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Symphony of Dance
The Banff Centre's Aboriginal Arts Program brings Kwakwaka'wakw legends to the stage
by Lou-ann Neel

What shall we do my brothers and sisters?
Come, let's go to the other side of our world, the West Coast.

Gilakas'la! For the Aboriginal Arts Programs at The Banff Centre, the summer of 2004 has marked the ninth year of the Aboriginal Dance Training and Performance Program, and the end of the Aboriginal Arts Program's first decade. Naturally, we were very excited to reach this important milestone, and are anxious to continue the exciting work that has been carried out since the program's inception in 1995.

The intent of the Aboriginal Dance Training and Performance Program has always been to create a space where Aboriginal dancers and choreographers can train, network, rehearse, and present both traditional and contemporary works in dance. Achieving a balance between traditional and contemporary forms is always an exciting proposition, particularly with hundreds of different Aboriginal dance traditions existing in Canada alone!

This year, our goal was to bring a traditional Kwakwaka'wakw dance group from the West Coast of British Columbia together with four contemporary Aboriginal dancers, invited from communities across Canada to experiment with the "transformation" of traditional dance into contemporary dance movement.

Margo Kane of Full Circle First Nations Performance and Geraldine Manossa of the En'owkin Centre each took on the roles of trainer, instructor, and choreographer, and provided ongoing daily guidance and advice to the four contemporary dancers. Traditional dance trainer, instructor, and choreographer William Wasden Jr. of the Gwa'wina Dance Group provided daily guidance and expertise on traditional dance forms and matters relating to protocol.

Together, the team of instructors, fifteen Kwakwaka'wakw dancers and singers, and four contemporary dancers created an amazing blend of traditional and contemporary dance, demonstrating the potential for traditional dance forms to serve as the basis of a new "Aboriginal Contemporary Dance Vocabulary" derived directly from the dance traditions of Aboriginal communities across Canada.

Our biggest goal was to carry out this experimental work so we could create a "sample" to share with other traditional and contemporary Aboriginal dancers across North America. There are so many different traditional styles of dance, and I believe each one of them has at least a few movements that can be shared publicly (as opposed to movements whose performance is restricted to ceremonial and sacred dances).

The message that we hope to get across to Aboriginal dancers and choreographers is that we have many opportunities to draw both inspiration and guidance from our traditional dances. And if we do so following the protocols of our respective nations, we will ensure the transmission of our cultures to at least the next seven generations.

Besides embracing a groundbreaking approach to choreographic development, the program's creative team also invited composer J. Douglas Dodd to create a new symphonic work based on the melody of a Kwakwaka'wakw "fun song" originally composed by William Wasden Jr.

What shall we do my brothers and sisters?
Come, let's wander into the forest and begin our journey.
What shall we do my brothers and sisters?
Come, let's fly around the world as our ancestors did with their spiritual power.
What shall we do my brothers and sisters?
Come, let's go to the other side of our world, the West Coast.
What shall we do my brothers and sisters?
Come, let's hurry now and complete the things we need to do in this life.

This song recounts the recent journey of four 'Namgis men who traveled an ancient trade route that extends from the traditional territories of the 'Namgis tribe on the East coast of Vancouver Island, to the territory of the neighboring Mowachat tribe on the West coast of Vancouver Island. This route was used in ancient times to carry many valuable trade items, the most valuable being a precious commodity called "Tlina", also known as eulachon oil, or oolachin grease. Thus, the title of both the traditional and contemporary music works is Grease Trail or Grease Trail Fun Song. As Wasden, Jr. explains:

In 1999, our 'Namgis tribe was invited to Ahousaht, BC for a great canoe gathering. After accepting the invitation, our people decided that we would travel to the gathering by following the traditional route of our ancestors - a trail that had not been accessed in nearly 100 years. The trail begins in the Nimpkish Valley, and connects our territory to our neighbors on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. The trail has been in existence for thousands of years and there are legends telling of its origin and how it was created. Our decision to travel this ancient corridor was extremely significant to our people, as it meant that our "Grease Trail" would once again be used, and our people would reaffirm our connection to a very important part of our traditional territories.
When Kwakwaka'wakw people wish to commemorate something of great importance or significance, we compose songs; this is our way of recording and celebrating deeds to be remembered, and ensures the legacy of the event remains in our collective memory for as long as the song is sung. The Grease Trail Song was composed to commemorate the journey.
The Kwa'kwala words for the song were given to me by my relative, Vera Newman, who is from the same nation and ancestry. It was decided that the song would become an Am'lala or "Fun Dance" as we wanted everyone to be able to participate, especially the 'Namgis and the Mowachaht, who have celebrated and commemorated many great accomplishments over our history together.
Fun dances are usually performed at the end of potlatches by families who have the right to do so. Many families have their own fun dances, and perform them to celebrate a successful finish to an occasion. During these songs and dances, it is customary to invite guests to come onto the floor to join in and celebrate. Since the introduction of the Grease Trail Song, many people from many nations around the world have joined us in dance - to celebrate, to commemorate, and to remember.

Margo Kane and Geraldine Manossa worked closely with William Wasden Jr. and J. Douglas Dodd to convey the legend of the Grease Trail through dance. The resulting dance work takes us first to the Undersea Kingdom, where the eulachon originates. It follows the journey of the eulachon from its home in the rivers along the Pacific Northwest Coast, to the Pacific Ocean, and back to the eulachon's spawning grounds. Throughout its journey, eulachon encounters various supernatural beings and reflects upon those meetings by recalling their individual dances. In the edited video sequence that accompanies this article, we see the eulachon's recollections as they are transformed from ancient dance legend into contemporary dance movements.

The transformation begins with the transfer of a sacred feather-fan from traditional dancer and singer William Wasden Jr. to contemporary choreographer Margo Kane. This sequence follows the traditional protocols from Kwakwaka'wakw culture that enable the composer and choreographer to exercise their artistic prerogatives within the context of this unique collaborative process.

The traditional dances shown at The Banff Centre this summer come from the Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch-ceremony tradition. Each member of the Gwa'wina dance group has been initiated into the secret dance societies. Permission to share these dances and corresponding songs was given by the 'Namgis Chiefs, and we are extremely thankful to them for their generosity and trust.

This year's dance program provided participants and the Aboriginal Arts Program with a renewed direction in terms of how the ancient dance traditions of all Aboriginal peoples can be transformed while remaining historically accurate and maintaining the meaning, intent, and integrity of the original forms. Next, we will seek to explore the use of new technologies, such as motion-capture and computer-assisted choreographic systems, to expand upon this year's achievements.

We are also anxious to build and expand upon our efforts to ensure that traditional languages remain intact in this generation. There are at least fifty major First Nations language groups across Canada, and each has anywhere from two to six dialects. In 2004, most of these language groups are critically endangered, which means that there are fewer than fifty fluent speakers remaining. Since all traditional stories, legends, songs, and dances have their origins within traditional language, it is clear that a loss of language would immediately impact the ability of Aboriginal artists to express these traditions. Without fluency in the ancient languages of our people, we cannot translate a traditional legend into a new script for a theatrical production, a manuscript for a children's book, or a storyboard for a new animated piece.

Over the past century, some tribal groups have begun the work of documenting their ancient legends, songs, dances, and ceremonial traditions via audio and video technologies. However, many of the cassette tapes that have been collected are nearing the end of their lifespan, and need to be transferred, remastered, and preserved to ensure that this generation, and the next seven generations, will retain access to them.

Lou-ann Neel is the Artistic Director of the Aboriginal Arts Programs at The Banff Centre.

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