Friday, May 27, 2011


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.

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.”

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Imagining Montreal

In imagining Montreal, we have to consider the hidden history of a city that has experienced wave after wave of immigration – or, if you prefer, successive phases of invasion and colonization. Since the French first arrived and planted a cross on Mount Royal, followed by the English and Scots who built the banks, our little island has existed mainly under successive states of siege. Its original inhabitants, the natives, vanished from our streets long ago, returning occasionally as shadows to beg in Metro stations and sleep on benches. And our imagination has gone the same way as our indigenous people: it’s been displaced, marginalized, and survives on handouts from a society that has lost its memory, aka compass, aka soul.

Each new colonizing gang brought its own new diseases, neuroses and crimes for which each gang needed to create hospitals, schools and prisons. All these developments make up the history of a city we still appreciate for its natural beauty and diversity. As for the institutions that still compete to control the wilderness beneath the pavement – few of us feel very attached to them, or if we do it’s mostly for all the wrong reasons.

We have grown up in the shadow of massive crimes against humanity, which we have successfully forgotten thanks to “modern science.” Our sense of well-being depends on manufactured amnesia. Still, we’re human. So every now and then we remember something that we feel might be important enough to share with other humans. This is why some of us are so professionally concerned about “literature” and “art.”

In Montreal, art is everywhere. So is writing. Lately, certain people have become quite strident in their demand that our art, and particularly our writing, be recognized across Canada. The people making this demand are mainly writers who feel under-estimated, and the arts administrators who live to make writers feel better about being poor and ignored. But lately, there is a sense that Montreal writing is not getting the audience it deserves. When a Montrealer wins a literary prize these days, it’s like the Canadiens winning the Stanley Cup. Except that hockey is such a simple game, compared to writing, where more and more “winning” is the result of promotion. So these days, our arts administrators are doing their part, to promote our city in the world where art and literature really matter.

The trouble is, these winners from Montreal rarely write about Montreal. They write about crossing the ocean in a little boat, or growing up in Maine – themes which are considered suitable for an international audience. As Montreal grows on the literary map, Montreal content seems to be disappearing --

When we write about this place, where we just happen to live, we are trying to make some sense of our lives and experiences here. Like it or not, most art is autobiography. And it’s also political. Anglos would not be so strident in their demand for recognition, if they didn’t feel a sense of opposition to the established order. In Montreal, when you are looking for an establishment to be opposed to, you can choose between two possibilities. One is English, the other French. Some Anglo Montreal writers feel they are drowning in a sea of French.

I never felt that way. I was always grateful to be living in a French speaking environment while enjoying some of the privileges of speaking English. I didn’t mind if Quebec separated. I always knew I could pick up and move someplace else. Looking back, I realize how wishy washy I was – and how lucky. Like anyone with a interest in underdogs, I wanted the French of Quebec to succeed, against all odds, in creating their own future against a backdrop of colonization. I stood around for several decades, and watched them do it. In the meantime, I wrote about my life in this place. I wrote stories, or imagined stories I would one day write …

Some of our stories are necessarily trivial and riddled with kitsch, which is why we need critics, or inner critics, to prevent us from believing in them. Like any city, Montreal is the scene of great dramas, if you can see past the situation comedy, the stereotypic images sold in souvenir shops around town, the maple leaf badges, bagels, Expo hats, hockey sweaters, churches, oratories that make up Montreal’s revolving circus of secular and religious kitsch. If you can deconstruct the testimonies of our talkative drunks, psychiatric patients, street musicians, journalists, poets, and even an internationally-recognized singer who still roams our streets on occasion, granting interviews which all sound pretty much the same – then you have a chance of Imagining the real story of Montreal. Meanwhile we have our festivals, newspapers, literary events, television stars, actors, small and large theatre companies competing for audiences in the Centre de Spectacles. Taken together, Montreal is a fascinating travel package that promises endless entertainment that only visitors can afford -- but never mind. The show goes on, and most of it washes downriver in spring.

Personally I can’t Imagine Montreal without thinking of secrets. And since secrets are usually dark, I can’t Imagine Montreal not floating in copious amounts of darkness, lit by the lamps of gambling and prostitution. Other writers have noticed all this before me.

