Alberta Aboriginal Arts & Toronto’s Menaka Thakkar

they shoot buffalo, don’t they

Halifax was treated to more visually stunning and vividly theatrical dance performances from across the country at The Prismatic Festival over the weekend. The two week long Festival is winding down but you can still catch Onelight Theatre’s production of Hawk Or How He Plays His Song at Neptune’s Studio Theatre until September 29th, 2012.

From Alberta Aboriginal Arts in Edmonton came They Shoot Buffalo, Don’t They a contemporary dance production directed and developed by Ryan Cunningham with choreography by Troy Emery Wigg. Growing up in Halifax I didn’t learn too much about the buffalo beyond its mythic connotation with Buffalo Bill Cody and that vague sense of a time on the prairie during which they became extinct while the “Cowboys” were “settling” the Western Frontier. In this breathtaking dance piece the decimation of the wild North American buffalo becomes an analogy for the cultural genocide of the Aboriginal Peoples of this “newly settled” land.

Three performers wearing evocative buffalo masks bring the animals to life with incredible physicality of movement coupled with a fiery red lighting design by Cunningham. We see the buffalo in their natural habitat and Wigg stylishly turns the movements of the animal’s snorts, scraping hooves and gallops into a wild and graceful dance of freedom and joy. Yet, soon, the naturalistic soundscape of rain changes as the buffalo’s strength and dominance is suddenly challenged. As the masks are removed we are at once aware of both the new found struggle between men and the buffalo and also the parallel between the buffalo and the Aboriginal Peoples.

The most haunting images of the piece come at the end as Wigg and Cunningham explore the ideas of being bound and unbound: bound together, confined, set free, untamed, and what consequences each of these have for both the buffalo and the Aboriginal peoples. As the masks are removed we are also given the poignant impression of these three beings who had once been a united herd turning on, and eventually destroying one another. This is a parallel that works both in the idea of Native tribes hunting the buffalo as well as men hunting one another.

In his Welcoming Speech at the top of the show Ryan Cunningham called the buffalo “North America’s elephant,” and spoke about the efforts to preserve the few herds that managed to survive the species nearly being hunted to extinction prior to 1884. I realized that I have never felt any strong investment in the plight of the buffalo and I was even more surprised that I had never before considered the connection between the near-extinction of this unique species of animal and the cultural genocide of a unique culture of peoples, both of which are indigenous to our continent. They Shoot Buffalo, Don’t They is not just a piece about lamenting the past, but I think it forces us to ask ourselves what we are doing now to atone for these losses. Most of the Nation’s buffalo are still bred in captivity, while many of our Aboriginal Peoples still live on Reserves. Buffalo are still being hunted despite their humble population and our Aboriginal Peoples still often face discrimination and assimilation at the hands of the “majority.”

It is these discussions that spring from powerfully moving theatrical experiences like this one that help to take the World into a far more diverse and exciting future.

Secondly we were treated to An Evening of Classical and Contemporary Indian Dance by Menaka Thakkar Dance from Toronto. It is amazing to have had the opportunity to see three very disparate pieces from Canada’s oldest Indian dance company, which is filled with gorgeously proficient dancers and features unique and visually riveting fusions of tradition Indian dance with aspects of ballet, jazz and modern dance to create a entirely new hybrid of work that I had certainly never seen before!

The trilogy was made up of three dances, Parashakti (Primordial Energy), Shapes & Rhythm and Riaz. The first two were choreographed by Thakkar and the last one was choreographed by a former student of hers, Natasha Bakht. Parashaki focuses on the Cycle of the Evolution of the Earth and is rooted firmly in traditional Indian dance. I was struck how similar many aspects of this dance, especially the stomping, were to the Celtic/Gaelic-influenced step dancing which is far more familiar to us here in Nova Scotia. It always fascinates me to see how certain musical and movement-based traditions from cultures that developed on the other sides of the world often mirror one another in interesting and intricate ways. Unique to the Indian dancing is the use of bells on the dancers’ ankles which gives an even more distinct emphasis to the stomps and other movements of the girls. I love the intense specificity of movement in this type of dancing, especially the strength in the dancer’s straight upper bodies and their arms and hands. This means that even the tiniest movement of the fingers is easily captured by the audience.

Shapes & Rhythm came out of a project that brought a choreographer and a composer together to create a dance for school-aged children which was then expanded to suit the capabilities of the professional dancers of the Menaka Thakkar Company. Using a score of varying rhythms and musical structures the music is combined with a dance that explores the ways the body can be used to create an array of different (and often physically difficult) shapes. It was often a lot slower than I expected it to be from the description, which placed a greater emphasis on the facets and the muscles and joints of the body and how they change with the music into different shapes.

Natasha Bakht’s Riaz (Practice) was the most contemporary of the three pieces and the one that focused the most on Modern dance. It showed vividly the way that certain elements of both dance and society are learned and mastered through the art of practice. There were a lot of movements that were very reminiscent of machinery, jolty like robots, which also alluded to the idea of how mechanical our world has become and how increasingly focused we are on emulating one another, while also striving to become streamlined and fluid and perfect in our pursuits. I was entirely captivated by this piece, it was continually unexpected and alluring to watch.

I am looking forward to seeing much more from Menaka Thakkar and her dancers when I return to Toronto!

OneLight Theatre’s production of Hawk plays at the Neptune Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street, Halifax) until September 29th, 2012 as part of the Prismatic FestivalHawk plays through Sept. 29 at 7:30 p.m. with a matinee Sept. 29 at 4 p.m. Tickets are $18 to $25 through the Neptune Theatre box office (902.429.7070 or 1-800.565.7345) or visit www.neptunetheatre.com. Fore more information about Prismatic please visit http://www.prismaticfestival.com and for more information about Hawk please visit www.onelighttheatre.ca. 

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