Fluid Festival 2017 presents Praire Dance Circuit

Review by Stephen Hunt

The Canadian prairies are not like other places. They’re the size of Europe, with the population of – oh, say Amsterdam, spread out over thousands of kilometres. They’re sprinkled with mid-sized cities, each of which are a collection of newcomers, who may have arrived late in the 19th century, early in the 20th, after a war, or as the result of some other sort of global disruption.

Got trauma? Here’s a visa and a plane ticket to the vast, well-lit, chilly, isolated Canadian west! Go start a new life that includes big winter.

Maybe I’m being a bit big picture about it, but it’s hard not to reflect on how geography shapes the sensibilities that were on display at the Prairie Dance Circuit, which hit town as part of the 2017 Fluid Festival (it closed Thursday night).

A quartet of different pieces

The performance featured a quartet of different pieces, devised by a trio of prairie choreographers – Nicole Mion (Calgary), Brian Webb (Edmonton) and Robin Poitras (Regina), working with a different prairie artist who inspired them.

Thus, you have Mion, with dancer and choreographer Troy Emery Twigg, physicalizing the land acknowledgment in the opening piece, Still Moving. Land. Acknowledgement, while simultaneously acknowledging her own prairie settler status that took her from Saskatchewan to Calgary.

It’s a nuanced, meditative, sometimes even playful piece, a little bit confessional and occasionally even angry – “I hate the word settler” Mion says at one point – but by physicalizing the idea of land acknowledgment, Mion and Twigg actually feel as if they’ve given physical shape to an idea.

Earlier in the evening, I was at a Common Ground dinner at Nelson Mandela High School, where Nakoda elder Sykes Powderface explained that in the Blackfoot tradition, words lose some of their power when they’re written down, because consigning them to paper strips them of their power of flight.

By pulling the land acknowledgment off the page and physicalizing it, Mion and Twigg give those words their powers back.

From child prodigy to child soldier

Words have been pretty prevalent at this particular dance festival, as well, both on the Prairie Dance Circuit and at Frédérick Gravel and Étienne Lepage’s Thus Spoke…. Edmonton dancer Tony Olivares’ piece, Portrait, created with Brian Webb, is as much a piece of virtuoso storytelling as it is movement.

Olivares arrived in  Edmonton from Nicaragua in 1991 – another big earthquake crumbled Managua around then – forging a relationship with Webb, who mentored him, turning his raw kinetic dance power into professional technique.

It would be perfectly compelling to watch Olivares just dance, his blend of contemporary and Latin-infused movement, but thanks to a little theatrical intervention, Portrait elevates to a whole other emotional level of connection with the audience.

There is the story about winning the first dance competition he enters, as an untrained 7-year-old. There’s the story about being pulled from under a collapsed bedroom wall by his mom during the 1972 earthquake that destroyed Managua, causing Olivares to get a tattoo as a tribute to her “for giving me life twice.”

There’s the story of being forced, at the age of 16, to become a child soldier in 1979, when Nicarauga descended into the civil war that brought the Sandinistas to power.

It’s a remarkable narrative, underscored by a vivid performance danced against an eclectic soundscape that includes two different versions of the ballad, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. Olivares and Webb have concocted a beauty of a piece that begs for a return visit, as a full-length solo show.

Physicalizing an environmental trauma

And if Olivares and Webb construct a prairie narrative that crosses disciplines and sensibilities as effortlessly as the Oilers change lines, Robin Poitras’ piece, THIS, inspired by mixed-media artist (and her ex-husband) Edward Poitras, is the opposite: introspective, metaphoric and internal.

An excerpt from a longer piece called The End of Winter, THIS – choreographed by Poitras, performed by Krista Solheim – physicalizes the calving of an iceberg as it collapses into the ocean – an environmental trauma that’s actually taking place these days in all too real time, lending THIS an added layer of timeliness.

It’s all encapsulated in the evening’s final piece, choreographed by Mion and danced by Linnea Swann:  Persevere. Persevere. Or Be Eaten, an excerpt from Mion’s larger piece, I Eat You, in which Swann blurs the boundaries between food and physical movement.

The elusive prairie aesthetic

Fluid Fest artistic director Mion, when asked if there was such a thing as a prairie aesthetic, said, “it takes a specific sort of person to endure the winters here. You have to be a strong willed person who has their car ready.

“If you don’t have your crop in, you’re going to die,” she says. “So there’s a different kind of reliance on yourself as well as your community that is linked to the weather – and that is the prairie sensibility.

“And the embracing of great potential if you have a good idea – particularly out of Calgary. You know – (like Stampede founder) Guy Weadick. That is also a part of that prairie mentality.

“In Toronto, it’s like – prove yourself,” she says. “But I think here it’s more like, you’ve got a good idea? We’ll back it.

“That’s part of it.”

Blackfoot, Nicarauga, Saskatchewan, Edmonton, Regina, Calgary (and usually Winnipeg, but not this year). Melting icebergs, child soldiers, land acknowledgers, and moving foodies: this prairie dance circuit is plenty capable of spreading its wings and taking flight, and in 2017, they give back some power to words along the way.


Stephen Hunt is the 2017 Fluid Festival Writer in Residence