This week, Dawson City welcomes back Raven Spirit Dance, which has enjoyed a well-established presence in town for several years.
Choreographer Michelle Olson is somewhat of a part-time Dawsonite herself and member of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation. She has previously created two pieces that were performed at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre.
This summer the company is returning with Gathering Light, which will be performed by three dancers.
The Klondike Institute of Art & Culture (KIAC), which is hosting the event, recently gave me an opportunity to preview the piece on DVD and speak with Olson about her inspirations and insights.
As an outsider to the world of dance, I was struck by the accessibility of the performance. This is sometimes a challenge in the contemporary style, especially when attempting to reconcile modern sensibilities and aesthetics with traditional aboriginal culture and history.
But for Olson, the fusion of past and present makes perfect sense.
“What are we but our grandmothers and grandfathers?” she asks. “Same blood-pumping, same synapse-firing, but with our own little spin on it. I think you don’t sacrifice anything if it is from the same source.
“It is when one is not connected to source and the present but falls back into ‘nostalgia’, the longing to be somewhere else (in the past or even in the future) or be someone else and this is where the trouble lies. I see this in both contemporary and traditional dance at times.”
The hour-long routine is conceptually rich and complex. It is apparent that a conflict or conversation occurs between the structured and the organic or intuitive. The movements are controlled yet convulsive, pained yet sensual, organized yet unsynchronized.
Olson explains that the piece is about “witnessing the process, so our loyalty to the piece as performers is to be in process. That is our guide, not whether we are in unison with each other.”
This relates to how the dancers interact with the ambiguous “light” alluded to in the title, which acts as an invisible prop only the dancers can see.
To Olson, this light means “stepping into our fear, but also into our strength to be fully seen. One can’t hide from it, and in essence it is our life journey to grow to the light, to fully bloom and live in that ‘becoming’ of who are meant to be.”
By the end of the performance, you can almost see it—the negative space around the dancers’ bodies becomes electric, and they seem to dance along and around this force field of energy, which moves through them as much as they move through it.
Gathering Light is a multi-sensory experience. The lighting and music play an important rhythmic role, sometimes bathing the stage in poignant darkness or silence, which the dancers fill eerily with the sound of their breath.
According to Olson, this is consistent with the work’s overarching theme of development.
“Interestingly, as I was creating this piece, I was also training in developmental movement patterns. I started to understand I was working the different developmental patterns and reflexes of a baby in the choreography.
“So from this place, I continued to create. It feels whole-body and sensory, because the dancers awaken to their bodies the way a child does.”
The piece contemplates different journeys of growth and transformation, and appears to depict different things to each viewer.
Learning to dance becomes a metaphor for transformative experiences.
“Dance has always been the centre of community, especially in indigenous culture. I want to remind people of that,” Olson explains.
“When you come to see my work, I am affected by you sitting in your seat and holding the space for me and being my witness, whether you want to or not.
“And you as an audience member are affected by my breath, my heartbeat and my movement. That has always been the original contract in the relationship between performer and audience in indigenous culture, not to buy and consume art, but to share space and evoke a ritual place where we can see deeper into the metaphors that hold our lives together.”
Asked what she would say to people who insist they just can’t dance, Olson replies, “Everyone can dance. When we walk, we dance. Our gestures are dance. Life is a dance, really, of shifting spaces, shapes and forms in relationship to others and our world.
“Moving consciously is a way of deepening our dance and creating a fuller experience of who we are.”
This outlook corresponds to Raven Spirit Dance’s initiative to bring dance to the community through artist talks and workshops.
Michelle Olson will offer dance classes in Dawson this summer for kids and adults from July 3 to August 4.
Gathering Light takes place on June 30 at 7 p.m. at the KIAC Odd Fellows Ballroom.