Through her DanceLab this season, Indigenous dance artist Tasha Faye Evans has been working on Cedar Woman, a collaboration with visual artist Ocean Hyland. We asked her about her work, the project, and how life has changed during the pandemic.
How did you come to dance, and what role does it play in your life?
I have always danced, but I pursued a career in theatre. My body of work has been a compilation of traditional theatre and collaborations with national and international physical theatre artists. It wasn’t until my late thirties that I began performing as a dancer when Michelle Olson invited me to come dance with Raven Spirit for their production of Ashes on the Water. Since then I have been part of few beautiful dance projects that are life-long and dear to the deepest core of me.
Just a few months ago, I might have been able to answer with more conviction about how dance plays a role in my life. A lot has happened between now and the last time I practiced. To be honest, I haven’t felt like dancing at all. I feel cautious about flying and falling, rising, and digging in and feeling. Currently, my practice seems inaccessible.
However, as I prepare for my residency, I have faith that if I was lost, it would be dance that would bring me back home.
Tell us about your current project, Cedar Woman.
I wasn’t raised in an Indigenous community. I didn’t grow up with Aunties telling me stories and teaching me how to walk on this earth in a good way. Instead, I have been held within the boughs of various cedar trees throughout my life. Cedars have always been there for me. This piece is my way of giving back.
At the heart of Cedar Woman’s story is a mask and her dance. This mask is recognizing a powerful Coast Salish ancestor who was transformed into a cedar tree to save her family during the Great Flood. She is Cedar Woman. She offers many medicines and is eternally giving herself for the future of all of our relations. She sings in our voices on the frontlines. Her prayers dance in our bodies. It is her Spirit who helps us rise when we fall.
I am creating Cedar Woman to say thank you and raise my hands to the legacy of strong and resilient Coast Salish women that I am part of, all the way back to the first woman who was transformed into a tree. Cedar Woman is a prayer amongst a long line of prayers protecting what we know from the depth of our soul to be sacred.
How did you meet your collaborator Ocean Hyland? What kind of work does she do?
I met Ocean while making dinner together for a gathering at her Uncle’s house. I didn’t even know the artist she was when we first started working together. Ocean is a visual artist, who also makes jewelry, and most recently has been studying with the some of the best Coast Salish carvers in the lower mainland. Ocean’s art has been showcased in acts of resilience nationally and internationally. She has been commissioned to paint murals in front of Kinder Morgan’s oil tanks, and hang flags from the Iron Workers Bridge, and has created countless drawings that have spread world-wide throughout social media. Ocean and I have collaborated on many projects together. She is a gentle warrior taking her place among the legacy of her family caring for these Coast Salish Lands and Waters.
[Read more about Ocean in the links below.]
What roles do the mask and the box play in the work?
The box is here to hold the mask and the work is all about preparing to take the mask out of the box and dance Cedar Woman’s spirit.
The box has been carved out of a 600-year-old yellow cedar tree from the Elaho Valley in the upper Squamish territory. It was carved by Xwalacktun, who is my dear friend and a master Coast Salish carver. The box represents a legacy of Coast Salish women all the way back to a seed that grew into a tree.
Like each ring in a tree, we are the prayers and visions of our grandmothers, and their grandmothers before them.
Cedar Woman is a magnificent ancestral force. I could never assume to hold this powerful ancestor safely in my body. The mask is there for her to join us from the spirit world. When I wear her mask, my body will help her spirit dance and express what she has come to say.
I imagine a time when all of us humans and supernatural beings would celebrate and pray together. For many different reasons, some of our stories and greatest songs have been tucked away and protected. I feel that right now, as we move forward, facing all our challenges to defend what we know to be sacred, our land, our waters, our daughters, our mothers, our relatives, Cedar Woman is with us. We might not have a mask for her, we might not even be calling her by her name, but she has been with us all along, working so hard to keep us healthy and strong and lifting us up each time we fall. Ocean is making a mask for her, so she can join us again, and take her place among the legacy of Beings we celebrate in our culture and seek for timeless teachings and inspirations.
What was the last thing you were working on before the pandemic?
I feel held by my last dancing experience. I performed Confluence with Raven Spirit Dance with five of my dear friends. I miss them and wish we could gather in person again soon.
How have you been sustaining your artistic practice since the shutdown?
At the beginning of the pandemic I was just about to launch Xapayay: Tree of Life Festival with a program of Knowledge Keepers and artists offering workshops and performances about cedar and the significance of cedar in our culture. I was overwhelmed by the fear of unwellness that was threatening to spread across the lower mainland and knew we would all need cedar medicine, so I adapted the festival to go online. For the first 12 weeks of the pandemic, I felt strong and grounded by hosting these amazing online events. Every week the workshop inspired me and kept me reflecting about my practice and why I do the work that I do. The festival ended with an online gallery. I commissioned five Coast Salish artists to create a work about cedar. Their reflections about cedar and processes were like medicine for me, just to know they were out there doing this work from Squamish all the way out into the valley. But this past month has been exceptionally difficult and I really haven’t felt like opening up to the artistic side of myself, at all.
I am grateful for these questions and being called back to my practice.
More about Tasha’s Xapayay workshops:
More about Ocean Hyland:
A studio showing of Cedar Woman including a Q&A with Tasha Faye Evans will be streamed on our YouTube channel in August.
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Photos by Erik Zennström (top) and Dance Centre staff (bottom)