Indigenous choreography helps decolonize this year’s Dancing on the Edge
Vancouver choreographer and dancer Starr Muranko has been thinking a lot about water these days.
“We have the concept of water within our bodies and then the water that flows and keeps us connected outside of our bodies,” Muranko, co-artistic director of Raven Spirit Dance, tells the Straight by phone between rehearsals.
She also believes that water serves as a metaphor for the currents running through Indigenous women’s dance in North America. Muranko mentions that similarities and differences between traditional and contemporary forms, and why her company’s newest production is called Confluence. It will have its world premiere at the Dancing on the Edge festival.
“We had this image of these two rivers—of a confluence of rivers—that are very much flowing together and sometimes separate, and then come back together,” Muranko says.
She adds that water also serves as a metaphor for the ways in which the women move in space and relate to each other over the 45-minute production.
“It’s very much about the stories that we carry as Indigenous women and that we carry for ourselves and our families and our communities, and also for each other,” she explains.
The other performers of Indigenous ancestry in Confluence are Raven Spirit Dance artistic director Michelle Olson, Tasha Faye Evans, Jeanette Kotowich, and Emily Solstice Tait.
This isn’t the only confluence of Indigenous women at Dancing on the Edge.
O.Dela Arts and Pepper’s Ghost New Media & Performing Arts Collective will share Maamawi: Together Through the Fire, which is an Indigenous-led work-in-progress with original choreography by Vancouver resident Olivia C. Davies.
Cocreated by Davies and Athomas Goldberg, it’s a futuristic interpretation of Anishinaabe fire prophesies, supplementing live performance with virtual and augmented reality for some in the audience.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Davies says that there are seven Anishinaabe fire prophesies speaking to such things as the migration of strangers to the homeland, as well as colonization and destruction.
Finally, she acknowledges, there’s a revelation of a new way forward that’s possible through the discovery of shared connections and a willingness to move as allies into the future.
“That seventh fire is also where we are considered today in how we’re returning to our cultural teachings and looking to our elders to find the stories that have been lost,” Davies says.
This leaves two paths, she says, one leading to salvation and the other to materialism and ruin. The show’s cultural consultant, Gloria May Eshkibok, told her that the eighth and final fire of the Ojibwe people, who are part of the Anishinaabe group of related Indigenous peoples, would launch a new era of good things to come.
That, Davies says, is the jumping-off point for her choreography. It’s intended to look at where things will be 200 years from now.
“What are the lessons that were learned?” Davies asks. “At what point did humanity have to come to that point of no return? That we were able to take the good side of technology—take the technology that fuels our willingness to move forward with collective humanity, with kindness, with love, with peace, with hope not only for humankind but of animalkind, plantkind—all in that same carefully woven basket of care?” Davies asks.
Davies, a mixed-race Anishinaabe artist, became interested in her Indigenous identity in her 20s during a difficult period in her life.
“It was certainly a life-changing time to find Anishinaabe elders who were willing to share their culture with me and help me in my search to find out who I am and where I came from,” she says.
Now a mother, she’s emphatic that her daughter won’t have to experience the same sense of dislocation, which drives her work.
After Davies moved from Ontario to Vancouver in 2011, she connected with Raven Spirit Dance, where she was mentored and given opportunities to develop her choreographic vision with a focus on her mixed identity. That eventually led her to O.Dela Arts, which is a creative project founded in 2018.
“When I speak about my mentors, I always mention both Starr Muranko and Michelle Olson, who took me under their wing and gave me space,” Davies says.
She also credits three other giants of Indigenous dance in Canada: Dancers of Damelahamid executive and artistic director Margaret Grenier, multidisciplinary artist Santee Smith, and choreographer and dancer Lara Kramer.
“So each of these women’s voices have also definitely influenced my trajectory and what I am doing and creating in my works today,” Davies says.
Maamawi: Together Through The Fire and Raven Spirit Dance’s Confluence each look at decolonization in their own way. For Muranko, one of the objectives was to decolonize the idea of even having a choreographer and dancers.
In this nonhierarchical approach, everyone contributes to what she describes as “collective choreography”, with the dancers taking turns at leadership.
“It sounds really wonderful because we’re at this place now where it’s all working and flowing and getting ready for a show,” Muranko says. “But there’s been really hard times along the way. It’s not easy to decolonize our minds or the way we’re working. And we need to create space to process things that are coming up—and how you do things in a shared space.”
She feels that this led the group to develop some useful methodologies, including understanding how to work through difficult issues as they come up.
In this regard, she quotes Grenier’s mother, the now-deceased Indigenous dance elder Margaret Harris. Muranko recalls Harris sometimes sharing a story with her protégés about how geese behave while flying.
“There’s always a shared leadership,” Muranko notes. “You have the head goose—they’re definitely leading the way. But when they get tired, they can fly back and another one takes the lead.”
She then says that according to teachings, the ones at the back will be honking to encourage the one at the front.
“So we’ve kept that too—that shared leadership,” Muranko says. “That’s something that Margaret’s mother shared with us that has kept us going all these years.”