Insight and Imagination with Michael Greyeyes

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Originally from Saskatchewan and a member of Muskeg Lake First Nations, Micheal Greyeyes’ diverse career includes work as a dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, film and television actor, York University professor, and Artistic Director and choreographer with Signal Theatre.

I recently asked Michael some questions about his creative process, recent collaborator Tara Beagan, new work A Soldier’s Tale, and controversial statement regarding aboriginal dance. His responses, detailed and insightful, allowed me to gain a deeper appreciation for his work and his unique point-of-view. Take a look and post a comment, let’s start a dialogue.

 

Can you talk about your company Signal Theatre? What kind of work are you most interested in creating?

I founded Signal Theatre in 2010 out of a desire to create a new body of work that reflected a contemporary Indigenous perspective and aesthetic.  In 2004, I returned to Canada after nearly 15 years in the United States, where I had been working as a dancer, actor and choreographer.  I had just joined the faculty at York University teaching in the theatre department and despite that full-time commitment, I was fortunate that I was able to work in the professional theatre community alongside my teaching.  I was invited to participate in a number of very interesting projects, first with Red Sky, then with Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, with CIT (Centre for Indigenous Theatre), then with Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s oldest Aboriginal theatre company.

This work was influential as I was immersed in the protocols of indigenous creation, which were quite different from those employed by the more-traditional professional theatres, which are dominated by commercial concerns.  I felt this was immensely freeing for me and at the same time I was re-ordering my canon toward the work of my community and my peers.  Their bravery convinced me that I should pursue my own creations.

I chose the name Signal because of fire.  Fire has always been used as a signal.  At one point, I thought of including the term ‘fire’ in the company name, like “Signal (fire),” or having flames embossed faintly behind the word itself.  To me signal is an ancient word—smoke signals, signal fires, and at the same time it is completely modern—look to the corner of your screen: do you see the signal bars indicating your wi-fi signal strength?  Signal, then is the past, the present and the future.  It is a sound, a gleam in the eye, a ray.

Because of this, I want people to be interested in our work because they don’t know what they will expect when they come to our shows.  Hybrid? Yes.  Provocative? Yes.  Safe? No.  But always, always we are storytellers.  So far, we have produced dance theatre, a music concert, and text-based works.  We are developing a new installation work and even other media projects, such as film and web-based projects.  With A Soldier’s Tale, we are again moving into the realm of dance—but I would describe my work as a choreographer as aligned with movement-as-text, gestural choreography, and physical theatre.  With my background in dance, I can’t imagine Signal producing a work that is devoid of physicality.  Movement is where I live and breathe.  The work that inspires me—Akram Khan, DV8, Frantic Assembly, ballets C de la B, and of course Wuppertal and Pina Bausch—is intensely physical, so of course that is where my aesthetic brings the work again and again.  There is truth in movement.  Meaning has slipped off words.  The Nazis called themselves socialists!  I distrust words, yet all of my works—my latest in particular (Nôhkom) is almost entirely text—include text, so it’s paradoxical.  Again, I would like to have the audience hungry for what we do next, because it will surprise them.

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Can you briefly describe the creative process for A Soldier’s Tale? What were some of the challenges?

The creative process for our new work is quite diverse.  I liken it to open-source software.  There is an impetus, a direction, but the collaborative, generative model is something I encourage as it empowers all of the creators and, as I have seen with this process, delivers gems.  For example, I was in a meeting with Liz Asselstine, our lighting designer, and Shawn Kerwin, our costume and set designer, up at York—where we are all work.  We were discussing the use of large panels that move about the stage in Act 1.  Perhaps these panels are on rails, or flown in, perhaps they roll.  Then Liz suggested that the panels might fall over at a given moment  connected to a key moment in the protagonist’s journey.  All of a sudden, with her suggestion, the entire premise of the first act came into sudden focus.  I didn’t know how to describe it, until Liz added in her software fix, then the work exploded in a new (and better) direction.  Everything clarified, became sharper, more layered.  Nearly every element in our staging has occurred in this fashion.  No one taking sole credit for the idea.  They are being generated by the process.

Of course, I am a maestro of sorts in that I am generating a certain kind of energy, a playing field, a given mix of artists.  I throw out ideas, such as the title for Act 1: “Soldier Boy.”  It comes from an old honour song from Saskatchewan for our returning war veterans.  I knew it had to be titled this way.  From the title came the rest of the work, the characters, the locales, the conflicts and the text itself.  Sometimes Tara (Beagan, our writer) generated the focus of the scene, sometimes it was Yvette (Nolan, our dramaturge) or Nancy (my artistic associate at Signal) or it was the artists themselves.  Each member of the company is a key collaborator.  Another example is the choreography.  I am blessed that we’ve attracted the best contemporary dancers in the city to our project.  They are more than interpreters to me.  Many are acclaimed choreographers and artistic directors in their own right.  I’m not freaked out by this.  I welcome it and their creativity.  Act One needed a distinctly western-vibe, something that spoke of the prairie, its landscapes, and its rhythms.  John (Gzowksi, our composer) was bringing new material into the studio for us to work with, but I rarely choreograph to finished music, so I gave each dancer a photograph of a painting by the famous Cree painter, Bob Boyer and then asked them to improvise on the linearity of his work, its hard edges, and geometric patterning.  The work they created was stunning.  Really complex, unusual in its use of space and the body.  Together we shaped those movement sequences further, we inverted them, pushed them, pulled them until they finally “gave up” their stories to us.  The stories of the western prairies are deeply embedded in Boyer’s paintings and when I look at that choreography that emerged from our responses to them, I am reminded of home.  I see Saskatchewan.

