As a Teme-Augama-Anishinaabe (People of the Deep Water), Sandra Laronde was not looking to explore Indigenous issues when she decided to form her dance company Red Sky Performance in 2000. She wanted her approach to be more pragmatic.
“I would go to see dance, theatre or music, and I thought, why don’t you do that, you could be more robust there and why does it always have to be about our issues on stage?,” says Laronde by phone from her headquarters in Toronto. “We know those issues. Can we just see something else on stage?”
For Laronde, a focus on Indigenous issues was too limiting. “That is already the perspective Canada has about us,” she continues. “I didn’t want to create a vision within that very narrow world of issues.”
Instead, Laronde set-out to create something that would not be diminished by issues or by perception. “I wanted to step into a bigger, epic, robust and exciting place,” she says. “And that is what Red Sky is all about.”
It was also about creating something new on the Canadian stage. “I would see other cultural dance forms like Japanese or Chinese or Korean, and they are all really, really beautiful, but I would see other cultures on stage before I would see anything indigenous,” she says.
Taking the company’s name from the first two words of her Indigenous name Misko Gee Shee Gut Migizwe Kwe, which translates to Red Sky Eagle Woman, her desire for something more significant has served the company well over the past two decades.
With its unique blend of contemporary Western and Indigenous dance forms, the company has performed around the world and received numerous accolades.
Already making waves with its latest work Trace, its presentation on March 21 at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium will mark the return of the company to Halifax.
“Trace is essentially about our Annisinabe or Indigenous sky and star stories, as rekindled in the human body on stage,” says Laronde. “The belief is that we come from the stars, in fact, the Annisinabe people are called the star people. Its really going back to our origin and telling that story.”
Along with its Indigenous roots in the stars, Laronde goes onto explain the piece also explores other traces found in the world. “Like fossils that are traces of a certain time, there’s a phone call you can trace, people’s DNA, what we leave behind in a footprint, or a thumbprint.”
What Laronde calls a highly physical dance show, Trace‘s origins came from a desire to look beyond colonial stories like those found in the mythology of Pegasus and Orion.
“In Canada, when we look at the night sky, we are still looking through a Greek or Roman lens,” she says. “We’re not looking at them through our stories, as Indigenous peoples, which ultimately become Canadian stories.”
And while Laronde doesn’t consider her company as issue-driven, there is an element of politics in Trace as the piece opens with a projection of a 1924 letter signed by Duncan Campbell Scott, a career bureaucrat at what was then known as the Department of Indian Affairs.
“It was a circular sent throughout the Canadian government which talked about why Indigenous people should not be allowed to dance,” says Laronde. “It was a scathing, highly problematic letter that was in the words of the Minister of Indian Affairs at that time.”
Laronde goes onto explain that Scott’s letter would spawn an amendment to the Indian Act, which had already outlawed dancing off-reserve, to also include dancing off-reserve as well.
Having the letter in her back pocket for some time, Laronde knew she would use it at some point.
“I always wanted to do something with that letter but wasn’t sure where it belonged,” she says. “But it seemed right for this piece as an example of another residue or trace that is still in existence in Canda. Some people in Canada still think in these same terms, and it remains an unfortunate trace of the legacy of a colonial system.”
Laronde’s hope is that audiences will walk away after seeing Trace with a very different sense of Indigenous art and Indigenous stories. “I hope it will make them look up to the sky and perhaps see that there is another world or lens to look at the night sky. To see something that is from here and not a transplanted story from Europe.”
Live Art Dance presents Red Sky Performance’s Trace at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium (6101 University Ave, Halifax) on March 21. Visit liveartdance.ca for tickets and information.