Review: Mînowin dances through the mists of time and tradition

A scene from Mînowin by the Dancers of Damelahamid. Photo: Jessica Wittmann

The Dancers of Damelahamid have been practicing their art for half a century, but that art is ancient.

The Dancers present the stories of the Gitxsan people of the Northwest coast of British Columbia. Damelahamid refers to the ancestral home of the Gitxsan on the Skeena River. Their work is masked and full of the symbolism of the environment from which they come.

The people of the Northwest coast have a rich tradition of story, song and movement. It is all bound together in the potlatch ceremony. The gathering was central to honouring tradition and speaking to each other about what it means to be Gitsxan.

A scene from Mînowin by the Dancers of Damelahamid. Photo: Jessica Wittmann

When the Canadian government imposed a ban in 1885 on the ceremonies, it was, in effect, closing down a culture. When it lifted the ban in 1951, the Gitxsan and other Northwest coast peoples started to rebuild.

That’s where the Dancers of Damelaamid come in. Founded by Ken and Margaret Harris in the 1960s, the Harris family has been doing its best to restore and renew the dances for today and for the future.

They are recognized for their work and their latest project, Mînowin, received its world premiere in the Azrieli Studio of the National Arts Centre on Thursday night.

The legendary German choreographer is credited with creating a form of dance called Tanztheatre. It turns out the Gitxsan have done dance-theatre for thousands of years and to equally great effect.

The story told by Mînowin is one of origin and renewal. It is quiet, intimate. There is music of flute and drum and voice. The beautiful regalia, designed by Rebecca Baker-Grenier, and the masks showing raven, eagle, bear and more convey the connectedness to nature that is at the centre of the work created by Margaret Grenier, the daughter of Ken and Margaret Harris. Her husband Andrew is the creative producer of the company and her son Nigel danced and sang in the show. It is truly a family affair.

A scene from Mînowin by the Dancers of Damelahamid. Photo: Jessica Wittmann

What is different about Mînowin for the Dancers of Damelahamid is the rather amazing and effective set and visual effects and interactive media created by Andrew Grenier, Andy Moro and Sammy Chien, along with animators Dallas Parker and Kristen Campbell. Wolves run along a series of panels as the origin story is revealed. Horses gallop across the plains and the Rocky Mountains rise as a marker of the landscape of the Northwest Coast. A circle in the centre of the stage floor transforms into a sun symbol as cedar branches sweep away the ages.

Unlike some visuals that overwhelm what is happening live, these effectively complement and advance the story.

It’s important to note that Mînowin also presents more than a Gitxsan perspective on the origin story. Ken Harris was a Gitxsan chief, his wife Margaret is Cree. So this production includes the origin story of the Cree, hence the horses. Elder Lawrence Trottier helped develop this part of the project.

The Dancers of Damelahamid are pushing their art forward. They are certainly expanding its horizons with this production. Old work is evolving into new interpretations.

Mînowin is a striking piece of work. It was a privilege to see and hopefully to learn from it.

The performance also proves the enduring power of culture. As Margaret Grenier, who also danced in the work, says the people are still here and they remember who they are.

Mînowin is on until Sept. 28. For information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.