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Can you describe the collaborative process with Tara Beagen?

Tara Beagan is brilliant.  And fearless.  And I’ve wanted to work with her for a long time.  She asked me to be in a piece she wrote called “Foundlings.” We performed it together at an event at the imagineNATIVE film + media arts festival a few years ago.  It was a short work, but like everything she writes it is deeply layered.  After the performance, when I came out to chat with the audience, they were still shaken by it.  I still think about the theatricality of that work!  It was around that time that I flat out asked her to collaborate with me on AST.  She said yes!  Then it was off to the races.  This particular project has taken years to come together.  Timing is part of it, busy schedules, but mostly the subject matter of this work demands absolutely a wide perspective, one influenced by deep time.  This work is meant to honour soldiers.  Our research into their stories, some heart-breaking, some sobering, some macabre, some funny, but all of them compelling took years.  Some of it was easy to understand immediately, some took months, other parts have taken years, others still I can’t even begin to comprehend.  “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” it is a starting quote for our production by the poet George Santayana.  We were both moved by it, and it began our examination of war and its long reach into the lives of the soldiers who face it.  I was reminded in a letter that she wrote for us that this process was innovative for her, in that she was not driving the content or frame of the writing as she usually does.  She was contributing text to a work that already had a setting and partially-formed characters.  Some actions were known.  There was even an ending suggested, all before she set pen/ fingers to paper/keyboard.  She hasn’t worked exactly this way before but the writing she’s produced is startling, theatrical and haunting.  Both of us are westerners so I think we connect through that shared experience and we are peers, we are working from the same frame, the same pop culture references, and of course we understand and see the work through indigenous eyes.  That in the end is the most satisfying part of our work together.  I feel we are re-inventing ourselves and in doing so, we are adding to the canon.

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A past Paula Citron/Globe and Mail (September 2011) article states that you suggest ‘there is no aboriginal dance per se, only dance by aboriginal artists”. Can you expand on this statement?

I remember that conversation with Paula (Citron), and I think I stated that there is no contemporary aboriginal dance, only dance by aboriginal artists.  We were in a lovely restaurant downtown and it was a frank and probing discussion, where we talked about many things, including Signal’s first work “from thine eyes.”  I had been thinking, writing, ruminating on the staging of ethnicity for a long time.  I always ask what makes our dances unique?  Is it the regalia?  Is it the music?  Is it the movement vocabulary itself?  Or is it the people doing the dance?  Interesting thought — What if a white person (who had been given the dances, had been taught them in our tradition, and followed the protocols of the dance itself, such as give-aways, for example, or feasting) came to a pow-wow and danced beautifully?  Would the dance still be Aboriginal?  Yes, I think so because of the complex background of the dance form, its history, and how it is performed/ received.  So is powwow, or traditional forms the “true” native dance?  Everything else is “un-true”?  Obviously I don’t agree.  Let’s say I, or another Aboriginal choreographer, like Santee Smith (founder of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre) created a new dance work that was entirely based in hip-hop.  No other “recognizably indigenous” elements were in place, not in terms of clothing, or musical accompaniment—would the audience look at the work and go, “Urban.  Great.  But clearly NOT Aboriginal.”  Yeah, they might.  Especially, if we are just names to them on a program and they do not know our backgrounds.  But perhaps we could argue that the work was deeply influenced by our own cultural protocols?  That, the choreographer, is 100% Aboriginal!  Perhaps the movement was adapted from traditional steps (or a painting by an native artist!!)?  Perhaps the music is by a Tribe Called Red.  Perhaps the dance performers are native?  Could we argue that the dance is Aboriginal in its roots, its DNA?  Maybe, but again the very form of it, originates from something other than our traditions and there will always be someone who says it’s just not aboriginal enough.  I think it’s safer to say that there is no contemporary aboriginal dance, only dance by aboriginal artists—who may choose to create along traditional lines, or not, who might create new forms, or hybridize their work, heck—maybe they just want to create in the Broadway style!  A rose by any other name.  In the end, I believe it is the process by which we work that aligns our art with indigenous perspectives and ontologies.  But again that is for the artist to decide, for the project to determine.  The audience will see it however they want—that is their right.  And we will go on creating our work.  Call it what you will, it will reflect us because it is made by us.

{Signal Theatre Photo Credits: John Lauener}

DanceWorks will present  A Soldier’s Tale February 20 – 22 at 8pm at the Fleck Dance Theatre. The Friday, February 21 show will include a FREE pre-and-post-performance chat with Michael Greyeyes, dancers, and the production team. The Saturday, February 22 show will include a FREE pre-performance artist chat with Michael Greyeyes.

Tickets are available by calling 416-973-4000. The DanceWorks’ Friends promotional code SOLDIER offers a rate of $15.00 per ticket.

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