Women find their strength at this year’s Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival

A dance work and a sound installation explore hope, not despair.

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      It doesn’t come up in explicit form during the Georgia Straight’s conversations with Rosemary Georgeson, Olivia C. Davies, and Nicola Harwood, but “me, too” has to be seen as the implicit subtext of the work they’ll be presenting as part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival. All over the Internet, women—and some men as well—are sharing their stories of abuse, providing a painfully apt context for Georgeson and Davies’s dance/storytelling hybrid, Crow’s Nest and Other Places She’s Gone, and in some cases the source material for Harwood’s interactive sound installation, Summoning (No Words).

      But while the “me, too” posts on social media are a heartbreaking archive of suffering, these three artists are taking the next step: using abuse as the impetus to create works of healing balm and beauty.

      That’s certainly the intent of Harwood’s piece, which uses motion-sensing technology and generative software to create an ever-changing tapestry of wordless song, created in conjunction with vocalists Allison Girvan, Bessie Wapp, Tanya Tagaq, Vandana Vishwas, Sandy Scofield, Andrea Menard, and Mutya Macatumpag.

      “We have to have a response that’s not just more stories of brutalization,” says Harwood, reached at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, where she’s head of the creative-writing department. “Like, we have to have a response that’s a healing response and a celebratory response that talks about the power of life and the power of resilience and recovery and joy. People sometimes get caught in the victimization and the brutality—and we have to go into those places. But there’s this other service that’s needed, which is a healing service, and which these works provide by offering moments of joy, moments of celebration.

      “I think it’s really important that that narrative is as active as the other narrative,” she continues. “I mean, otherwise people will just burn out and they’ll go away and hide, so you don’t create community and you don’t create strength.”

      Strength, on a more individualized level, is also the theme of Crow’s Nest and Other Places She’s Gone, which traces the life and death of Blue, a homeless Indigenous woman, in part through the memories of her best friend, Rose. Intriguingly, Blue’s passage into spirit is enacted through dance, with acclaimed choreographer Davies taking on that role, while Georgeson’s warm voice provides a more literal narrative.

      Vocalist Mutya Macatumpag in Summoning (No Words).

      As with Summoning (No Words), the intent here is not to plumb the depths of despair that can sometimes be found in the Downtown Eastside, but to show how love, friendship, and faith can shine through even the most marginalized lives.

      “It’s really a story about kinship, about women banding together to move forward together,” Davies explains, interviewed with Georgeson via speakerphone from the Skwachàys Lodge, a Vancouver Native Housing Society–operated hotel in the DTES. “So much of what the story of Rose and Blue is holding is that even though they’re experiencing some of the difficulties of life on the edges of society, it’s their kinship that makes them each stronger.”

      Crow’s Nest draws, in part, on the real-life friendship between its two creators: George­son was one of the first Vancouver artists to reach out to Davies after the Welsh, Métis, and Anishinabe dancer moved west into Coast Salish territory, and they’ve worked on several projects together. But the interdisciplinary piece also draws on the real-life story of Chiwid, a Tsilhqot’in woman who found healing in the land after outliving an abusive spouse.

      “As the story goes, when her partner passed, her husband, she didn’t want to go back indoors again because of all the trauma,” Davies says. “From what I understand, she lived out on the land—and she was somewhat of a mythical figure also, because she didn’t go indoors again. She would stop and visit people and have a cup of tea, but basically, like Blue and Rose, she lived on the edge of society. And I think when Rosemary brought Chiwid’s story to me, as we were developing Crow’s Nest and Other Places She’s Gone, it really struck me that she had become a legend, which was really powerful for me as this beacon of hope for other women who had experienced abuse or trauma in their homes, and who sought refuge not through western means, but through being immersed in nature—by returning to the first mothers and the first fathers in the rocks and the trees.”

      A similarly elemental power animates Summoning (No Words), which sounds quite magical in Harwood’s description. The interdisciplinary artist first worked with composer Don Macdonald to create a set of parameters for the invited singers to work within, and then tasked sound designer Simon Lysander Overstall to create the algorithms that control how they’re presented.

      “As you move through the space, the sensors pick up your body, and so it’s never the same,” Harwood says. “The sound is responding to the people in the space.…And Simon has designed it in such a way that it builds, and it crescendoes, and there’s a dissonance, and then it settles down, and then there are beautiful little moments where it feels really harmonious. And then it will go to quiet.”

      It’s not coincidental that the piece gives listeners the impression of having some agency in its creation, a notion that fits in well with Heart of the City’s overall aim: using art to empower Downtown Eastside residents so that they can push for positive change in their own lives and in the community around them.

      “By giving them space to flourish, it feeds back into faith and hope,” Georgeson says. “There are incredible, amazing artists in the Downtown Eastside that are supported by this festival—artists that wouldn’t be heard or recognized outside of the East Side.”

      “Heart of the City also offers an incredible opportunity for people who would perhaps otherwise not feel comfortable seeing theatre, dance, opera, or music in our civic theatres,” Davies adds. “I really hope, and dearly believe, that women who may otherwise feel like the theatre is not a place for their stories to be shared will think differently after this year’s festival—and that they’ll potentially engage in their own expression and creativity, so we’ll see more Indigenous and more women creators presenting work on stages across our country and beyond.”

      Crow’s Nest and Other Places She’s Gone runs at the KW Production Studio in the Woodward’s Building on Friday and Saturday (October 27 and 28). Summoning (No Words) is at the same venue from Thursday to Saturday (October 26 to 28). For a full Heart of the City schedule, visit www.heartofthecityfestival.com/.