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Posted on August 18, 2015 in General
Dancing Along the Spine of Mother Earth

Rehearsal altar, August 2015

In this guest post, choreographer Starr Muranko introduces Spine of the Mother, a collaboration between dance artists in Canada and Peru:

Spine of the Mother is a multi-year collaborative exchange project between dance artists in Canada and Peru which spans two continents and strives to discover new ways in which to research, connect and create choreographic work that is grounded in an Indigenous worldview and expressed in a contemporary dance form.

I first started traveling to the Andes of Peru over a decade ago and during that time I have been privileged to spend time with communities, Elders and traditional wisdom-keepers who have generously welcomed me into their homes and hearts and shared beautiful and profound teachings and stories with me. One such story and perspective has haunted me with imagery that I could not get out of my mind.  It was the teaching and the deeply held understanding that the mountain range that we share across our two continents of South and North America was indeed a large Spine of the Mother Earth which had been created when those ranges were born millions of years ago. It was an image that has kept with me for many years now and that ultimately led me to begin to take those first steps to create this dance piece.

As I travelled back and forth, up and down the Spine of Mother Earth visiting Peru for many years something kept drawing me back to the Andes and to those mountains or Apus that held so much knowledge and wisdom. Taking each careful step along the spine, sometimes at altitudes of over 15,000 feet above sea-level and short of breath in the thin mountain air I would stare in awe at the epic and vast landscape before me. 

Salkanthay Glacier, Andes of Peru Photo: Chip Duncan

Fast forward to 2011 when I travelled once again to Cusco, Peru to present a paper at the World Indigenous Peoples Conference in Education. There was a nudge at that time to connect with the dance faculty at the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Lima, Peru to discuss my ideas for this dance piece and collaborating with artists from Peru. This led to holding auditions in the country’s capital and meeting dozens of talented artists including Andrea Patriau who would go on to become one of my long-term collaborators on this project along with Vancouver-based Coast Salish artist, Tasha-Faye Evans. What I didn’t know then was the epic journey that we had ahead of us to create this dance piece together. Moving mountains, choreographing across continents, cultures, languages and time zones would be both challenging and exhilarating, much like those once-in-a-lifetime adventures I had experienced trekking across the high altiplano to an ancient glacier or along the Inca Trail to the magical temples at Machu Picchu.

And yet every grand adventure begins with the first step.

For us the first step began with a desire to connect. A desire to know one another, to know each other as women, to know the land that we each came from and that we carried within ourselves, our bones, our stories, our memories.

We began with a Skype phone call, our first call in fact was held in the board room at the Scotiabank Dance Centre. During our early research in this project we also worked with dance artists Adriana Arrunátegui (Peru) and Olivia Davies (Canada) and the five of us huddled around our computers to “meet” one another for our first rehearsal together. We would project each others’ images on the walls of the studios and explore through structured improvisation how to “dance with another on the other side of the world” in real-time through the computer images.  We would often leave rehearsals feeling that we had been in some type of virtual reality/altered space - not in Vancouver, not in Lima but rather a third space that had been built by all of us where we could create together. It was a surreal experience to say the least and yet it felt critical to taking those beginning first steps.

We would send each other bundles from our respective countries, carefully prepared packages that would sometimes take weeks or months to arrive through friends that would be traveling to Vancouver or Lima. Packages that held photos, poetry and stones from our homes, carefully gathered rocks born from river beds, mountains, oceans, deserts. Stones that held stories, stones that were connected to those very same mountains we were striving to remember how to travel along. Those stones and memories from the other side of the world became the stones that we would ultimately carry in the dance piece and that we would carry for each other. They have been a part of our rehearsal process and our altars that we have been setting up in each room and theatre whether in Peru or Canada over all of these years. They have grounded us and reminded us of our kinetic connection. And they have grown in size and quantity - each stone representing another piece of our shared journey together while creating ritual, defining our creative space and affirming our deep connection to body and land.

Lima rehearsals Feb 2015: dancer Andrea Patriau, photo Renzo Babilonia

At times it has felt as though we were moving mountains to create this piece and to honour that first impulse that I felt. The desire to connect deeply with the teachings of the Elders in South America and the knowledge that as Indigenous people we have always been connected along this mountain range; we have always travelled, traded, learned from and known of each other along this Spine. Working together as artists across two continents has certainly had its moments of challenge, of wondering if there could be an easier way to do this, of wondering if I was making the right choice to follow my impulse and conviction that this indeed needed to be a cross-cultural piece including artists from both continents.In hindsight now of course I see that it could not have been any other way.

And so it is here that we find ourselves this August. Andrea arrived last week from Peru and we have begun our time in the studio preparing to enter into a technical residency next week at the Roundhouse Community Arts Centre where we will add the elements of lighting, video and sound to our story. She was introduced this week to Dance Centre staff and had a brief tour of the Faris Family Studio to prepare for our Fall premiere. We both commented on how the last time she “performed” in that space she had been projected on the screen from a studio in Lima during the 2013 International Dance Day celebrations and now here we are together in the physical. It feels good.

Andrea Patriau and Tasha Faye Evans, Vancouver rehearsals, August 2015

As I reflect on the journey that we have been on thus far and the road ahead I realize that as with all grand journeys it would not be possible without support along the way. I am grateful to my mentor and dramarturge Alvin Tolentino (Co.ERASGA Dance) for his patience, commitment and focused guidance that has pushed me to grow as an artist in ways I hadn’t considered before.  Vancouver-based dance artist Olivia Shaffer has also joined us on this journey in the past year contributing immensely as a dancer and collaborator during our creation period and I am thrilled to be working with talented artists Edgardo Moreno (Sound Composer), Sammie Chien (Media/Video Design) and John Carter (Lighting Design). Raven Spirit Dance and Artistic Director Michelle Olson have provided invaluable support as Co-Producers of Spine of the Mother and have believed in me and nurtured this project since the beginning stirrings of that first impulse. I am grateful for additional dramaturgical support that I have received along the way from Alejandro Ronceria (Toronto) and Lee-Su Feh in the early rumblings of this piece being born and to The Dance Centre for supporting me through work-in-development showings and presentation opportunities. Jhaimy Alvarez-Acosta from Cusco, Peru has been my invaluable cultural advisor and grounded me in the traditional teachings which hold this piece in its centre.

Spine of the Mother will premiere in Vancouver this November 2015 at Scotiabank Dance Centre and will be part of a double bill evening titled Earth Song, also featuring work by Michelle Olson (Northern Journey). We will also be sharing Spine of the Mother at Dance In Vancouver and traveling to Toronto to perform at the Weesageechak Begins to Dance Festival produced by Native Earth Performing Arts. 

Plans for 2016 include heading back down along the Spine to share our work during performances in the Southern Hemisphere as well as making the time to hike along the Inca Trail together and therefore come full circle in this journey.


Spine of the Mother can be seen as part of our Global Dance Connections series November 26-28 in a co-presentation with Raven Spirit Dance, and also as part of Dance In Vancouver on November 18, at Scotiabank Dance Centre. Tickets are on sale now through Tickets Tonight.

Photo credits (top to bottom)

Rehearsal altar, August 2015
Salkanthay Glacier, Andes of Peru. Photo credit: Chip Duncan
Andrea Patriau, dancer; Renzo Babilonia, photographer, Lima rehearsals, Feb 2015
Dancers Andrea Patriau and Tasha Faye Evans, Vancouver rehearsals, August 2015


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