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DVD by Byron McKim

Elegant visual journey

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

March 1, 2005 -- London

"Quest" is an elegant telling and an opportunity for captured viewers with stamina to apply their own elaborations to a wonderfully visual journey. Director Byron McKim was not liberal with the aboriginal content and presents a straight forward filmic account of the story. It is an achievement that the aboriginal content is presented in this medium giving this cultural expression the international exposure its particular richness deserves.

McKim’s "Quest" is a film production video version of the theatre work of the same name. Originally "Quest" was a native performing arts production based on a story created by Byron Chief-Moon who co-choreographed the work with Karen Jamieson, lead dancer and co-producer of the theatre version. Drawing from creation stories and rite of passage of the soul, "Quest" offers its particular telling of the legend of Sleeping People as told by the Blackfoot elders living on the Blood Reserve in Standoff, Alberta, Canada.

McKim was overwhelmed by the theatre version of Quest which was originally performed at the Scotia Bank Dance Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia 6-8 February 2003. McKim approached Chief-Moon and proposals were drafted to raise the funding necessary to do the shooting. Major support for the project came from Canada Council for the Arts with the Ontario Arts Council adding their share. Bravo! offered the first window broadcast license with SCN & APTN taking non-exclusive second window broadcast licenses. Canadian Television Fund License Fee Program & the Equity Investment Program under the Aboriginal Incentive Program were also very supportive.

The DVD begins with Beverly Hungry Wolf relating the story of creation. Wolf then speaks of Earth Mother’s sadness, of her children who will be lost unless they recognise and respect Earth Mother. Dancer Kiyain Kwan’s image is superimposed on a lush lake and mountainous landscape. Dressed in traditional dress, Kwan’s linear lyrical moves with out stretched arms and graceful bending of torso and knee are an incantation summoning her fellow Spirit Warriors, Michael Sean “Swiftdeer” Brown and Duane Howard. Dressed in traditional costume, both Brown and Howard are experienced artists of the songs and dances of the aboriginal peoples of this portion of Canada.

Kwan’s moves also focus on a boulder set in the centre of the frame. After some time of Wolf’s narration and Kwan’s dance, Byron Chief-Moon materialises from this boulder. Kwan has awakened Chief-Moon and then taunts him while the Spirit Warriors watch. It takes a long time to awaken him and then he goes back to sleep. This awakening and sleeping, listening and watching the Spirit Warriors, or writhing in anguish and despair, each incantation situating Chief-Moon in a different terrain, summarizes the quality of the passage that Chief-Moon travels. Wolf’s narration utilizes both the complex rhythms of Blackfoot language and English.

Throughout the DVD, Wolf’s soft monotone monologue stream along like a mellow brook while Russell Wallace and Sandy Scofield’s diverse score supports or silences her utterances. This soundscape of human voice, tribal percussion and new wave sound provide the context for each scene; pastoral, woodland thicket, sandy shore, or the cement, steel and glass of an urban landscape. Eventually Wolf’s narration is not interspersed with English so her mellow tones slip from recognition and become another texture of sound unable to add any more meaning to the dance for those of us who do not speak Black Foot. The storytelling is pushed to the background giving the visuals priority. The consequence of this is some moments are translucent while others become self indulgent and tedious. The voice is literally made voiceless in this filmic form that earnestly tried to enliven it. The story telling is then taken over by the dance and the filmic imagery. McKim’s direction and coordination of camera moves for operator Pieter Stathis and post production editing by Tony Dean Smith become the textures that provide significance.

Dressed in a black suit, Chief-Moon is the “everyone” of modernity on a quest, contemplating his past to revitalise the present and in that moment of realisation perhaps save the future. Chief-Moon takes a journey with the Spirit Warriors who castigate, taunt, and instruct, interrupting his sleep, waking him to mystify and entice him with their dance. Captured in a dream world of reflection, contemplation and reconciliation  Chief-Moon is forced to remember his sources and his place in the cosmos. Each waking moment is a moment to reflect with his sleep, denial or an escape mechanism to get away from the Spirit Warriors. The Spirit Warriors though will not let him rest. They persist and their interruptions continue providing a lesson here, a thought there providing an insight for Chief-Moon to ponder.

There were some stirring dance moments. Michael Sean “Swiftdeer” Brown and Duane Howard’s dance on the sandy beach is special. In particular, Howard’s arm gestures and focus/intensity are an indication of the depth of his understanding of the movement language he has been performing at Pow-Wows in Canada and USA and various appearances in Europe for sixteen years. Howard dances a story in which he embodies creatures. Chief-Moon follows Howard imitating each move. Brown also leads Chief-Moon to do the dance of the Spirit Warriors. At the end of this scene, Kiyian Kwan steps in Chief-Moon’s path stopping the exchange and shifting the scene to an urban landscape where Chief-Moon twists in aguish.

Kwan’s movement language is more Western, more abstracted than the Spirit Warriors. Kwan’s movement vocabulary though signifies the same sensibilities and throughout is the conduit between the Aboriginal inferences of Howard and Brown and the filmic imagery McKim has placed them in. Kwan is at the helm of this journey, leading all to a final destination. Towards the end, Chief-Moon dances with the Spirit Warriors signifying his affirmation and restitution as Kwan watches. When Kwan does the same stomp movement similar to the men, Chief-Moon obliges and dances with her and a syncretism between Aboriginal and Western movement language and meaning occurs.

This moment is poignant seemingly to indicate the possibility of an amalgamation, a co-existence between traditional knowledge and beliefs with those of modernity. With the Spirit Warriors continuing the dance, Kwan and Chief-Moon exchange glances and part. River bed and rural forestry turn into concrete street and skyscrapers as Chief-Moon walks or is it ascends into this urban landscape.

Juxtaposition is the compositional device of choice for this film production video that utilises visual imagery to suggest past and present, rural and urban, tranquillity and discordance. Metaphorically, the dance seems a wake up call reminding the protagonist of those important things forgotten or lost in spirit and soul. As the narrator states, this is a small part of a larger story and it is told in a hypnotic melodeons manner. One can easily get wrapped in the tone of the voice and the lush colours but eventually the awe dissipates. Miming the narration, the movement language becomes burdened with telling the story exactly as a storyteller would. The narration is helpful at the beginning but soon becomes another textural layer not adding any clarity for the action. The relationship between Chief-Moon and the Spirit Warriors is basically the same with the occasional moment when he dances with them. The movement sequences dynamic and repetition have an initial impact but eventually lose power in this filmic medium.

What this DVD lacks in clarity it makes up for with its stirring imagery. Perhaps more prose not narration would assist but perhaps that would be another storytelling. The spoken text with the sound and musical accompaniment, as it is, adds a layer of frustration for those of us who do not speak the language nor understand what is going on from the inflections and cadence of the voice. As it is, there is a gulf between viewer and DVD if one desires a more detailed and thus more empathic insightful experience of the action. The gestural movement drowns into monotony instead of being effective repetition to punctuate the process of transcendence for Chief-Moon.

Repetition can be an enormously effective in live performance. The performers' muscularity and performative presence affirms the rhythmical intent and accompaniment. The power is in the intensity created. In film the same repetition against a static landscape presents sameness that may lead to disinterest. As it is this viewer was unable to empathise with the protagonist. Left to familiar devices one could conclude a notion regarding the need for harmony between man and earth and the possibility of transcendence for the soul of a person who finds the spirit he has lost. All of which are very powerful messages in themselves. The imagery though wonderfully done was not dynamic enough to sustain this viewer’s complete interest for forty-eight minutes.

Edited by Staff.

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