Sandra Laronde

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

Paula Wilson

Joe Szekeres

“I did training in Toronto, at the Banff Centre and with Native Theatre School as it was known in its time, and now it’s known as The Centre for Indigenous Theatre. That was transformational, really…it was really, really difficult, getting up at 5 am and really athletic and strenuous and exciting work. It opened up my eyes to so much.”

So exclaimed the founding Executive and Artistic Director of Red Sky Performance, Sandra Laronde, as she opened our conversation with this description of where she had received some training as an artist. According to the press release: “Sandra is a highly accomplished arts leader, creator, and innovator who plays a pivotal role in the ongoing Indigenous cultural resurgence of Canada…She is the recipient of numerous awards for artistic excellence and leadership including the Celebration of Cultural Life Award from the Toronto Arts Foundation, Victor Martyn Staunch-Lynch Award for Outstanding Artist in Dance from Canada Council, Expressive Arts Award from the Smithsonian Institute, Paul D. Fleck Fellowship in the Arts (Banff Centre).” Highly impressive awards and recognition, indeed.

This word ‘transformational’ has been a key element in many of the artists whom I’ve interviewed since the Coronavirus pandemic ground all our lives to a screeching halt. Many live performers have spoken about their own transformation in ‘pivoting’ at this time in their lives whether it be for personal or professional reasons, or a combination of the two.

Laronde also acknowledged one of the triumphs she encountered with Red Sky during this time of Covid is the fact they were able to pivot very quickly. When that all happened, Red Sky came up with other ideas to make something happen very quickly “right out of the gate”. And they did that. Red Sky has been able to attract other audiences with their digital offerings in the interim.

The company also started ‘Red Talk’ which they’re calling their ‘Wisdom Keeper Series’ during the pandemic because what Sandra noticed was people were hungry for wisdom, hungry for wise words and people with lived experience. This series involved their elders coming on to speak about what was the means to this time during the pandemic. This was the first offering and 5000 people showed up who listened. That’s a sizable part of the audience from the province, across the country and parts of the United States. New people were being reached in different ways, and for Red Sky this was an important factor to recognize.

Yes this time of Covid, according to Laronde, has been one of new learnings personally but for her it has been “more of a re-learning, a re-boot, and a …re-fresh in experiencing just how beautiful the natural world is…and how we are all interconnected and have been awakened.”

I couldn’t agree more with her as this profile series has opened wide a window for me in my transformation to learn more about the arts and culture of the BIPOC community, especially the Indigenous community for this profile.

Further, I also learned the narrative of Indigenous story has been predominantly driven by the mainstream, and not driven by Indigenous people. According to Sandra, “It’s been driven through a white lens media. In a way that has not been at all complimentary to Indigenous peoples.”

Sandra adds further: “The mainstream has created a false narrative, and that false narrative has to do with the taking of land, and the taking, and the taking, and the taking of resources, land and water, and there’s a political reason why there is a false narrative about Indigenous people that is tied to land, a colonial narrative, of course.”

Laronde sees Red Sky as "one of the companies that needs to work on “this narrative change through truth telling, inspiring, empowering, and lifting and elevating and centering story so that story can have a real impact in all of our futures, not just Indigenous, but people. If Indigenous stories can be told by the Indigenous peoples, that can also help us connect up to the natural world.

“This centering the Indigenous story in the consciousness of Canada, and in the narrative of Canada”, for Laronde, is extremely important because:

“[The Indigenous peoples] have been treated very much like a distant cousin to the family of Canada, and we should be right at the centre of that family. We do not want to be treated like a distant cousin when we have so much to contribute, so much to offer. This narrative out there right now created by the mainstream holds a lot of unconscious and conscious biases, and that perspective needs to change. And it can only change once we author and tell our own stories.”

