Dialogue through dance: This new show is a conversation between Indigenous and European traditions

Vancouver-based choreographic duo Margaret Grenier and Karen Jamieson are having a 'danced conversation' about identity, culture and language.

'We're acknowledging the really poisonous and destructive history that has taken place'

Margaret Grenier (left) and Karen Jamieson in light breaking broken. (Margaret Grenier and Karen Jamieson)

As Canada's 150th birthday approaches, our national conversation is increasingly shifting from our country's proud history to the shameful relationship we have had — and continue to have — with Indigenous people. As we contemplate ideas for reconciliation, one Vancouver-based choreographic duo is proposing a unique approach to this complex problem: dialogue through dance.

Long-time collaborators Margaret Grenier and Karen Jamieson's light breaking broken puts European and Indigenous dance traditions in conversation on stage. Together, the two artists negotiate language, identity and culture through different movement languages.

"We're creating an interface that's developing a hybrid language in some ways," Grenier says. "As an Indigenous artist, I'm often representing more than myself on stage because I bring a history and a set of traditions with me. Finding a way to connect that with a European dance tradition which views the body of the dancer in a completely different way is challenging, but also very rewarding."

Modern dance in most people's eyes was limited to works that were coming out of a European tradition. It took us a long time to begin building that bridge, and we're still developing that dialogue today.- Karen Jamieson

The work is part of conversation that has been happening for nearly 30 years. The pair first met in 1990 when Grenier was still a teenager. Her parents (both artists as well) were collaborating on a piece with Jamieson that Grenier was performing in. The project began as a starting point for dialogue between the two different dance traditions, and the resulting show Gawa Gyani continued to tour for more than seven years.

"Underneath the collaboration, there was a lot of questioning about our understanding of what dance was," Jamieson says. "Modern dance in most people's eyes was limited to works that were coming out of a European tradition. It took us a long time to begin building that bridge, and we're still developing that dialogue today."

Three decades and many individual projects later, the pair are now examining how to continue this discussion. Much of the process happens through improvised performance exercises ("danced conversations," Jamieson calls them). Communication and mutual respect are key, of course, as is a continued acknowledgement of the fraught history between European and Indigenous cultures.

Margaret Grenier (left, and right in the mirror) and Karen Jamieson in light breaking broken. (Margaret Grenier and Karen Jamieson)

It has also been essential to keep perspective on the task and their own limits as artists. Just as the piece is not the beginning of their dialogue, it is also not a definitive statement.

"We started this work really recognizing and acknowledging the huge abyss that existed between our two traditions and cultural forms," Jamieson says. "Along with that, we're acknowledging the really poisonous and destructive history that has taken place and examining how we can build something out of that historical rubble. That's our contribution."

"So much of the process is just about coming to a place of understanding and finding the trust necessary to navigate with one another in the space," Grenier adds. "We're not pretending this it's an easy thing to bridge across this history. But we're creating something bigger than ourselves — a kind of model for how this process called reconciliation can take place. It's not easy to do, but it's very rich."

light breaking broken. A creative collaboration by Karen Jamieson and Margaret Grenier. Vancouver International Dance Festival. March 23-25. www.vidf.ca

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