Dancers of Damelahamid celebrate ancient and contemporary in Flicker

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      The flicker is a woodpecker that regularly shows up in Northwest Coast art, its tail feathers appearing again and again as a key design element.

      It’s also a beautiful masked creature that features in the Dancers of Damelahamid’s ambitious new multimedia work, Flicker. But executive and artistic director Margaret Grenier says there’s a dual meaning to the title that is a perfect metaphor for the way the company not only shifts between human and spirit worlds in its show, but also honours its ancient past while pushing into contemporary digital and dance forms.

      “It’s that idea of the light flickering,” she tells the Straight on a break in the troupe’s North Shore rehearsal space, which, fittingly, looks out to the distant West Coast mountains and rustling leaves that play such a big role in the piece. “How do we best honour the practice? How do we keep something that’s been pretty marginalized and connect with that and strengthen that? It’s not just about having a leg in one place or another, but that flickering of a time and place.”

      Figuring out that delicate dance between the past and present has been a three-year process. “I call it a life practice,” Grenier says with a smile. Flicker ends up mixing together not just movement from traditional First Nations and contemporary indigenous settings, but video footage and imagery from coastal design. Add meticulously made costumes, masks, and music, and you have an exciting new hybrid that Grenier hopes will bridge cultures.

      Flicker’s venue is also new ground for the troupe. It’s known for performing at the Museum of Anthropology’s Coastal First Nations Dance Festival (which Grenier organizes) and has taken its traditional work out to the world. (Grenier’s Sharing the Spirit toured to New Zealand and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.) But this is the first time it will take the stage of the Cultch’s Historic Theatre. After showing here, Flicker moves on to the Canada Dance Festival (which has coproduced the work with the Cultch), taking its place on a roster of the country’s best contemporary-dance troupes.

      “In terms of movement, all of our work comes from the foundation of traditional indigenous dance,” Grenier explains. “But things become very categorized: you have a powwow and you can practise that there, or you have a celebration of coastal dance and you can practise that there, or you have contemporary dance and you can practise that in the contemporary world.

      “We’ll have the communities we’ve developed in Vancouver coming to this show, but certainly it will bring the Cultch audience, and that’s exciting. We’re aware of that also as a responsibility: you’re always aware of representing more than just dance.”

      Chris Randle

      To understand this responsibility, it’s important to know how the Dancers of Damelahamid evolved. For generations, the Northwest Coast’s Gitxsan people celebrated song and dance at their feast halls. The Canadian government’s potlatch ban outlawed the practice from 1885 to 1951, and Grenier’s parents, Ken and Margaret Harris, started the Dancers of Damelahamid in the 1960s as a way to revive the ancient art forms—this time for a public audience instead of private ceremonies. (Damelahamid refers to the land granted to the Gitxsan when their ancestors were placed on Earth.)

      “I have a very strong foundation in the coastal dance form, and that’s what I grew up with and what was passed on to me from my family,” Grenier says. “Even though my parents were doing more traditional dance, up to their generation it had only been used in cultural ceremonies—so even just to take dance to public performance was a significant shift for them. And now our generation has other influences. How do we contribute to that with our own generation?”

      Finding the answer to that question is something the dancers have been working toward in residencies at the Cultch and elsewhere. On this day in North Van, in a segment set to the sounds of twittering birds and traditional singing, dancers Jeanette Kotowich and Nigel Grenier (Margaret’s son) find a movement language that, as Grenier says, flickers between characterizations of the titular bird (their arms pointing out in front of their heads like its long, pecking beak) and more abstract dance.

      Multimedia artist Andy Moro’s projections will give the piece another immersive level, bringing to life forests, rivers, and spirit worlds. But consider this hybrid only the first in a long journey for the Dancers of Damelahamid, whose dreams go far beyond art.

      “We’re hoping to create change in our society and create cross-cultural dialogue,” says Nigel Grenier before heading back into rehearsal. “We want to make Canada a more accepting place.”

      Flicker is at the Cultch’s Historic Theatre from next Wednesday to Sunday (May 25 to 29).