Chapter 21 demonstrates Vancouver choreographer and dancer Starr Muranko's triumph over adversity

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      Choreographer and contemporary dancer Starr Muranko never imagined that two monumentally life-altering events would become the subject of a full-length dance-theatre piece. And it never would have happened had it not been for the friendship of another choreographer and dancer, Alvin Tolentino, who helped her get through some extremely difficult times.

      “I would say from the very beginning until now, he’s been that touchstone for me,” Muranko told the Straight in a recent phone interview.

      The first life-altering event came more than four years ago when she learned that her son would be born with Down syndrome. (It’s also referred to as Trisomy 21 because the child has an extra copy of the 21st chromosome.)

      “We had a beautiful birth,” Muranko said. “He was happy and we were so happy to have him here.”

      Three weeks later, after she had bonded with the baby, named Sami, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She described this as “totally destabilizing and not anything that anybody wants to hear”.

      After a successful yet gruelling treatment regimen, Muranko emerged healthy and in a mood to reflect on her experiences. She felt a need to express through dance how her body might interpret all of this, including her maternity leave.

      “I started showing it to a few close friends and family, thinking it was just a way of processing what had happened,” Muranko revealed.

      That’s when Tolentino, founder of Co.ERASGA, encouraged her to think about creating a public piece. That gave her the confidence to start doing public showings of aspects of the work, with Tolentino and another mentor, Michelle Olson, providing feedback. Firehall Arts Centre artistic director Donna Spencer talked with her about making it a full-length production. Finally, later this month, Chapter 21 will have its world premiere as a solo show.

      “It’s an autobiographical piece, so it’s my personal story,” Muranko said.

      As Chapter 21 evolved into more of a dance-theatre piece, Yvette Nolan was brought in as the director. Muranko appreciated Nolan’s eye as to how it would look on-stage.

      Watch the trailer for Chapter 21.

      There were bumps along the way—COVID bumps—with an artist’s residency and a premiere being cancelled last year.

      “Donna and I keep saying the third time is the charm,” Muranko said with a laugh. “It feels really perfect that it will be happening in September.”

      It also runs into October, which happens to be when Canadian Down Syndrome Week and Breast Cancer Awareness Month are observed.

      Muranko’s mother is a member of the Moose Cree First Nation in northern Ontario. So it only seemed natural that Muranko plans to prepare the Firehall Arts Centre space with a smudge ceremony and hold an opening welcome with the collaborators.

      According to Muranko, the show will not be a traditional linear story. Rather, it will feature scenes or vignettes that stuck with her as she faced her challenges. There are also personal mementoes that appear as props, such as Sami’s moccasins. After each performance, she will have an artist talk-back with the audience.

      The National Arts Centre has created a short film about Muranko’s project, and dance artist Sophia Wolfe has created a longer film, lasting about 20 minutes.

      As for Sami, he’s bringing tremendous joy to Muranko and others in the community who love and support him.

      “I had a misconception that it was [going to] be really hard and really sad—and going to be this difficult thing,” she said. “It’s the complete opposite. He’s just the most amazing guy.”