Secrets make for interesting stories – this is a truism, and our rulers also know this. That’s why in recent years, so much effort and money has gone into colonizing and sanitizing our literary scene, ridding it of its darkness and obscurity. Exposed to the light of day, washed with Sunlight, deprived of its mysterious potential, it resembles every other literary scene on the planet, except that it appears much more self-conscious and provincial than the ones I would really like to be part of.

Why is the end result so predictable? Montreal used to be a good place to hide out and write, in secret. Nobody was looking over your shoulder, ready to snap up your manuscript for the Commonwealth Prize or the Giller Award. What was true then is still true today: to write truthfully about Montreal, you need to go far away from Montreal. And once you’re away, you tend to forget the trauma of having lived there. I believe Mavis Gallant would agree that this was true, even in her day when she was going around exhuming Butter Box Babies and upsetting the authorities by writing about it.

It was only when I left Montreal that I started to see it as a voluntary ghetto with high walls that were built by its own inhabitants –or at least certain inhabitants, who wanted to protect the spoils of conquest. In British Columbia, where I kept my radio constantly tuned to Radio-Canada so I could pretend I was still in Quebec, I rarely missed my freelance life of poverty in Montreal’s expanding literary scene. Montreal is not Quebec. Neither is it a real City State, as Montrealers like to pretend.

Living out West, I suddenly realized the principal reason nobody out there cares about “Montreal writing” is that Montreal writing does not much care about anything outside itself. Montreal writing has existed for decades in its own little ghetto – and much of it was written by men at McGill who secretly worked for British intelligence.

I rarely hear French writers complaining about their lack of outside recognition, certainly not with the sense of bitterness and outrage that rejected Anglo writers seem to feel. French writers expect to be ignored. Another way to put this is: they have learned the lessons of “independence.” Not so, we Anglos.

Complaining about being ignored by the Rest of Canada is now a Montreal Anglo tradition which I helped start it in the 1980s, when I was trying to get published. There were few publishers in Montreal back then, other than a couple of small magazines at McGill. Several Toronto editors told me there was no English writing coming out of Montreal, even though I was in Montreal and had just sent them a manuscript in English! Either I was dealing some deeply-held religious mindset (although it felt more like a longstanding unwritten policy of ignoring Montreal because it wasn’t Toronto.) I happened to have additional advantage of having lived in Southern Ontario in the mid-seventies and worked for Southam, so I knew all about their tendency to paint all Quebecers as criminally insane, in order to create scary headlines and sell their newspapers to an incredibly straight-laced public.

Or was all this part of something more insidious? E.g., a CIA-style operation to divide and rule Canada by forcing Anglo Montrealers to emigrate en masse, and thus reinforce our collective amnesia? Silence and Exile – were they doled out to us as our punishment for having witnessed one of the most bizarre military psy ops in Canadian history – the October Crisis of 1970?

By the early 1980s, there were a few of us losers still hanging around, writing in English in the Plateau. Our local media (which mainly boiled down to the Gazette) owned in Toronto and staffed by up and coming journalists from Saskatchewan, were not supportive. Their deluded mission in those days was to drag Montrealers kicking and screaming out of the Dark Age left behind by the separatists, and any leftover wet dreams we might retain of “independance.” A dirty French word, that independance –because of how it suggests “dance” as opposed to “dence” as in dense, or density, more of an Anglo virtue. Or what about that equally dirty phrase, “Vive le Quebec Libre” –a shocking obscenity that Mordecai Richler never got over, while Norm Webster was still traumatized by it in 2007, four decades later.

Those of us who lived here back then, and had even had the bad taste to be born and grow up here, had nowhere to go with our little stories and scribbles. Nobody out there wanted to know what it was like to be electroshocked at the Allan as a child or teenager, or tricked by the RCMP into taking LSD and throwing Molotov cocktails at the Montreal police. If, in fact, we even remembered those strange incidents from our past. Had we been encouraged, back then, to “write what we know” we might have eventually ended up piecing all our memory puzzles together, and arriving at the inevitable conclusion: telling the truth in Montreal can get you in trouble, if not outright killed.

This is something we have had to learn the hard way. It’s also why we have produced so few really great writers who can speak to the ROC. Because collectively, we lost our minds ca. October 1970.

Of course, all that is about to change...