well with Métis culture, rooted as it is in the intermingling of First Nations populations with early European immigrants to North America. And while she’s planning to bring her own Métis stories to Sokalo, she’ll also contribute Métis music, a fiddle-based idiom that adds “crooked” rhythms to traditional French and Irish tunes, while embracing more recent inventions such as the bluegrass standard “Orange Blossom Special”.

      “People just go wild when that song is played, using a more dynamic way of stepping, using their whole body,” she says in a separate telephone interview from East Vancouver. “So we’re going to do an exchange where we teach them [Zøgma’s dancers] some of those steps.”

      At Talking Stick, the Louis Riel Métis Dancers and their parent company, V’ni Dansi, will also engage in another cultural exchange, this time with Santa Fe–based choreographer Rulan Tangen: their joint project is titled Michif Medicines, and looks at the survival and renewal of traditional healing practices among the Métis.

      Michif, Chartrand explains, is what the Métis people of her father’s generation and before called themselves. “Like Métis, it means ‘mixed’, and it also means the people and the language,” she says. “And Rulan has been exploring the idea of seeds in the context of our plant medicines, and our kinship with the Earth and the healing that comes from that. So we’re going to go and speak to some of the people here in the Lower Mainland, some traditional medicine people.…And then we’ll just have this explorative, amazing time working together, and we’ll see what we come up with! And that will be a healing for ourselves and for our people.”

      Zøgma and V’ni Dansi present Sokalo at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre next Friday and Sunday (February 16 and 18), as part of the Talking Stick Festival. Michif Medicines is at the Roundhouse on February 23, also as part of Talking Stick.