“A Soldier’s Tale” comes home

 

Photography by Paul Lampert.

Photography by Paul Lampert.

 

Jeanne Holmes, the artistic producer of The Canada Dance Festival and ardent supporter of our newest creation, “A Soldier’s Tale,” wrote the following program note for our June 9th premiere in Ottawa, Ontario:

“Signal is a fascinating word — it can guide or warn, command, or direct, or with a simple gesture moves us into new territories.  The work of artistic director Michael Greyeyes  does all of that and more.  His dance-theatre creations, built with rigour and invested with indigenous histories, bring new perspective to the contemporary experiences of Canada’s First Peoples.

It is such a pleasure to open CDF 2014 with the powerful production A Soldier’s Tale.  Co-produced with our partner the National Arts Centre– AST is a visceral and poetic glimpse into the terrible world of the soldier.  On returning home to the embrace of family, many continue to fight inner battles of survival and guilt and in that fallout is the deeply personal and necessary storytelling we see tonight.”

 

Photography by Paul Lampert.

Photography by Paul Lampert.

 

Ottawa

 

It all began in Ottawa, actually.

It was 2008, early December and I remember working on an arts jury for the Canada Council for the Arts when I received a phone call–literally out of the blue–from a maestro in Philadelphia, asking me if I was interested in re-working “A Soldier’s Tale,” the seminal music work by Igor Stravinsky with a new score by the renowned American Indian composer Jerod Tate.  I was, of course, excited to work with Jerod but the theme of Stravinsky’s original work was based in a Judeo-Christian construct of a man selling his soul to the Devil for knowledge.  I told the maestro that did not interest me, but I was interested in speaking about soldiers and their experiences of coming home after conflict.  I have not served in the military, but many in my family have, many in my community have served bravely.  The name “Greyeyes”, I was reminded in Ottawa this past week by another veteran, has significance in the Canadian military.  And in that discussion at the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health the day before we opened I realized that I have grown up surrounded by veterans and their stories.

 

Sadly, the project with the American symphony and Jerod Tate did not come to fruition, but it was in my hotel room on Cooper where I imagined a project that examined the lives of soldiers and the aftermath of war.  I had just completed filming Paul Gross’ epic war film Passchendaele the year before and I was still immersed in those stories, in those characters’ lives.  So I began to imagine how I might create a theatre work that could honour what I knew and manifest on stage the fragile peace that many veterans had constructed for themselves after their return home.

 

I have always been drawn to stories of wartime, from the countless World War II films that my father and I watched together, to the many images in the Encyclopedia Brittannica and other history books, to my fascination with the photographs of my father and grandfather in uniform.  As I grew older, works such as Paths of Glory, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter were seared into my consciousness.  But then I saw Coming Home, a work of startling power with cinematography by Haskell Wexler.  It was this film in particular that turned my head toward the costs of war and who shouldered them–a portrait so intimate and unforgettable, I think I can quote it shot by shot.

 

 

coming home voight

Jon Voight in Coming Home

2011

It was in a café in Toronto where I sat down with Brian Webb, the former artistic producer of the Canada Dance Festival in 2011, after Signal had just premiered from thine eyes, our first major production.  Brian asked me if I was working on anything.  He was interested in programming something with a larger cast for the 2012 CDF and I pitched AST.  He was immediately captivated and began a discussion with Cathy Levy, the dance producer at The National Arts Centre.  The work was timely and our company’s mix of dance, spoken text and visceral physical environments might be a perfect mix for the larger stage of the NAC Theatre and to open the festival.  Soon after I began writing grants to develop the work and invite collaborators aboard, I realized that the scope of the work required many years of research and examination, so the 2014 CDF seemed the logical choice.

 

2014 was light years away.

 

But then we got to work.  Tara Beagan was my first choice to write the text, Yvette Nolan and Nancy Latoszewski also as dramaturges and John Gzowski to compose the music.  A dream team.  So we immersed ourselves in these worlds.  One set in Saskatchewan in 1947, the other in Iraq, circa 2003.  What, you might ask, do these worlds have in common?

