When Christina Murray and four other women first came together in 2008 to create Halifax’s multi-disciplinary Xara Choral Theatre, they intended to create works that would explore identity, culture, and community. It would take an invitation to participate in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2011 to see an evolution for the group.
“We originally came together with the desire to build a choral ensemble that was cross-disciplinary and explored issues within our community and culture through our art-making,” explains Murray, the company’s artistic director.
“From there we had several great seasons and were invited by [TRC Chairman] Murray Sinclair, to prepare a piece for the Halifax national TRC event, as a group of settlers. He wanted to explore what reconciliation through art could mean.”
Introduced at that time to Anishinaabe dancer and activist Sarain Fox, the group collaborated with Margaret, a residential school survivor to tell her story. Premiering the piece at the TRC event, it would be Fox who would dance the role of Margaret.
“That was a very pivotal experience for the ensemble, and from that time forward, we were committed to continuing to do work in that way,” she continues. “Now it’s the main, often sole, focus of our work.”
The presentation at TRC would also become the start of an ongoing collaboration between Xara Choral Theatre and Fox.
This now includes their latest work, Rings Through Water, which will premiere at Halifax’s Maritime Museum of the Atlantic this month before heading on tour.
Fox, who both dances in and is the choreographer for Rings Through Water, is joined by two other Indigenous artists, Inuk classical soloist and recording artist Deantha Edmunds, and Mi’kmaq actor, director, and arts educator, Lisa Nasson.
Murray and Xara’s composer-in-residence Jenny Trites make up the remainder of the show’s creative team.
Composed of a trio of stories around the theme of water, the first features Edmunds in a tale of a water protector coming into her identity, and her realization that the oceans and the world’s water are in pain and suffering.
“Because she can hear and feel that, she needs to rise to her role in sharing with people, and convincing them to care,” explains Murray.
The second section, featuring Fox, focuses on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Telling the story of a murdered Indigenous woman, it reflects on the ramifications of grief on her community, and how those who have ignored the issue come to realize the gravity of the issue.
“The surface-level exploration of this particular story is that so often missing and murdered Indigenous women meet their end or their gravesite, so to speak, in water,” explains Murray.
Taking a moment during our conversation to acknowledge she was feeling uncomfortable treading into Indigenous teachings, Murray continued with Fox’s permission.
“So that’s kind of the obvious one, but the more important one is that in Indigenous teaching, the Earth’s water is synonymous with the concept of motherhood and womanhood,” she says. “And so, as we do violence to the Earth with things like building pipelines, we also do violence to women. We are polluting the water or endangering the water and these are the sites where the vast majority of women are taken, abused, and killed.”
Drawing inspiration from her full-length work The Red Road Block, Fox says this abridged version, titled The Missing, explores murdered Indigenous women and girls, from the inside out through the lives of those they’ve left behind.
Asked whether she had a personal connection to the story of The Missing, Fox says it comes from simply being an Indigenous woman in Canada.
“I think if you ask any indigenous woman in Canada if they have a personal connection, it’s probably right in their backyard,” she says. “Their sister, their mother, their grandmother. We don’t have a luxury of being disconnected yet. We don’t even know what it’s like to have one healed generation yet.”
As for Rings Through Water being part of a healing process, Fox says it is just as much about listening as it is advocating for change.
“I think I’m doing this work because I want to be able to heal, but I can’t heal in the current fabric of our country,” she says. “The history in Canada starts on the arrival of the European, but the history for me starts on the very existence of the people who have been here for thousands and thousands of years. So, this knowledge needs to be upheld with, at the very minimum, the same respect, if not more respect, because it is the original teachings of this land.”
The third section of Rings Through Water deals with the idea of activism and protection of water coming together as a vehicle for building healthy relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
“It traces the internal journey of a group of people who are finding their way through the fear of taking action,” explains Murray. “These people are finding it really scary to make a change. It is about finding their way through that discomfort and in doing so building healthy relationships in our country for, perhaps, the first time.”
Fox hopes audiences will not only find inspiration for change inside Rings Through Water but that it will also serve as a wake-up call.
“I hope that audiences will be taken on a journey and then they will all have a punch to their guts that will provide them with a call to action so that they realize these are not Indigenous or women’s issues. These are humanity issues,” she says. “Water is the very essence of our survival, and as long as we keep pointing the finger, we’re not going to see the big picture that we all need to be a part of fighting for life itself.”
Rings Through Water plays at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic August 23-25. Visit xara.ca for tickets and information.