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Posted on October 28, 2015 in General
Michelle Olson: Divining the Hidden

Photo North Vancouver Community Arts Council

In this guest post Michelle Olson, Artistic Director of Raven Spirit Dance, talks about the process that drives her creation of contemporary Aboriginal works:

As an Artistic Director, I am always so excited when our work hits the stage.  The process of getting to this place is a crazy patchwork quilt of funding, partnerships and fundraising all stitched up together.  Some of the stitches are even and just the right tension and some stitches may look like the work of a madwoman.  And so it goes, making art.  But the work of sewing it all together is really worth it. Spine of the Mother will premiere in Vancouver this November 2015 at Scotiabank Dance Centre and will be part of an evening titled Earth Song.  The evening will also feature my work, Northern Journey and Frost Exploding Trees Moon which I  co-choreographed with Floyd Favel. 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. 

The reason why I make art is to discover the deep roots that ground me and to uncover the worldview that is deeply embedded in my impulses and instinct.  Like the roots of a tree grow up towards the sun, I want to understand these deep roots of Indigenous expression and what it grows towards and manifests into.  I have been thinking and processing these thoughts over the last 15 years.  I captured some of them in an essay I wrote for Su-Feh Lee’s Folk and Palace.  These words still resonate with me and I would like to share them again.

Photo Yvonne Chew

Excerpt from Map of Stars - Tracing the Constellations of Identity, Culture and Contemporary Performance.

Raven Spirit Dance hosted an Aboriginal Choreographic Workshop in December 2006 at the Scotiabank Dance Centre in Vancouver.  It was an intensive period of research with invited Aboriginal choreographers from across Canada.  The impetus was to examine process and challenge the notion of an indigenous creative process.  One of the themes of the work was: What is Original Source: ways to explore traditional and colonized bodies.

A movement exploration rooted in this theme was lead by Floyd Favel[1] and Geraldine Manossa[1].  It was a police line-up.  The movers were to stand in a line, facing the choreographers.  We were to face forward, turn right, face back and face left, the basic police line-up movement sequences.  We were being seen but unable to see who is watching us.  We were asked to hold a secret somewhere in our body.

Walking into a theatre and sitting down in the audience, we walk into a space that is constructed on assumptions, and unseen but imposing power structures. This is the two-way mirror. We all have stepped into the palace and the marketplace, the arena of consumption and the ruling aesthetic. The shift from a self-determined rehearsal room to the theatre, for me at times feels like a punch in the stomach.  The imposition of the proscenium stage and what it holds is pressing.  I am thrown behind the two-way mirror, holding my secret close.

To resist against how the space presses down on me, medicine is brought into the theatre.  For Evening in Paris, I had Bob Baker do a cedar sweep of the theatre the morning of opening night.  With cedar boughs, he swept the walls, corners, backstage, stage and audience. Then the cedar boughs are placed in the Lynn Valley headwaters, the ceremony complete.  This gesture is done to cleanse the space, clear it of energies that don’t belong, so what is about to happen in the space can happen in a good way. I found comfort in the image of the cedar boughs floating down the mountain, in honour of the moment I was in.  It opened up a space within me and it opened up a space on the stage for me to present my work in a good way.

It is an interesting collision, the proscenium stage and ritual of performance, the seeing and not being seen.  As practitioners we have even named the wall (the fourth wall) that sits between the performer and the audience.  The question is how do we traverse this divide? How do we acknowledge it and even see each other through this wall?  How can we shift the marketplace to the ritual?

Raven Spirit: Northern Journey photo Chris Randle

The concept of witness, Ut’sam, is foundational in the West Coast First Nations traditions.  The witness is a vital part of a ceremony. They hold the space for the event to occur.  In conversation with Bob Baker,[3] he talks about the role of the witness is to enter the space with a clear mind and light heart so one can perceive clearly and cleanly.

In the The Whole Beast, Su-Feh Lee came out on stage, house lights up, and talked about art as not a commodity, it is to be shared; it is a gift that she is offering to us.  She asked us to close our eyes, and listen to our breath, inhale and exhale.  Then we opened our eyes, she began to dance. The shift into the performance was not the house lights coming down but the shift was the presence of the audience.  We were transformed into witness.

For me, the heart of art is conscious. Its own structure names, challenges and breaks the power lines of the “palace”.  Codes of aesthetic are not present to nullify and entertain but to push boundaries landing in the place of ritual; a transformed space where the secrets can be shared and our hearts can be touched.

The secret for me is that we are all broken, yet pulled by a deep longing to know our hearts as we walk the tightrope between our joys and pain, and holding the hands of both fear and trust.

The artist has been equated at times to a shaman (even though the word shaman makes me queasy with all the New Age connotations it brings).  The Webster online dictionary describes the shaman as “one who divines the hidden.” This is the role of the artist. This divining does not happen in the palace or the marketplace. It is impossible. It happens in the ritual of day-to-day life, it is in how we love and in how we hate, how we find joy and how we despair.  The ceremonies hold us from our birth to our death.  It is what the ‘folk’ do.


[1] Floyd Favel is a theatre and dance director, writer, journalist, and cultural theorist. He has worked across Canada as a director and writer and performer but his primary interest has been the development of theatre theory and methods he calls Native Performance Culture (NPC).

[2] Geraldine Manossa, is a member of the Bigstone Cree Nation in Northern Alberta.  She is a choreographer, performer and scholar. She teaches Indigenous performance, storytelling methods and traditional expressions at the En’owkin Centre in Penticton, BC.

[3] Bob Baker is a cultural advisor, performer, traditional composer and traditional choreographer. His Squamish Ancestral name is S7aplek, Hawaiian name is Lanakila and he is co-founder and Spokesperson for Spakwus Slolem (Eagle Song Dancers).


Raven Spirit Dance, in partnership with The Dance Centre's Global Dance Connections series, presents Earth Song November 26-28 at Scotiabank Dance Centre.

Spine of the Mother will also be performed as part of Dance In Vancouver on November 18, 2015. 

Photos top to bottom: Frost Exploding Trees Moon - dancer Michelle Olson, photo North Vancouver Community Arts Council; Northern Journey - dancers Jeanette Kotowich, Brian Solomon, photo Yvonne Chew; Northern Journey - dancers Jeanette Kotowich, Brian Solomon, photo Chris Randle.



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