 

Soldiers.

 

Their experiences, undimmed with time, unfiltered and raw.  I knew that the work we produced must be unflinching.  That is the reality that soldiers must face everyday.  And that reality, as we’ve discovered, becomes a relentless shadow that follows each of their homecomings.

 

Photography by Paul Lampert.

Photography by Paul Lampert.

 

A Soldier’s Tale was developed over nearly three years of workshops, meetings, conversations and long moments of reflection.  A work of this scope requires no less.  The cast and production team would carve out mere weeks in our busy schedules to come together and rehearse, create, hone, and finally polish.  Finally, in 2014 we premiered the work at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, at the Fleck Dance Theatre, presented by DanceWorks–Toronto’s longest running independent dance series.  Signal Theatre is a new player on the national scene, but the content of the work and its potential to create awareness around the trauma of operational stress attracted a number of key partners, without whom the work would not exist: The National Arts Centre and the Canada Dance Festival as co-producers, The Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council.  The Banff Centre, too, supported us with a creation residency in 2013.  As well York University and the School of Arts, Music, Performance and Design, where I teach theatre, contributed to my research by generously giving us a rehearsal home.  Every part of the creation of this work was intense because we knew it would be viewed, ultimately, by veterans–upon whose stories we had built our own.

 

But 2014 finally did come and the premiere at the Fleck was extraordinary.  Yet all the work we pursue with Signal begs deeper investigation, more stringent analysis, more rigour, and even more reflection–so we knew that the lessons we gleaned from our Toronto opening could only challenge us to be better for Ottawa.  Interestingly, we had a mere 3 days of rehearsal in Toronto before travelling to the National Arts Centre to prepare for our opening, yet once we were in the studio once more, the work, its themes and characters came immediately back to life and we literally picked up where we had left off, 4 months earlier.  Moving back into the movement and the text was too a homecoming for all of us.

 

And then we boarded trains and packed the rental truck and drove east on Hwy 401 until we saw the signs which pointed us here.

 

Photography by Paul Lampert.

Photography by Paul Lampert.

 

And then time speeded up, rushing forward, with or without us.  Our production team, led by Ron Snippe, guided us through a tight rehearsal and set-up schedule until we found ourselves backstage, costumes and props at the ready, while members of the cast, Yvette and I and our fight director Simon Fon found a fugitive moment or two to figure out last minute details.

 

Photography by Paul Lampert.

Photography by Paul Lampert.

 

It was an extraordinary feeling waiting for that opening curtain.  Nerves and relief, anxiety and hope.  But then finally Jeanne Holmes stood, opening the festival officially and welcoming our company.  She then introduced an Algonquin elder, who began the evening with a prayer and then a young singer followed with a piercing honour song, accompanied by his hand drum.  The entire auditorium quieted and centred itself.  In the silence that followed, I walked to my seat next to Yvette, exchanging a quick glance and smile.  And the lights in the theatre dimmed.

There we were, at last– in the city which inspired its beginnings, finally back to share our work.

Thankful to come home.

 

Photography  by Paul Lampert.

Photography by Paul Lampert.

 

 

 

Dancers in the Park (2007) Pt. 5

Coronation_Park_Toronto_2007

 

DIARY: MICHAEL GREYEYES

This week’s diarist is actor and dancer Michael Greyeyes. He kept his diary last week while rehearsing for Dusk Dances, a dance festival taking place in Toronto’s With-row Park until Sunday.

BY NATIONAL POST  JULY 13, 2007

 

We open in 17 hours …

Not that I’m counting.

Dress rehearsal was tonight and Meegwun and I were looking for redemption. Sylvie (assistant director for Dusk Dances) saw our piece for the first time yesterday. She was gracious in her response, but we were unhappy with the showing. It wasn’t as bad as that scene in All That Jazz where Roy Scheider’s character (a.k.a. Bob Fosse) shows his producers his latest creation.

Afterward the camera pans to the producer’s faces, which are frozen into masks.

