Lunch with Alanis Obamsawin. She’s a slight woman, with very piercing eyes, and a reputation formidable enough to have won her a retrospective at MOMA in
She tells me that Kanehsatake had its first screenings in
Alanis is thrilled that we want to show her work in Origins, and would like to come to
The rest of the day is spent with Yves Sioui Durand and Catherine Joncas, the directors of Ondinnok. This company, the only First Nations theatre group in Québec, is the crux of this trip to Montréal, and I’m not disappointed in them. Ondinnok’s work is mythological and shamanic in its inspiration. They deal with “issues” and the contemporary reality of Native life – but they do it through a return to the spiritual power of the culture. For Yves, he tells me in his halting but eloquent Francophone English, the theatre is “a big work of re-opening the soul of the people and all the wounds they have”.
The company has been going for more than 20 years, and they show me a DVD which commemorates the 20th anniversary. In the centre of this time-frame sits the moment in 1995 when Yves and Catherine were approached by a community in rural Québec, the Atikamekw of Manawan. This approach was the result of the community’s severe social and spiritual malaise: the high levels of alcoholism, suicide, domestic violence and sexual abuse which sadly characterise so many contemporary First Nations groups, not only in
During the evening, I get the chance to watch some of this in practice. Ondinnok is just beginning a new piece, which will pre-Columbian in its inspiration. The workshop begins with limbering up, which crosses very naturally into a smudging ritual, as the actors wash themselves in smoke. The lights are dim, and there is shamanic music playing. Yves projects a video of Mayan images, and the participants watch it, as the music throbs, and they dance, adopting some of the physical imagery from the projections. Then, in darkness, Yves places masks at the west end of the room, the sunset space where the ancestors lie. The actors take the masks and respond to them, summoning forces and presences older than themselves. In many ways, the mask work is like my own – what is different is its framing within the specific cultural ritual, which has brought the actors to a place of trance, in which they contact their own, and perhaps also their culture’s subconscious.
Yves and Catherine are hugely excited by the idea of a Theatre of Healing workshop at the centre of Origins. If I can, I would like them to run a five-day workshop in the middle of the Festival, which will be free to the other First Nations performers involved. The encounters could be truly extraordinary.