On Sunday, Oct. 6, the Fall for Dance North Festival in Toronto came to an end with an evening dedicated to Indigenous dancers from different parts of the world and their art. Fall For Dance North (FFDN) has been an annual installation in Toronto’s art scene since 2015. It was inspired by New York City’s Fall for Dance festival that was started in 2004 and wanted to bring a dedicated dance festival to another city of “movers and shakers.” FFDN wants to reflect the diversity and energy that exudes from Toronto’s population.
Since FFDN’s advent in 2015, there has always been one installation of Indigenous dancers as a part of the festival, however, for their fifth year anniversary, they dedicated a section of the festival to Indigenous artists, with their pieces being shown throughout the whole weekend of the festival at Ryerson’s theatre, to finish with a free Indigenous Artist Panel at the end of the last show.
The organizers and the artists of the Indigenous aspect of the festival wanted to emphasize that instead of making it a hot commodity and fetishizing Indigenous performances as “exotic,” they recognized the Indigenous artists for what they are — artists.
The night began with, instead of a land-acknowledgment (although there was one written into the programme like most gatherings at Ryerson Theatre), a welcoming song from one of the dance troops that came all the way from Taiwan. Hearing their voices act as one grounded me and brought me into the space, looking forward for what was to come. It gave me shivers within the first two minutes, and looking around, it was clear that many others were feeling the same way, people were clapping their hands along with the singers, cheering as the song continued and as the welcome came to an end, there was a standing ovation from the audience. Although the three-hour show was not sold out, the energy that the audience was feeling, filled the room and remained with us throughout the show.
The first piece, In Transit, was choreographed by Maori choreographer and dancer Louise Potiki Bryant. This piece, with the use of projection screens of trees and people and movement, explored the stages of life both in the present and in the eternal. Pulling from different rituals in the Maori culture, the performance paid homage to many roots in the culture, but it wasn’t until the artist talk after the show that I learned the different motifs that were involved with the dance.
The second piece, Mani Deux, was an exploration of identity as a two-spirited Indigenous person. From reading the information in the program and listening to the artist panel after the show, I learned what the piece was about: by having the existence of both genders at once, no gender exists.The choreographer, Cody Berry, is a two-spirited Ojibway contemporary dance artist and, as mentioned in the programme, based the dance off of the quote, “The acceptance that I was looking for was in the culture I tried to run from.” The four dancers in the piece represented the four directions of the medicine wheel and they were always pulling apart from each other because they were never whole. He used voice recordings from his ancestors talking about their residential school experience as the background music and including a live drumming and vocal performance on stage. My heartbeat synced up with the drum and although I could not understand what the voice recordings were saying, a lump formed in my throat. I did not need to understand the language to comprehend what was being spoken. The dancers were throwing themselves around and the movements were disjointed and broken. They were holding hands but never moved at the same time. This element that made this piece very hard to watch but also difficult to look away from. When dancers were not moving at the same time it messed with my cognitive dissonance and made me uncomfortable, but the piece was not supposed to be comfortable to watch and this is what made it so effective.
The third piece, Choice Cut, was choreographed and performed by Jasmin Sheppard, a Tagalak and Kurtjar Aboriginal woman from Queensland, Australia. Her piece played more like performance art than dance. Through the heavy drum beats and her painting herself with thick strokes of black paint, highlighting the sexualized part of her body, she was highlighting the commodification of women’s bodies, particularly Indigenous women’s bodies. To show this, she used the same black paint to draw circles around the desired parts of her body. Her statement was clear: everyone wants to get inside a woman’s body and head but no one wants to know what comes out of it. Sheppard wanted to highlight that there is a natural aversion to birth and period blood and breast milk, as well as the lived experience of Indigenous women. No one wants to know what their opinion or say is, however, with this piece, Sheppard wanted to make commentary on this, as well as reclaim her space as an Indigenous woman. This piece was especially effective because at the time of the performance, she was also six months pregnant. This was beautiful and empowering to see.
The fourth piece was by far my favourite. LUNA, performed by Bulareyaung Dance Company, started off with one man singing in the dark with nothing but a flashlight on his head. After a while, other men joined him on stage. As the men entered, their singing filled the theatre. and Because there was no light except flashlights on the foreheads of the dancers, being immersed in the singing was an all-engulfing intense experience. My favourite thing about the piece was the elements from Luluna Village in Taiwan, an Indigenous community local to the area. They took seven months to learn from their traditions before they even started curating the piece. They used elements of song and storytelling in the piece. There was a particularly intense part when one of the dancers was talking about when he had to take care of his family after his father had died. In traditional culture, this is where a hunter would talk about all the hunts they had made, however the dancers could not identify with that so after consultation with the elders, they decided it was okay to tell that story instead because it was a challenge to overcome.
Although all of the dances became very captivating in their own way, there is a trend in contemporary dance right now where the piece starts off slow. Often times there are very slow, controlled movements to a sustaining sound that is not necessarily music. As a former dancer myself, I can appreciate how technically difficult and exhausting this is and often times the things that look the easiest are the hardest. But when the third dance in the row starts in the same way, it can be easy for audience members to zone out—although Fall For Dance markets itself to everyone, I would personally recommend the show to artists and creatives based in Toronto. Although there was a story being told, it wasn’t always easy to grasp by just watching the dance. It is only through reading the program that accompanied the show and the artist’s panel that I fully grasped the ideas behind the pieces. However, I think that is what the beauty of dance is.
For so long I have been taught that a long skinny dancer doing ballet is what I needed to strive for to become a great dancer. We have to stretch our knees and grow our backs so the tops of our straightened ponytails reach the ceiling and be able to pronounce all the French words that align with the movements.
But after watching Fall for Dance North, my conception of the good life has shifted. Although it is very contemporary with many deep themes, it is something I would recommend for any Canadian wanting to appreciate Indigenous narratives and art, regardless of where they come from.
Photo by Jemma Dooreleyers.