CUT TO: Scheider retching into a toilet.

Okay, we did better than that, but we didn’t have our singer last night, nor our regalia — so the overall impact of the dance was really compromised.

Today, Meegwun and I were determined to knock their socks off.

 

10 a.m. We began rehearsals for Triptych, the new dance work I’m choreographing. We worked all day, with the other cast, on what turns out to be the hottest day of the year.

4 p.m. Change a few sections of the Dusk Dances piece that I still wasn’t happy with.

5 p.m. We race from York University to Withrow Park for a 6 p.m. call. Just make it.

6:30 p.m. We start getting into our regalia and rehearse the new choreography. The humidity is stifling. It’s hard to breathe. We’re sweating like horses.

8 p.m. We forgot to eat dinner, or drink fluid. My legs, my whole body feels leaden. We dance. It’s a sprint uphill from start to finish, carrying a fridge on my back. (Note to self: You need to drink fluid and eat supper in order to keep the engine running.)

 

The audience we had for the dress was enthusiastic, but we’re holding ourselves to our community’s standard.

Powwow is about excellence and truthful expression.

Redemption will come tomorrow.

Promise.

 

Michael Crabb reviewed the festival for The National Post.  The following is an excerpt from that review.

Dancers in the Park

[…]

Yet, for masterful dancing, the prize goes to dancers Michael Greyeyes, Meegwun Fairbrother and singer-drummer Eddy Robinson for their spirited Grass Dance. These traditional dances have always varied from nation to nation, and choreographer Greyeyes, whose diary is featured in these pages this week, gives the form the more polished structure appropriate to a formal performance. What impresses, apart from the colourful feathered costumes — their movement evoking the swaying prairie grass — is the sheer power of the dancers’ presence: proud, dignified and utterly virile.

Dancers in the Park (2007) Pt. 4

MG Passchendaele

Michael Greyeyes as the character “Highway” in Paul Gross’ World War I epic “Passchendaele.”

 

DIARY: MICHAEL GREYEYES

This week’s diarist is actor and dancer Michael Greyeyes. He kept his diary last week while rehearsing for Dusk Dances, a dance festival taking place in Toronto’s Withrow Park until Sunday.

BY NATIONAL POST JULY 12, 2007

 

Phone rings.

It’s my agent, Mary Jane MacCallum at the ARC. I’ve just booked a film that starts shooting in mid-August –a period war film for Rhombus Media/CBC called Passchendaele. I remember the audition.

INT. CASTING OFFICE. DAY.

Movie posters on the wall. Casting office No. 1,768 in the 14th year of my acting career. This one has nice chairs. Casting Assistant “We’re ready for you, Michael.”

Enter non-descript room. Cameraman. Reader (someone to read lines with). Producers. Ragged piece of tape on the carpet:my mark. Sides in hand. Three scenes. The character is interesting. Banter with director…  Action.

CUT TO: Me walking out of the building into a cool spring day.

I thought it went well, but you can’t think about those things or you’ll go crazy. Then weeks pass. I wonder who got it?

The phone rings. Yes! The ups and downs of this thing are fast and furious. But this is really great news. Takes some of the sting out of the grant fiasco.

Racing to rehearsal for Dusk Dances. I’m late. 401 East is packed, but (blessings) the DVP is smooth going.

We have a good rehearsal. Worked on the ending. Tightening, smoothing the transitions between sections. Meegwun is dancing well and finding his way into this dance style. He tries on the Grass regalia for the first time. It flows, which in turn helps him flow. He’s digging it.

11 p.m. Foot in bucket of ice-water for 15 minutes. The first three minutes are frank torture. Then your skin starts to numb (but not nearly quickly enough). Ten minutes in, you get a cramp and have to move your leg, which stirs the ice cubes instigating a replay of the first three minutes again.

Great.

How did it get to be midnight!?

Tomorrow, the dress rehearsal of Dusk Dances.

