Dancing on the Edge festival takes the form in new directions with Windigo

Oji-Cree artist Lara Kramer uses an unexpected prop to express the trauma of a land and its people

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      Oji-Cree dance artist Lara Kramer has long used powerful visual metaphors in her work, as seen in Vancouver performances—old baby carriages and beer cans in NGS (“Native Girl Syndrome”), a bathtub and white shirts in of good moral character, and vintage residential-school-style desks, shoes, and sheets of paper in Fragments.

      And in her new Windigo, Kramer is using what may be her most startling central props yet: mattresses—ones that get ripped apart, entered, and animated by dancers Peter James and Jassem Hindi.

      “We found a mattress kind of dissected on the curb on the street,” she says of her inspirational moment. She’s speaking over the phone from her Montreal home base before heading to the Dancing on the Edge festival here. “It’s this devastated object that can provoke and reveal and be symbolic, and it can be seen really literally, too. On the literal side, it can be seen as really domestic, but it can also be related to residential school, and that nomadic lifestyle. I just wanted to pull this multilayered symbolism out of it.”

      The artist says the concept grew out of a performance-art installation called Phantom Stills & Vibrations, which used a soundscape and photography to conjure the Pelican Falls Residential School that three generations of her family endured. It also evolved out of field work she was doing at her mother’s home in Lac Seul First Nation, in northwestern Ontario.

      “For sure, it’s specific to being on my blood land,” the artist explains. “While I was there I just found this feeling of the damage to the land and the repercussions. There had been flooding of the forest for hydro, and following that there was a clear-cutting of forests.

      “But there was also the broader concept of the treatment of land and body and that has a ripple effect.”

      In Indigenous folklore, a windigo or wendigo is an evil spirit native to the northern forest, but it also stands for something else: “Windigo is capitalism and greed for the land,” Kramer says. “And for me that felt like a pertinent concept—not just in the North.”

      Improvising in the studio with her performers, she asked them to dissect the mattresses. “But I told them they’re not necessarily mattresses; they could be spirits or animals. And that opened up a lot of possibilities.”

      Lara Kramer says Windigo evolved out of field work she did at her mother's home in Lac Seul First Nation.
      Stefan Petersen

      The creation was an intimate, extended one in which the performers also travelled with Kramer to Lac Seul. The result is a work that conjures the angst, despair, and destruction of Indigenous people in the North. At times the two men look like homeless figures from the Downtown Eastside, scavenging to survive; at others, their rituals take on a more abstract symbolism of trauma to a people and their land. Limbs often jut and convulse surreally from the mattresses’ slashed openings.

      The environment is brought to life with a soundscape performed live by Kramer on-stage—natural sounds she recorded in the North mixed with haunting, metallic layers. “It offers this idea that I’m not a character in the work, but that this is all in the umbrella of my universe,” she explains.

      Local followers of her thought-provoking work will see an evolution of Kramer’s creations further away from strict definitions of dance—making it more than Edge-worthy.

      “We divide artmaking into these categories,” she says. “I’m really kind of giving myself permission to work in a way where all the forms of expression and storytelling can be highly tactile. I don’t want to rid myself of these labels but give myself permission to let other elements in.”

      Dancing on the Edge presents Windigo next Friday and Sunday (July 6 and 8) at the Firehall Arts Centre.