Ever since she was a young girl growing up in the northern Ontario community of Temagami, Sandra Laronde has explored the power of human movement.
Athleticism was commonplace in the community of fewer than 1000 people spread over nearly 3200 square kilometres of inland shoreline, Laronde says. But her early interest in physical movement went beyond sports.
“I was always interested in dance, so I would watch as much dance as I could,” she said. “And then when I moved to Toronto I got into martial arts, and I got into dance.”
Although Laronde says she was drawn to the physical discipline necessary for both dance and sport, it was dance that ultimately won her over.
“[It’s] the emotion and spirit that also has to be inside the body and transmitted through the body, so that people can be moved by something,” she said. “I’m really interested in all that coming together. Like when we braid sweetgrass – mind, spirit, body. That’s the same thing that has to be in a dancer, and in a dance piece, for it to be powerful.”
Laronde is now the Executive and Artistic Director of Red Sky Performance, a contemporary dance company she founded in 2000. She says she was inspired to create the company out of what she perceived as a lack of uplifting Indigenous stories on Canadian stages.
“I wasn’t seeing things on stage that I wanted to see,” Laronde noted. “I wanted to see something that actually made me feel proud to be who I am as an Indigenous person. That gave a lift, that gave something, that inspired something, or made you feel more expansive and larger.”
Red Sky’s stated mission is to “create inspiring experiences of contemporary Indigenous arts and culture that transform society and expand the ecology of contemporary Indigenous performance […] in ways that celebrate, uplift and respect Indigenous culture.”
The company has produced over a dozen shows, and has been touring them since 2003. They have delivered thousands of performances across Canada, including 198 international performances in 17 countries on four continents. They also regularly perform in urban, rural and reserve communities across North America.
Red Sky’s latest creation, Trace, is a one-hour dance performance inspired by Anishinaabe sky and star stories, featuring seven dancers and three live musicians, as well as animated graphic video projections.
The show is conceived and directed by Laronde, with choreography by Métis dancer Jera Wolfe, and music by Métis composer Eliot Britton.
Laronde says the idea came to her out of reflections on the traces left behind by the birth of the universe.
“Everything that is traceable has to have a source somewhere, it has to have an origin,” Laronde said. “I’ve always been very interested in origin stories. And origins, for many Indigenous peoples but definitely for the Anishinaabe, goes right back to the star world.”
In Trace, the dancers portray the story of a Sky Woman who descends from the stars and brings life to the Earth in different manifestations, before departing again into the Milky Way. Laronde says the story is one shared by many Indigenous cultures, including both the Anishinaabe and the Ongwehonweh, or Haudenosaunee.
“One of the names of the Anishinaabe is the ‘Star-People’ and the Milky Way for us is an ancestral path, a spirit path,” she explained. “There’s a relationship between the star-world and the human world, and we often have the same composition. Even chemically, we are the stuff of stars. That’s really interesting to me.”
Laronde and her team developed the show in 2018, and in November, they performed it at Canadian Stage in Toronto. They then did a short tour in southern Ontario, before bringing it to the Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur near Montreal in August 2019. The show will then make its US premiere at the world-renowned Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts.
Laronde says she is very excited to be part of what she sees as an Indigenous cultural resurgence on the world stage.
“We want to create original work that goes out into the world, that is Indigenous-led and Indigenous-made, and to add to the Indigenous repertoire of Canada and Turtle Island and the world.”
The show received an enthusiastic response from the audience in Saint-Sauveur, who often broke into applause after climactic moments, and gave the performers a five-minute standing ovation. For Laronde, the relationship between performers and audience is vital.
“We want to give a little bit of heat to people so they walk out with a different kind of spark than when they came in. And they’re exposed to the incredible beauty that we as Indigenous people have. Whether that’s a physical move, whether that’s something sonic or musical, or an image on a screen. All of them combined to create an incredible experience for people. That’s what we’re trying to do.”