Dancers in the Park (2007) Pt. 3

Toronto_1894

Map of Toronto from the 1800s.  Pretty old but not 1535.  That’s the year taken from the title of the piece I was creating in 2007, “Untitled # 1535.”  The year 1535 was the year Jacques Cartier made his 2nd voyage to what he named “Canada.”  At first I wanted to use the year 1492, when the conquest actually began but this was a little more sly.  The actual name of the piece was Untitled (Grass Dance) # 1535 (in this exact location), which referred to the fact that our dances have always been outside, so being invited to an outdoor festival is hardly new to us!  I thought I would remind everyone of this with our title.  My guess is that the 1534 previous dances were pretty awesome as well!

 

DIARY: MICHAEL GREYEYES

 

This week’s diarist is actor and dancer Michael Greyeyes. He kept his diary last week while rehearsing for Dusk Dances, a dance festival taking place in Toronto’s Withrow Park until Sunday.

BY NATIONAL POST JULY 11, 2007

 

My daughter’s swimming lessons in the morning are in outdoor pools. The water feels good. Dancing at 40 ain’t all sunglasses and autographs.

Long walk to the mailbox. I’m waiting on news of a grant we desperately need to make a new dance work. It’s called Triptych, which explores the fallout from the residential school system and Christianity. I opened the letter… “We regret to inform you…”

Crap.

That was a blow. This means everyone who’s committed to working on the project with me is really going to be working for peanuts. !(&%#^! Pick yourself up. Dust yourself off. Get in that car. Keep hustling. York University. Arrange studio rental for Triptych. Must get to fabric stores to buy material for my regalia for Dusk Dances—the dance I’m creating uses Men’s Grass style as the principal movement vocabulary, and we’ll be dressed in our traditional regalia and grass outfits. Powwow dancers are always working on their outfits. Sewing, patching, updating.

The dancers are like MacGuyver.

The sheer ingenuity of the way people construct and maintain their outfits blows my mind. A buddy of mine, who is a champion grass dancer, was showing me the part of his regalia that keeps the feathers of his headpiece in alignment and allows them to rock when he dances—hence the name “rockers.” His rockers are covered in peyote stitch beadwork, but the item underneath is a simple pill bottle, the kind you get with your prescriptions. Wow. He said, “Yeah, those work the best.”

 

We open in five days. My ankle is a mess. The site where we perform is radically uneven. Who the hell picked this spot? Oh, yeah. That was me. 11 p.m. Foot in bucket of ice-water for 15 minutes.

Try it sometime.

 

Tomorrow, a day at the casting agency, and dealing with foot injuries.

Dancers in the Park (2007) Pt. 2

Dusk Dances Celebrates 20 Years

DIARY: MICHAEL GREYEYES

 

This week’s diarist is actor and dancer Michael Greyeyes. He kept his diary last week while rehearsing for Dusk Dances, a dance festival that takes place in Toronto’s Withrow Park today to Sunday.

BY NATIONAL POST JULY 10, 2007

 

It’s raining.

Mad scramble to call Sylvie Bouchard, artistic director of Dusk Dances, to reschedule a crucial first showing of our piece–a natural consequence of running an outdoor festival. Then quick calls to my fellow performers, Eddy and Meegwun, telling them I’ve cancelled today’s rehearsal.

Ugh.

I need all the rehearsal time I can get, but it’s not worth rehearsing in a dance studio. The dance work belongs outside and rehearsing it at the actual location is the only way to work the piece at this point. Yesterday was killer. The guys looked weary by the end of the night, and on the drive home on the Don Valley Parkway (thankfully un-jammed), it felt like both of my eyes were in one socket.

Today is about balance.

Work/family. Like many businessmen, I’ve been guilty this past year of letting work outweigh my family. A commonplace occurrence, I know. But this year, I’m determined to stay in balance. Cancelled rehearsal = unexpected slot of available time for my daughters. Took them to swimming class, made lunch, played Operation. Put the little one to nap. Idyllic moments … but business rears its ugly head – checking e-mails, stealing a glance at the video we made of yesterday’s changes.

