Lara Kramer’s FRAGMENTS at NAC in June, 2011
Montreal dancer Lara Kramer’s investigation of her mother’s childhood in residential school – and the dance performance that grew out of it – began in 2006 when she was studying Contemporary Dance at Concordia University in Montreal. For a Creative Process class assignment, Lara began documenting her family lineage in an installation exploring her mother’s residential school experience in Manitoba during the 1950s and 60s.
While Lara was growing up in the 1980s, her mother, Ida Baptiste, sometime told stories about her often traumatic seven years when she was torn from her family and forced to attend a Manitoba boarding school from age 4 to 11. Later, Ida lived in a foster home in Manitoba. http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif
In 1995, Ida suddenly left home. Lara was 14, her younger brother only 4. Losing her mother was Lara’s point of entry into a tragedy that afflicted thousands. Canadian government policy was to break up aboriginal families and force children to give up their language and traditional way of life: an official policy of cultural genocide that left its victims alone to heal the losses and wounds.
One Thanksgiving weekend in 2007, Lara interviewed her mother at her home on the Rama reserve near Barrie, Ontario. “Going to the root of my mother's childhood helped me to understand her as an adult. Prior to dance, in 2001 - 2003 I studied Early Childhood Education. I wanted to understand how early development shaped our lives as adults. I think subconsciously I was trying to understand why my mother was the way she was...and why she left.”
Transcribing the mother’s stories, Lara was able to “see my mother more objectively, as a person that these things had happened to.” The research process led to a script that used her mother’s interview text as voice-over for a solo dance work which Lara found “very difficult to be inside. I wanted to convey, not just my mother’s story, but the emotions of the other young children.”
Ida had attended school in Portage la Prairie (1954-56), Manitoba and was later transferred to Brandon Residential School (1957-61). In 2009, Lara travelled back to Portage La Prairie with her mother, and visited The Indian Residential School Museum of Canada where Lara held a residency to further her research for an eight-month project involving four dancers The end result, Fragments, is a full-length piece exploring themes of Abuse, isolation, fear, authority – using a contemporary dance vocabulary.
“Fragments was very much about my personal history with my mother, spiritually, emotionally, poetically, cyclically . The darker images and emotions of these young children come from my own wounds, from having a mother who abandoned me.”
She had always connected to her mother’s memories “empathetically. I always knew I was lucky to have parents, growing up in London, Ontario, in a housing coop where there were many native families.” Her mother was actively involved in the Native Friendship Centre and Lara’s interest in native politics started when she was young. A childhood friend lost her uncle during the Ipperwash crisis in 1995 in which a London police officer killed native man Dudley George”It was a pivotal time in learning how stereotypes and cultural attitudes contribute to violence against First Nations People,” she recalls.
“My mother was Ojibway/Cree and looked native. She was attacked from both sides because she had fair skin.”” Later, Ida studied Ojibway language and Native Studies at Trent University, reconnecting to her culture. As a dancer, Lara carries on that tradition – making connections through her work.
Being in the contemporary dance community “gives me the leverage to share this history, and have it received by a mainstream audience.”
In powerful scenes, the four dancers push desks, bully one another, and explore the limits of their prison-like world. In one sequence, a girl rises from a twisted posture crammed into her wooden residential school chair and begins to awaken to the truth.
While working with non-native dancers who knew little about the history of residential schools, Lara was able to get them to “embody the spirit of the children, connect to their voices, and touch the depth of it.”
A residency at Theatre Gesû’s Centre de Créativité led to the final crafting and a premiere in June 2009. The three-night run included a nightly artist talk where invited elders Morning Star, Delbert Joseph Sampson and Jean Stevenson spoke with the audience. Sampson, who is a Squamish nation traditional dancer and does ceremonial work with prison inmates, asked to do a ceremony at the studio. “He set up a shrine, brought regalia and did a ceremony for us; a very intimate process and exchange that cannot be put into words. He then danced for us.” Later the dancers danced for Delbert.
After that first performance at Theatre Gesu, Lara felt a huge weight lift from her shoulders. “I was no longer ashamed to be a native woman. Residential school had made my mother hate herself, and that feeling had infected me. But after sharing this work, I had more pride.”
“As a choreographer creating for an audience, I’m very aware of the dark subject matter. It’s all so politically charged, most Canadians just block it out. The challenge was to create dialogue, tell my story in a positive way so people are receptive to it. Native people have no problem understanding it: it’s part of our history. The dance space becomes a ritual space. It’s about dancers and audience living, breathing and connecting to that place and time.”
Often audiences are speechless at the end. “They come up in tears to thank me.”
More recently, in February 2011, Fragments was performed at the Talking Stick Festival, at Roundhouse Theatre in Vancouver. She’ll take it to the NAC on June 17, marking the two year anniversary of the first performance, as part of the Canada Dance Festival.
Fragments will also goes to the Banff Centre in August, where Lara will be part of the Indigenous dance program, and also teaching there for 2 ½ weeks. She and her agent are planning a tour back to Vancouver in spring 2012 and hopefully surrounding areas like Yellowknife and Victoria.
She continues to be amazed at “the way dance is documented in the body. The transferring of material from one Interpreter to another, how it lives and breathes in the entirety of the body, and how it is transformed with every new dancer who enters the work. As a choreographer, I give them a lot of freedom to create. I want to see the fragility of the human spirit, as well as the strength of it.”