Red Sky

By Michael MacDonald

My first interview was in Ottawa with Sandra Laronde and Carlos Rivera from Red Sky. Red Sky is a contemporary performance company that uses dance, music, and theatre to tell uplifting Indigenous stories. Sandra Laronde of the Teme-Augama-Anishinaabe (People of the Deep Water) in Temagami, northern Ontario,  created Red Sky in 2000 to present adult and family theatre. Since then Red Sky has travelled around Canada, the United States, Australia, China in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2017, Iceland, Mexico, Mongolia in 2011, and New Zealand, .

They were performing at the National Arts Centre, so I bought a ticket and went to see the show. Afterwards they took some time with me and we talked about the show that I had seen and why dancing is important to them. I realized that I knew very little about the art of dance. It wasn’t until after the show that I realized that they were dancing on stage. I was watching them tell parts of the story with their bodies. I was paying close attention to the story not thinking that they were dancing to tell it. Everyone in the audience understood what they were saying without words.

On Dec 10, 2005, I watched “Raven Stole the Sun” (Drew Hayden Taylor/ directed by Robert Faust and Sandra Laronde/music by Donald Quan/choreography Carlos Rivera) and “Caribou Song” (Tomson Highway/ directed by Mark Wilson/music by Rick Sacks/choreography by Peter Chin, Sandra Laronde, Carlos Rivera).

One of the lines in “Raven Stole the Sun” is ‘everything dances.’ I was interested in what Sandra and Carlos meant by that. This is what Sandra said:

“In the aboriginal tradition vibration is the beginning. Words didn’t come first for us, movement did. That makes a big difference. Dancing in aboriginal communities is from the ‘womb to the tomb’; it is natural in aboriginal communities to dance throughout life. Look at the traditional dance forms; there’s the fancy dance that has really high leg movements. That’s where young people start. Each of the different dance forms gets closer to the earth. It’s built into the form. Getting closer to the earth as you ‘get closer to the earth’ by bending over as you get older. At the powwow you will see WWII veterans dancing. There are dances that the old people do. They can still dance.”

“Dance is about image. An image in dance can speak a thousand words. Movement is central to all cultures. Movement can take a lot of different shapes. For instance, there is a story of how you can learn what a rock is. You go and sit on the rock and stay there looking around. The rock will come up through you and you will understand that rock.”

“Think of petroglyphs [a petroglyph is an ancient drawing on rock]. It is basic mime. Simple lines that make you see something. It is like Picasso’s painting of the bull. Simple lines and then you have the essential bull. Over time we have put so much stuff on top of those essential lines. Picasso got back to the root of motion. The ‘essential’ motion of the bull is lines, and he made a picture that you can find in cave painting. It is the essential movement. The power of motion is in your ability to get at the essence of it”.

Sandra and Carlos explained different kinds of traditional dances to me. They also explained how they use the ideas of traditional dance when they make the theatre show.

“We use elements of traditional dance to help us create our contemporary dances. I like to think of the difference between traditional dance and contemporary dance this way. It’s like a band, a rock band. You have the drummer in the back playing the beat, holding it down. There is some movement to it; it changes a bit to keep it interesting, but always holds down the beat. Then you have contemporary dance; it’s like the lead guitar. It wails away going in all sorts of different directions, then at some point comes back because all the while the band was held together by the drums. The contemporary dance that we create is like that. Our traditional dances are there to ground us but we get to make up new moves all the time to tell traditional stories”.

For Sandra and Carlos dancing is a very important profession. They use Indigenous stories and act them out on stage for large audiences who sometimes aren’t familiar with these stories. They believe that sharing these stories will help non-aboriginal people as much as it helps Indigenous people. The stories have positive messages that are helpful for everybody.

Sandra explained how she became a dancer:

“To become a dancer, that’s an important question. That’s a matter of identity. We believe that when you dream, information is given to you. I take those dreams seriously. You are given information in those dreams that tells you to be a dancer. Some people don’t dance at all until they have that dream. I had a dream that told me to do this”.

Sandra and Carlos have been very busy since we talked in December, 2005. Sandra’s company Red Sky has been putting on new shows all the time. To see what shows are being put on and when they will be in your community you can consult their website: http://www.redskyperformance.com/

POSTSCRIPT:

Over the years Red Sky Performance has continued to expand and become known for its outstanding productions around the world. From 2008 to 2017, Sandra Laronde was Director of Indigenous Arts at the Banff Centre in Alberta and in the process considerably expanded and strengthened its mandate. Over 18 years, Red Sky has created 25 original new works with Sandra as lead choreographer, along with numerous Red Sky at Night events, RED Talks, indigenous Music Creators Projects, and hundreds of community activities.

Mistatim, a story of reconciliation for children and their families has been performed for almost a million children in 12 USA states and six Canadian provinces. It toured in China in November 2017. Tono, a production that takes its name from the roof wheel or crown of the ger, the traditional Mongolian home, explores the importance of the horse, a creature revered by Mongolians and by Indigenous peoples of the North American plains. Its six dancers included three from Hohhot in China’s Inner Mongolia region, Cai Hong, Eri Deng Tu, and Wei Iei along with Red Sky regulars, Carlos Rivera, Raul Talamentes, and Jinny Jacinto. A part of the Beijing Cultural Olympiad in 2008, Tono had further performances including the World Expo in Shanghaii, the Vancouver Cultural Olympiad in 2010, and the next year at the State Theatre of Opera and Ballet in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and the Shanghai International Arts Festival.

As part of the Canada 150 celebration in 2017, Sandra created Adizokan with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Another commission of 2017 was Miigis, the stories and music of the Great Lakes including the seven prophecies. Its music was collaboratively created with the musicians/vocalists, Pura Fe (Tuscarora), Rick Sacks, Marc Merilainen, (Anishinaabe), Julian Cte (Teme-Augama-Anishinaabe), Craig Commanda (Algonquin) and Marie Gaudet (Anishinaabe). In 2019, it is included at the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow International Festival in Massachusetts, USA. The first Indigenous dance company to be invited, Red Sky performed at the Venice Biennale in 2018. In early 2019, Red Sky presented Backbone, Sandra’s evocative telling of how Indigenous persons map the mountain chains that stretch from the Canadian Rockies down through Central and South America, in 22 shows taking place in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and Poland. Later in the year, the première of Trace takes place. It explores through dance the Anishinaabe cosmology, sky and star stories.

©2019 This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
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