The Cree word mînowin translates roughly as “the act of clarifying direction”. And when Margaret Grenier learned it from a Cree elder, she knew it would make the perfect title for her new multimedia dance work.
That’s in part because her Dancers of Damelahamid have been redefining their own direction for the past seven or eight years. They’ve been finding ways to incorporate age-old Indigenous dances and make them new again, through digital projections, enviro-electro-acoustic soundscapes, and reimagined masks and regalia. Vancouverites saw this hybrid of old and new in 2016’s visually striking Flicker; now they’ll see it pushed even further in Mînowin.
“Part of the process was looking at origin stories and the stories shared by the elders, but also looking at how these become reinterpreted,” Grenier, who has Gitksan and Cree ancestry, tells the Straight, speaking over the phone. “It feels like in a lot of the old stories, and the more contemporary stories as well, we come to this place of extreme imbalance and the need for transformation. And when we get to these places, it’s not just about ‘How do we regrow and find ourselves?’ but ‘How do we come back to it so that it moves us forward in our current context?’ So the original thought with this piece was to bring us to the present, but also to become clear about resiliency for the future.”
If you’re starting to see a whole new level of meaning to Mînowin, that’s no accident: Canada’s Indigenous peoples are tapping into a similar resilience. Mînowin consciously captures the way they’re recovering and reinterpreting stories, dance, and song, and redefining themselves.
Dancers of Damelahamid were early leaders in the Indigenous contemporary arts that are now flourishing across the country. The company’s background in Northwest Coast dance runs deep: Grenier’s parents, Ken and Margaret Harris, started Dancers of Damelahamid in the 1960s as a way to revive and present to the public the ancient art forms that potlatch bans had long pushed underground. Grenier, who holds a master’s degree in arts education from Simon Fraser University, started by carrying on that tradition, and running events like the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival.
But she was looking at ways to pull the practice into the future, and took her cues from what was happening with Northwest Coast visual art, which had begun to apply an Indigenous world-view to various forms of contemporary art, to international acclaim.
“So much work had been done in developing Northwest Coast visual design over the last couple of decades, but that really hadn’t taken place in our dance training,” observes the North Van–based artist.
Just as Northwest Coast art is now celebrated in mainstream contemporary galleries, works like Flicker and Mînowin are now being shown at contemporary-dance festivals and venues. It’s fitting, then, that Northwest Coast design plays such a huge part in Mînowin. Euro-Cree multidisciplinary artist Andy Moro makes formlines dance and glow via projections throughout the work. Elsewhere, collaborator Sammy Chien has helped the dancers use motion-activated digital projections that move across the floor.
The hybrid that the team has assembled over multiple residencies here and at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity feels cutting-edge; the digital magic conjures everything from white-wolf packs to orca pods. But it’s all still rooted in Grenier’s own ancestors’ interdisciplinary blend of dance, song, story, and masks. “There’s a fullness in it that people feel when that is shared, because it’s such a heart-driven work,” Grenier says.
Yet no matter how far Dancers of Damelahamid push the form of Northwest Coast dance, they are constantly checking in with elders—even as the work tours the world. “We’re really grounded in intergenerational practice, and that’s the core of everything we do,” says Grenier, whose son Nigel dances in the company. “And it’s equally important to have elders and mentors as it is to have young people in the project. It really gives weight to the importance of why we do this.”
Mînowin is at the Cultch Historic Theatre from Wednesday to Sunday (November 20 to 24).