In 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 though 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 though takes glorification and spectacle of filming dance linked to ethnically specific belief systems in another direction. Rare is a perspective that respects difference 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 levels.
The artists of Dancing with Spirit do not offer templates as much as differently envisioned artefacts; 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 do 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 of 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 relays 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 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 “Dancers 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 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 though 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.
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 him self. Three dancers dressed as clergy, two nuns and one priest draw the protagonist 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 on. Most of the symbolism here is familiar and shared by numerous ethnicities but the spiritualism embodied here is special.
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 email@example.com