Hustle. Don’t slow down. As an artist, I’ve learned how to hustle. It is the first box that needs to be checked on the job application:

For fun I like to:

a) Relax and watch a movie.

b) Read a book.

c) Play a sport.

d) Stay up till 4 a.m. filling out a grant application.

If you checked d), consider a life in the arts.

FYI, if you checked d), also make sure you marry a saint (or another artist), or a civilian–as we in the biz often say; they’ll keep you in balance.

 

Tomorrow, why dancers are like MacGyver.

Dancers in the Park

Dusk Dances

 

Photo by serves-babylone.  Pictured Meegwun Fairbrother (foreground), Michael Greyeyes (background).

A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a marvellous outdoor performance festival called “Dusk Dances” where I presented a short dance work, Untitled  (Grass Dance) # 1535 (in this exact location).    As I prepare to go back into the studio with our company to rehearse a newer work, I am reminded of these earlier days–gearing up for another premiere at a previous festival.  I find it interesting that every part of that journey is relevant and oddly twinned to my current life and schedule.  And so to celebrate how things change and at the same time remain the same, we present…

DIARY: MICHAEL GREYEYES

BY NATIONAL POST JULY 9, 2007

This week’s diarist is actor and dancer Michael Greyeyes. He kept his diary last week while rehearsing for Dusk Dances, a dance festival that takes place in Toronto’s Withrow Park today to Sunday.

The fireworks are over.

Back to work. Ye olde 9 to 5 but with a twist. My office this month is in Withrow Park, just south of the Danforth. Have I turned into that guy living in a van, down by the river? No, thankfully. My cubicle is an open patch of grass, near one of the children’s playgrounds in the park. And today, I fixed the piece that I’m making for Dusk Dances, an annual performing arts festival in Toronto, now in its 13th season. Dusk Dances presents a series of site-specific dance works at a local area park (this year at Withrow) every summer, and this is my first time as one of the invited choreographers.

The pressure’s on.

When I looked at the video of the work we had done so far, I knew something had to be fixed, but I wasn’t really clear about what exactly needed work. Distance is crucial. We didn’t rehearse of the Canada Day holiday, so that we could recharge—spend some time with our families, breathe. The on Monday, I spent most of the day in front of my Mac, watching video of the material we had created so far. This is the part of our work that doesn’t get a lot of attention. The ditch-digging of theatre. The unseen legwork that makes or breaks a show. And then comes the always-surprising (often demoralizing) realization that your choreography did not spring from the seat of your imagination as a fully formed and pristine creation. Actually, it comes with warts and needs a haircut.

But good writing is re-writing, so today Meegwun Fairbrother (a young traditional dancer and singer), Eddy Robinson (our traditional singer) and I worked from 3 till 9 pm, re-writing, developing, repeating, honing, fixing.

Back to work.

Man, I’m beat.

 

Tomorrow, finding that work-family balance.

Process

by Yvette Nolan

 

Image

A Soldier’s Tale opened last night at the Fleck.

This morning after I sent notes to Michael.

 

The creation of work is a process, and a late part of the process is the insertion of the audience into the equation. Because of the vicissitudes of space (which I know I go on and on about), we do not have the luxury of audience until we open.

 

The audience gives us new eyes, new ears.  We see afresh.

 

Colleagues last night were very generous in their response to the show, in both their praise and their critique. 

 

I also think that the days of tech in the theatre are about process. We are making adjustments the whole time (often to the chagrin of the house crew who seem to feel we should be inserting a completed product into the space) because we have all kinds of new information.  Everything is connected, everything is always connected, and when we change this staging to accommodate, say, the awkward lack of wing space, it reverberates in odd ways through the entire piece. Some things that worked in the studio need to be much bigger, or smaller, in this space. So we adjust.

 

I love working to the last moment, to the moment when the house manager opens the house and lets the audience in to our process. And then, after the painful half hour where no work can be done, I am immersed in a new and refreshing process, the one that includes these hundreds of eyes and ears and hearts.

 

The process continues tonight.