Adizokan is a word in the Anishinaabe language that means “a spiritual being who carries wisdom and knowledge.” It is also the name of Red Sky Performance’s spectacular multi-media show commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and performed on October 7 at Roy Thomson Hall.
The 45-minute program” combines indigenous dance, song, drumming and musicianship with contemporary non-native music and dance forms – and video – in celebration of first nations’ art, culture and spirituality. The TSO commission is part of the orchestra’s marking of the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
Blood Echo: Sesquie for Canada’s 150th works like an overture and sets the scene for “Adizokan”. The short piece, composed by Yellowknife artist Carmen Braden, lays out a northern landscape and is accompanied by images on overhead screens evocative of sunrise and awakening.
Saulteaux-Cree performer Fara Palmer gives full throat to her song, “My Roots”. In plain words, to the accompaniment of drumming and flute-playing by Michel Muniidobenese Bruyere, Palmer laments the damage done by residential schools, but celebrates the survivors, the unsung heroes. It is up to “all my native relations to honour the children . . . I love my roots,” she sings. In a notable moment, Bruyere replaces his skin drum with a digital one, with no loss of rhythm or native sound.
At this point, Eliot Britton’s “Adizokan” composition begins. The Métis composer from Winnipeg, together with TSO conductor Gary Kulesha, has created a musical tapestry in seven parts that interweaves individual musicians, such as throat boxer Nelson Tagoona and five knock-out dancers, with the assisting images of filmmaker Andrew Moro.
In case you are wondering, Tagoona’s instrument is the throat and the percussive element comes from a microphone used the way any hip hop beat boxer would use it. He starts out with a low growl, like that of a didgeridoo, and has a wonderful range from light soft breaths to rhythmic, percussive huffs and puffs. A little more volume would be nice, so that the 85-member orchestra doesn’t overwhelm him.
The basis for this show is story. Every performer, from the TSO musicians playing Britton’s composition, to the dancers, to the jingle dancer and the Inuit hunters up on the screens to the drummers and the singer Fara Palmer are engaged in a complex narrative made to seem straightforward.
The section “Fundamental Forces” introduces Bruyere’s dancing. An Ojibway/Chippewa grass dancer with an incredibly light touch, he first performed with the TSO in June 2016. A collaborator with Buffy Sainte-Marie, this man has storytelling in his bones. As six contemporary dancers enter in a line, sometimes doing handsprings sometimes partnering each other in muscular ways, a sense of continuity is achieved. Yes, the culture is alive, resilient and ever-evolving.
Red Sky Performance and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
October 7 at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto