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Byron McKim's DVD Series
Dancing With Spirit
by Thea Nerissa Barnes
Published April 2008
2007, Byron McKim's Soaring Heart Pictures in association with Bravo!
developed Dancing with Spirit a series of six
thirty minute dance pieces filmed on various locations in North America
using Aboriginal ritual, mythology and traditional native stories. This
celebration of traditional spirituality glorifies with movement and camera
danced expressions of rich symbology and significances from Inuit, Cree,
and Iroquoian belief systems. Each dance selects specific locations, sound
and movement accompanied by sets and props to weave a filmic story. There
are degrees of sophistication in this selection with some more esoteric
than others but intricacies of relative ness to belief systems does not
affect accessibility. Each story creates its own mythology and the success
of this series rests in each film's ability to illustrate mythology and
reveal its message in a charismatic, engaging manner. Everyone with minimal
or no experience of American Aboriginal belief systems or lived experiences
will find meaning worth savouring throughout this series.
Byron McKim's series is not a documentary as exemplified in Michelle Mahrer
and Nicole Ma's series Dances of Ecstasy (2003) or Lazaro Faria
X-Films Cidade das Mulheres (2005). Both these documentaries
offer an in depth look from the directors' perspective of religion and
belief systems of groups of people in both rural and urban locations in
Africa, USA, Asia and Brazil. In a celebratory fashion the viewer is convinced
of the importance of dance in these communities and encouraged to respect
these practices even if they are not convinced of their efficacy. An effort
becomes patronising if it simplifies intricacies that distinguish one
system from another or glorifies some nostalgic view of Aboriginal ways
of life. A universalising view-point also does more damage by not distinguishing
perspectives of different cultural creeds. Often, the spectacle of conviction
displayed by the participants is enough to convince the viewer of the
glory of dance. McKim's series takes glorification and spectacle of filming
dance linked to ethnically specific belief systems in another direction.
Rare is a perspective that respects differences in peoples' belief systems
by not miming it but creating a language, movement, song, and speech,
that captures enough essence to create a work of art that touches several
The artists of Dancing the Spirit do not offer templates as much as differently
envisioned artifacts; beliefs or ways of life portrayed in art work open
to those interested enough to watch and listen. Each dance is a choreographed
journey offering a truth, remembrance, reclamation or revivification revealed
in an imagined subtext of emotion and contemplation. Episodes view the
world through the eyes of a single protagonist or several characters that
through introspection or memories make a connection to family and heritage
or reclaim a sense of purpose.
Episode 1, The Hunter's Journey , is shot in Iqaluit,
Nunavut, a snow filled landscape of great immensity. It is the foreground
for a story about a hunter, enacted by Kakki Peter, who leaves his wife,
played by Laakkuluk Jessen Williamson, to face the challenges of a vast
snowy terrain and beast, real and imagined, to find food for his family.
With pan flute playing to set the ambience of this relationship, the couple
mime household chores in a manner to reveal their close relationship;
each gesture an indication of work in the home, preparing food, tools
and caring for a child. The hunter leaves dragging his gear on a pram.
His journey begins with a soft stomp, a stepping action with high knees
which changes when the hunter stalks his prey. The movement for this episode
is created especially for the film and does not allude to any ritualised
or contemporary movement vocabularies. His walk has the qualities of a
polar bear; his moves are related to tasks such as throwing a stringed
weapon, killing his prey and building an igloo for shelter. In his sleep
visions of a bird and memories of his wife haunt him and indicate an alone
ness that is hard to escape in this desolate landscape. The camera weaves
a story of the relationship between the Hunter and this landscape. Editing
reveals the Hunter's tenacity relies on remembrance of wife, child and
home. By the end of the film we empathise with the hunter and are moved
by his inner spirit and resilience.
Episode 2, Manitowapan , is the most successful collaboration
between dance and camera of this series. Choreographed by Gaètan
Gingras and performed by Sophie Lavigne and Gingras this episode is as
visually striking as it is spiritually captivating. This journey takes
place on a revolving platform which is the stage upon which Lavigne and
Gingras dance, walk, appear as apparitions, and embody deities as they
take us on a journey that enlivens the power of storytelling as a means
for restoring spiritual balance. This episode is shot in Montreal in four
different locations; Fort Senneville, a deciduous forest amongst veined
covered ruins reminiscent of Mayan temples, The City Hall, an urban enclave
of grass and trees surrounded by towering buildings of brick, an outdoor
stadium site of the 1967 Expo at Jean Drapeau Park which is reminiscent
of a Greek outdoor stadium, and the Beach. Each scene is the location
for transition and spiritual awakening. In each location, the revolving
ring with its clock or counter clock revolution becomes the setting upon
which movement poems are enacted.
Lavigne's graceful movements, several dances of varying dynamics are stylised
for her portrayal as deity or interlocutor. Her movements are conventional
in manner but designed specifically for each moment in the journey. The
music by Francois Beausoleil Sodrac assists in changing ambiance for each
dance and its location. Music and dance are an effective merger supporting
the action of the revolving ring or interactions between Lavigne and Gingras.
Gingras appears from the lake and sets his connection with the earth and
the story with a few well chosen hand gestures. The scene changes between
the urban environment and the lake as he too walks the revolving ring
in different directions. Lavigne's dancing and Gingras' walking symbolise
different personifications living in separate worlds or meeting in the
same plane. They engage with each other as the ring revolves utilising
an assortment of masks, chair and hand drum to weave a visually engrossing
journey as camera close ups and long shots create several spiritual relationships
rift with symbolism and ritual.
In Episode 3 the protagonist travels, walking methodically through the
vast plains of North America to enliven his knowledge of Paskwawiynowak
which is Cree for "Dances from the Great Plains". The journey
is both figurative and metaphorical with a subtext relating advice of
a Grandfather who states ancestors and history of the people is written
in the earth and to hear and feel you must dance. The protagonist's first
encounter is with four dancers circling a central dancer. The dance is
a rhythmical skipped like stomp with alternating feet placed firmly against
the grass. The singing is a repetitive cadence call and response; the
lead voice leading a chorus accompanied by simultaneous beats on several
tom toms. The repetition in movement, voice, and beat has a deliberate
purpose that drives the energy. Even individual idiosyncrasies do not
detract from this singular purpose. In regalia of feathers, amulets, fabric
of white with several schemes of reds, greens, yellow and blues. The meaning
of chants and dance are not revealed but there is an exchange of glances
between our protagonist and several dancers ending on the central dancer.
The dance ends with our protagonist carrying a feathered staff as he continues
his journey. The other dances in this episode seemed two dimensional compared
to this first one. For the protagonist it seemed all the dances were living
significations importing a connection that he must revive; a spirituality
he must retrieve to secure a strong sense of identity.
In Episode 4, Passage , a female protagonist, Christine
Friday-O'Leary, dances her way to enlightenment. Using material taken
from her longer work titled "Spirits, Beings and Life Forces". O'Leary
relies on conventional contemporary dance movement to import spirituality
and a sense of ritual. Set in Lake Temagami area, north of North Bay the
dance takes place on a lake surrounded by lush conifer trees. The dance
begins with slow emotive gestures alluding to introspection and then confusion.
A duet with Jody Becker leads to a frenetic solo continuing a sense of
introspection and lost. This leads to a ritualised dance involving Becker
dressed in traditional grab. Traditional musical accompaniment with lyrics
by Edgardo Monreno assists in transitions between traditional and contemporary
embodiment dictated by the emotional development of the dance. O'Leary
is a beautiful, powerful performer but can't match the majesty captured
by McKim's sequences of a variety of exquisite shots of this gorgeous
landscape. Close ups and strategic editing keeps the interest on the performer.
The dance ends with O'Leary and Becker performing traditional stomps around
a fire. It appears to be raining slightly but the change in light and
racing clouds bring O'Leary's dance to a conclusion. Becker's stomps are
grounded with his slight forward bend in spine and weighted hips more
profound than O'Leary's more agile and light stomp. Her straight spine
is as committed in spirit as Becker but there is a contradiction that
is dissolved when a shawl wrapped about her arms with her gestures and
spinning confirm this is a dance of transcendence.
