Dance company Red Sky Performance has performed some 2,000 times since artistic director Sandra Laronde founded it 17 years ago. Although the company is based in Toronto, it’s performed all over the world (including Cultural Olympiads in Beijing and Vancouver). On November 17, Halifax’s Live Art Dance will bring Red Sky and its Backbone performance to Spatz Theatre in Halifax.
Laronde is from the Teme-Augama-Anishnaabe (“People of the Deep Water”) First Nations community in Ontario. She has a long list of cultural accomplishments, including a 2011 Expressive Arts Award from the Smithsonian Institute and two Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards (awarded to Red Sky Performance), Laronde is the curator and director of Adizokan, a performance commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for Canada 150. She also worked for nine years as the indigenous-arts director Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
This year, Red Sky is doing three back-to-back world premieres and touring four different shows. According to Laronde, the hour-long Backbone will be Red Sky’s most physical show yet. “I would compare these dancers to high-level athletes because of their endurance,” she says.
Red Sky’s website describes the performance as a “cutting-edge dance creation inspired by the ‘spine’ of the continents, charting the vast and rocky terrain of our human landscape.”
“Think about the formation of mountains and the formation of mountain bridges and everything,” says Laronde. “Imagine we’re fast-forwarding the time it took to create those mountains, it would be extremely powerful. And of epic size, so we wanted to capture that in the piece with human bodies.”
She’s trying to reveal nature and its transformational power. She explains: “People will look at mountains [on] postcards; they say ‘What a nice setting! What a nice vista!’ and all those words are really about, I think, is being removed from nature. I really wanted to bring it up close and personal, and imagine it in the creation of a fossil, the creation of the mountain ridges.”
When Laronde looks at those same vistas, she sees “Earth Mother’s spine,” a point of view that she says offers a more intimate way to connect with nature. She wants people to relate to the mountains and the land, and make the connection to their own spines.
“What does a human have?” she says. “It has synapses, it has electricity, it has circuitry, it has so much going on in the human spine. We believe whatever happens to the Earth happens to us, because we are nature, right? We come from her and we’re going to return to her. So I’m really interested in that electrical force that’s in the spine of her, as opposed to mountains being viewed as somehow dead matter. Somehow to be consumed by the human eye, to be pretty, to be something you climb and conquer. I was really interested in looking at it differently through an indigenous lens, through an indigenous sense of mapping.”
The performance isn’t just about the big stuff though. It’s also about smaller, more precise moments.
“I have this duet, it’s basically about a fossil unfurling,” says Laronde. “We get to see what was in that fossil, what was fossilized before it became a fossil. They tell us that story through a five-minute duet, and then it furls back up to becoming a fossil again.”
The “visceral power” of Backbone’s promo video caught the attention of Live Art Dance artistic director Randy Glynn. After seeing the piece, he contacted Laronde.
“It was masculine too, in a way,” says Glynn. “Not that dance isn’t often masculine, but it had a good sort of raw masculine power that I liked a lot. It had live music, and Live Art has been looking to present more diverse works. It’s the first season that we are presenting indigenous work, and we’re quite excited about it.”
In addition to eight dancers, the performance also features one live musician playing multiple instruments, including an electric drum kit and an electronic instrument called a malletKAT, programmed to sound like voices and flutes.
“We’re in our Canada-150 year and there are a lot of celebrations going on, but we can’t forget that we weren’t here first,” Glynn says. “And there is some wonderful, powerful, indigenous work in the zone of contemporary dance. I think it’s always important that all people of all cultures see the art of other cultures. I think it’s part of the process of acceptance.”