The dancers of Ballet BC spent a week in studio learning about Indigenous dance practices and perspectives. Meet the leaders of our Indigenous choreographic lab, Margaret Grenier and Starr Muranko!
Gitxsan and Cree dancer Margaret Grenier is the Executive and Artistic Director for the Dancers of Damelahamid, and has directed the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival since 2008. In November she was awarded the Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts.
Dancer and choreographer Starr Muranko serves as Artistic Associate with Raven Spirit Dance. She teaches dance in communities across the country, works with the Dancers of Damelahamid, and has served as a board member of the Dance Centre and CADA/WEST.
Margaret and Starr met with me virtually on February 19, the last day of their choreographic lab, to discuss their work.
What does this conversation in the studio mean to you, and how do you see it developing in the future?
Margaret: This conversation means many different things on different levels. It’s not necessarily about learning the steps. It’s about developing an understanding of movement that might be very foreign to the movement that the dancers are used to, and also the language, the oral histories that go with the movement. All of this is a lot to absorb. We’ve been focusing on not worrying about learning, but having a shared experience. It’s a process of reciprocity, of decolonization, that is coming from movement, and the bodies, and that shared experience. It’s what possibilities that opens up. At this point what that opens is unknown, but it feels like a starting place.
Starr: Margaret and Medhi and I talked about it beforehand, that this process was really about beginning a conversation, beginning a relationship together, finding those places where we connect, and also finding places where there is a different way of seeing things. I can see the ripple effects of that coming out in many different ways. As Margaret said, it’s not necessarily focused on an outcome, such as a dance. It’s also what conversations will be had outside of the room when the dancers are sharing with their colleagues and friends, and when Margaret and I are doing the same with our respective circles. That’s very exciting to me.
What drives each of you as artists?
Margaret: I come from a practice that’s intergenerational. The dancers of Damelahamid started in the 1960s under the leadership of my parents, Kenneth and Margaret Harris. Because of their work I had the opportunity to grow up in dance. At a certain point in my life I realized two things; one, that I wanted that to be there for my children, and two, that it wasn’t about repeating the work of the generation before me, but finding my own path in it. That was the work that was necessary for the sake of my children, because if I just repeat what my parents do there will be that much more work for the next generation. That has led to places that I have never expected, including the work that we’re doing right now.
Starr: What has always been an inspiration is that dance has been a way to reconnect with my indigenous roots, my family, and the cultural teachings and worldview as an Indigenous artist. Through dance I have been able to remember many parts of myself and of my family history and lineage. My mom is from the Moose Cree First Nation in Northern Ontario. Growing up I didn’t go to the community with my mom and my grandma, but as an adult I returned home with my mom through the context of dance. I’ve now reconnected with family there through dance. It’s a huge part of my identity and who I am as a woman. It gives me a lot of strength and comfort, and it’s never ending, which I love. It’s always finding another piece of the puzzle.
You are both involved with your own creative pursuits with Dancers of Damelahamid and Raven Spirit Dance. Can you each tell me more about your journey with these organizations?
Starr: Raven Spirit is coming up to our fifteenth anniversary. When I was an undergrad I went to a show at the Talking Stick Festival and Michelle Olson, the Artistic Director of Raven Spirit, was dancing in a piece. I hadn’t up until that point found a way to articulate this idea of contemporary Indigenous dance. It was something I was feeling and desiring, but when I saw Raven Spirit’s work on stage, right away I said to my mom “that’s what I want to do, whatever that is”. I started working with Raven Spirit twelve years ago. Michelle and I co-lead the company as Artistic Director and Artistic Associate. We both choreograph and dance. I ended up connected to Damelahamid through Margaret’s mother. It was a lot of relationships and connecting at the right time, when I was ready to.
Margaret: The Dancers of Damelahamid began before I was born. I was able to grow up within the company, and to be the first generation within my family to do that, as all of it was done as a work of revitalization of the dance form. In 1991 our company did a collaboration with Karen Jamieson Dance. That was the first time coming into a collaboration with a contemporary company. That opened up for me the possibility of what was to come eventually. In 2003 the company did its first formal production in partnership with the Dance Centre. Starting in 2010 we began to explore contemporary approaches, creating new workspace within the traditional form. That was a significant shift because a lot of space that has been open to dance, especially presenting dance, has had a contemporary focus. By making that shift, traditional Gitxsan and Cree dance moved into spaces that weren’t previously accessed by us, and allowed for audiences that wouldn’t have seen our work.
Can you tell me about your upcoming dance projects?
Starr: *Laughs* I’m laughing because of COVID — I’ve been waiting to premiere this work for a while. I will be premiering a new autobiographical work in September at the Firehall Arts Centre, called Chapter 21. I’ve been adapting a part of that solo into a group experience with the dancers this week — that’s been really great! A documentary about the process of that piece being created will be shared in March.
Raven Spirit, we’ve got a lot of touring plans when it’s possible to do that again. One exciting thing that I’m looking forward to is working with the Dance Centre on the co-curation of the Indigenous portion of Dance in Vancouver. It’ll be a hybrid of online and in-person. Lots of adapting and re-imagining things as we need to. One of the highlights this week has been being back in the studio with dancers, and not being behind a computer screen. That has really lit me up.
Margaret: For the Dancers of Damelahamid, we are going to be sharing an online version of the Coastal Dance Festival next month. That’s taking a lot of energy because doing anything different seems to be like reinventing it as we go. We are beginning to emerge with a new work as well. Our family went through a significant loss during this past year. We lost one of our elders, my mother, Margaret Harris. The work is to honor the impact that she had within our family and within our communities, and the teachings that we were able to carry forward from her. We’re just waiting for the opportunity to physically be able to begin that process. As Starr said, we keep thinking it’ll happen, but it’s always getting pushed just a little bit further down the road.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Starr: Just to reiterate how much I’ve enjoyed this week, and Margaret and I have enjoyed spending the time together, too. We often don’t get to work together so closely. We’re busy with different projects, and life, and that kind of thing. That’s been another gift, this time together, and with all the dancers, too. So yeah, thank you to Ballet BC.
Margaret: One of the things that keeps reoccurring for me is we’ve talked a lot about everything coming from the heart. About movement coming from the heart, and about how to engage in the collaboration when it’s coming from such different places. Is it always to come from here? *hands over heart* At the end of each day, I’m just ready to rest — but at the same time there’s something really fulfilling, really rejuvenating in the process, that will be a seed to take from it.
By Kristen Lawson, Ballet BC Marketing Coordinator