Here on Earth is episode 5 based on an Iroquoian Creation
Story shot in north of Burlington in Aggregate Quarry. Santee Smith, responsible
for story and choreography also performs with dancers Emily Law, Alex
Meraz and Brian Solomon. Placed on four pedestals of iron the dancers
enact four celestial beings that descend to earth becoming living organisms.
The dancers once on the ground, slither, jump, turn, interact in various
shapes and configurations with slow sombre moves to fast violent percussive
ones fraught with tension. There is some play as Emily Law adds a bit
of humour as she mimics a creature of sort with undulating spine and curious
looks. The music composed by Donald Quan with David Maracle and Rick Lazar
accompanies the movement that travels from the quarry to a brush filled
landscape near a lake. The dancers' intent is honest and totally committed
to the work but the choreography and assortment of ensemble configurations
built primarily on conventional contemporary movement vocabularies has
no discernable quest indicative of its stated purpose. Over danced with
a reliance on proscenium stage presentation, the dance drowns in its own
deification. Camera moves assist occasionally in creating some spiritual
mystery by emphasising meaningful hand gestures and occasional emotive
torso expressions. This episode could have benefited from movement editing
and more time to build a closer relationship between choreography and
camera so the film would have been more astute in its portrayal of the
creation story than just a forum for some really great dancing.
Triptych is the final episode and offers a perspective
regarding the homeless aboriginal people living in the streets of Toronto.
It too is a successful merger between use of camera, editing process and
movement to portray the consequences of colliding belief systems that
result in disillusionment. Conceived and choreographed by Michael Greyeyes
this film begins by juxtaposing urban religious affluence with aboriginal
sensibilities. We are shown an urban landscape of skyscrapers, park benches,
busy streets and pedestrians seemingly each with a purpose and destination.
We are then taken under a viaduct surrounded by undergrowth and shrubs
littered with rubbish. A man lays on the ground on cardboard and plastic.
Camera angles show one then three others in this site as the sleeper twitches.
He wakes and recovers a notebook which seems of great value to him from
under the board. The camera shows us what he sees as he raises and walks.
In the dirt three dancers seat and a finger to lips indicate silence or
caution. They lay as if to sleep in the dirt, trash all around.
Our protagonist wanders through this urban terrain, lost and edgy. He
meets other people who taunt him and sneer at his clothes, confuse him
and sneer at his sense of himself. Three dancers dressed as clergy, two
nuns and one priest draw the protagonist's attention. The editing from
colour and black and white footage of the same series of moves illustrate
a memory or belief between church and protagonist. In this memory, nuns
push men down, sit on them as if to belittle and castigate them. The same
theme, rigid religiosity demeaning the protagonist and others like him,
is recounted in several different relationships for the rest of the film.
Music composed by Miquelon Rodriguez is a collage of urban sounds, cars,
trucks, and children's voices. Vocals by Katelyn Vanier and Aaron Jensen
accompany the music to emphasise the theme of each scene. Movement vocabulary
is a collection of hand, torso, and leg gestures intended to allude to
an emotion or emotional relationship between characters or theme of the
scene. The only dance as such is a group configuration towards the end
performed perhaps as climax to end this drama. This one section almost
trivialises what has gone before. Fortunately it is followed by a duet
that ends on the face of the protagonist. His defiant face convinces the
viewer that he has survived this demoralising sequence of events to become
the saviour of his own soul.
Each episode beautifully performed and exquisitely shot is a metaphor
to contemplate and reflect upon. Most of the symbolism here is familiar
and shared by numerous ethnicities but the spiritualism embodied here
Byron McKim is an accomplished filmmaker with numerous nominations and
awards. Quest (2005), his hour long aboriginal
dance program was nominated for two Gemini Awards and broadcast on APTN
and SCN. McKim's drama Back to Turtle Island won
Best Film Drama at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco
and received seven nominations at the British Columbia LEO Awards winning
Best Cinematography. Back to Turtle Island has been broadcast on Vision
TV, APTN, SCN and D Network in Australia and is available through distributor
Shenandoah Film Productions in Arcata, California through out the United
States. Dancing with Spirit (2007) is available
for purchase on-line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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