Rarely in Toronto does one get the chance to see indigenous dancing from the west coast. DanceWorks 224 is just such an occasion, featuring the Dancers of Damelahamid from Vancouver performing Flicker. A show commissioned by the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in 2016, Flicker presents a northwest coast first nations aesthetic in the costumes, the masks, the graphic art and, movingly, in the video running on a scrim framed by the outline of an indigenous big house. These large assembly rooms, which can be found in many coastal communities, are where potlatches are held, at which mask dances are performed on the occasion of a wedding, a birth, a coming of age or a memorial for one who has passed. Families would own particular dances and the masks and regalia that go with them; the dances would be passed on from fathers to sons and mothers to daughters.
Choreographer Margaret Grenier, artistic director of Dancers of Damelahamid, grew up in such a family, members of the Gitxsan Nation, whose traditional territory is accessed from the Skeena River north of Haida Gwaii. In her work as a contemporary choreographer and performer, Grenier has adapted for the stage what are basically sacred dances.
The flicker of the title is the woodpecker, whose tail feathers and long pointy beak figure in the design of masks and costumes. The split-U design so common to Northwest coast art, derives from the appearance of a bird’s feathers. Damelahamid uses Flicker as a metaphor for the flickering of light, the changes wrought through the rising and setting of the sun, moon and stars, or the flames and sparks of an energy-giving fire. Transformation is always an element in these dances and the intangible – the spirits of the animals and the trees and mythic creatures – flickers into being as we watch the show.
Dancers Margaret Grenier, Nigel Grenier, Raven Grenier, Rebecca Baker and Kristy Janvier perform admirably, softly stepping in moccasined feet, holding up feather fans like birds, or flapping arms like humans imbued with the ability to fly.
Their movements behind the scrim, especially when one dancer appears in brightly lit-up Flicker wings, headdress and tail feathers, make for some magical moments. The soundscape of singing and drumming and a woman reciting a story in her native language is spell-binding, as it is meant to be. But it is not until Nigel Grenier, who has been performing as a hunter, comes on and does a powerful rendition of a flicker dance, that one is truly stirred. As he bends and steps to the rhythm of singing and drumbeating, Grenier becomes the flicker, a pencil-like red tongue darting out like an anteater’s from his long beak.
A Haida artist once told me how he’d carved and painted a salmon mask with no idea about the dance that animated it. But once the mask was placed over his head, the dance, thousands of years old, came to him, as if the mask were directing his feet and limbs. That’s how powerful these dances are.
Created and performed by the Dancers of Damelahamid
At Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto until February 10
Photo by Derek Dix