Sandra strongly concluded that “once Indigenous put their stories at the centre, that is how change is going to happen, and the Indigenous can come through in the stories, and Indigenous truth can be advanced. If Indigenous origin stories are shared and told to children, we would have a very different relationship to nature as a result. If Indigenous origin stories were told of how they originated, where the origin is of Indigenous people, we would have a very different idea of our connection to Canada, to our land, to who Canadians really are.” For Laronde, part of who Canadians really are rests with Indigenous peoples.

I was looking forward to our conversation because I’ve recently learned of the Canadian premiere of the film ‘More Than Dance, We Are A Movement’ will be shown online in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Toronto’s award-winning Indigenous innovators, Red Sky Performance presented by the national initiative Digidance and Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.

Another reason why I was looking forward to speaking with Sandra Laronde? I could finally ask a highly qualified arts leader how those of us in the audience watching, who may not have an extensive knowledge of understanding movement and dance, what specifically we should watch closely. There is something visually stunning and highly captivating how the performing artists use and weave their bodies corporeally to tell stories, but I could just sense there has to be something more.

And I am grateful Sandra Laronde was available for a worthwhile conversation that opened my eyes to an awareness of the beauty and sound of the Indigenous people and culture.

She was quick to acknowledge there is a lot to look at in any dance piece and ‘More Than Dance, We Are A Movement’ is no exception as there is a lot of athleticism involved. Laronde spoke of the fact there is something potent about movement, image and music together in one very powerful creation with no need for language to understand. For Red Sky performances and the upcoming ‘More Than Dance, We Are A Movement’ presentation, Laronde proudly states she is concerned far more about the audience and its experience in what they are doing in seeing the story land. Along with the dance, there is the expression transmitted through the human body in these beautiful ways. Lighting and original live music played in ‘More Than Dance’ mesh and gel to tell an Indigenous story.

Both Sandra and I agreed that there is nothing like live performance and we both concurred that we do miss it because they are transformational. She is also quick to point out that digital is the way of the future too. Yes, nothing can replace a live performance where an intimate connection binds an audience to the artists.

That being said, Laronde quickly adds that the digital screen offers elements that an audience often doesn’t get in live performance. For example, if there is a real close up shot, we can see the performer in a completely different way that a live audience may not capture at that particular moment. In this respect, film allows moments of transformation for the audience to see where they are supposed to be looking at certain moments.

Image also plays a prominent feature in ‘More Than Dance’ as well. The image portrayed on the scrim/screen of the stage and some of that is interactive as it might trace the bodies of the dancers and you can see it being traced as they move along. There are also some beautiful, animated images somewhat (not necessarily animated) with motion graphics and projection mapping, but the dance, Laronde re-iterates, is the focus of the film.

Sandra wants audiences to know that another important feature in Indigenous art forms is there is no tendency to silo so much, meaning the performance isn’t divided into dance over there and music over here. All of these art form disciplines are brought together and combined with cultural meaning in a story that is relevant and, hopefully, one the audiences are able to respond.

As we concluded our conversation, I wanted to ask Sandra about the term ‘meaningful change’ which I saw mentioned quite a bit in the press release I had received. When I asked her how meaningful change can be applied to Red Sky in a post pandemic world, Sandra agreed that it was a good question, but a big question to ask, as the company looks towards its future when we can all gather together once again.

In terms of artists through the unique creative process of working with Red Sky, Sandra recognized there is great learning in and of itself. Red Sky creates a work together but the way it creates shows might be a little bit more unusual. Red Sky is interested in accelerating the leadership capacity of Indigenous arts and culture in cultivating good people who are going to do things in society through learning and through seeking.

Sandra states she is interested in people’s minds and hearts being transformed in celebrating Indigenous arts and culture since it is still relatively new in Canada. It hasn’t been that long since it has been on Canadian mainstages.

I am really looking forward to the premiere of ‘More Than Dance, We Are A Movement’ which will stream April 14-20 in Canada. To purchase tickets, visit www.harbourfrontcentre.com.

To learn more about Red Sky Performance, including their touring performances for children and youth and digital performances, visit the group’s website: www.redskyperformance.com

Facebook: Red Sky Performance Twitter: @Redskyconnect Instagram: @redskyconnect

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