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Yvonne Chartrand: V’ni Dansi

Artist-in-Residence Yvonne Chartrand, Artistic Director of V’ni Dansi, shares a personal and deeply moving account of her life in dance, Métis culture, the relationship between traditional and contemporary, and her upcoming collaboration Michif Medicines:

How did you get involved with dance?

In 1985 I enrolled to the University of Manitoba (U of M) to study Fine Arts, when I finally had the courage to recognize myself as an artist. I had been passionate about visual arts since childhood. That year at the age of 24, I took my first dance class at the university – jazz ballet – and I immediately fell in love with dance. The following summer, my oldest sister Caroline invited me to join her Métis dance group called the Gabriel Dumont Dancers. I didn’t grow up in my ancestral Michif community of St. Laurent, Manitoba so this was my first opportunity to learn my traditional dances, I have heartfelt gratitude for her invitation. The group and dances were so fun. After three practices I did my first performance for Winnipeg’s Folklorama at the First Nations Pavilion during a powwow. I loved the entire experience!

That fall I saw my first contemporary dance performance by the Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers (WCD) at an open house at the U of M and I was completely mesmerized. I went to my drawing class and was thrilled to discover the professor gifted us the opportunity to go to the WCD and draw the dancers. I was so inspired by the process the first day in the studio all I could think was “I want to do that”. One of my classmates was a student there and she encouraged me to take a class. I went with her and fell in love with contemporary dance. I worked with Murray Darroch, newly arrived from TDT, and that summer I did a choreography workshop with Peggy Baker. With these new discoveries, I knew I wanted to be a dance artist. I am grateful every day that I discovered my gift of dance which has taken me on many amazing journeys. I realized years later in retrospect that I found dance exactly one hundred years after Louis Riel’s prophecy, “My people will sleep for one hundreds years but when they awaken it will be the artists who bring them their spirit back.”

How would you describe the relationship between traditional and contemporary in your work?

Like the infinity symbol on our Métis flag, one side representing our First Nations ancestry and the other side our European ancestry; each is distinct yet when blended created a brand new nation. My relationship with dance is the same. The styles are distinct yet each informs, influences and inspires the other.

When I do traditional Métis dance, the somatic work I learned from contemporary dance allows ease and freedom in my body. With contemporary Métis, dance innovation is the blending of both traditional Métis and contemporary dance, and the potential is infinite. When I create contemporary dance I work with traditional rhythms, patterns, imagery (horse, buffalo, nature, wind, thunder…), internal and ancestral sourcing of movement, as well as history, culture, stories, music, place, environment, dreams, imagery, poetry, spirituality etc.

When I lived in Toronto in 1987-1988 I attended many Native Elders Conferences and I had many teachings. One of the most formative teachings I received was by the late Art Solomon who told us “you cannot live in just the traditional world and you cannot live in just the contemporary world, you need to embrace both.” Since I started dancing both genres of dance, I was passionate about both. I took his words to heart and started my company dedicated to preserving the traditional and innovating the contemporary.

I met many elders who felt it was important to preserve our traditional style of Métis dance and clothing. In our culture when an Elder asks you to do something, you do it. I work closely with many Elders who carry knowledge, they are our universities. The clothing is from the 1800’s – a mix of European and First Nations fashion of the time with moccasins and decorated with beading, porcupine quill, embroidery, and horsehair design. Métis dance is a lifestyle continuing from generations prior and generations ahead.

Within our traditional Michif (Métis) dance genre, a contemporary style has emerged with the majority of the younger generations. Today, the trends include Métis square dancing without a caller, jigging with high dynamic steps and wearing square dance outfits and clickers (like tap shoes but with 2 pieces of metal that click together). Many dances are woven together with continuous dynamic high energy and high stepping jigging. This stems from the traditional style and continuously evolves.

My contemporary dance is informed by my Michif culture and stories. Much of my choreography is informed by my Métis identity, place, landscape, rhythms, patterns, dreams, and I am working now with a more poetic, impressionistic style. New innovative methodologies are constantly being discovered and explored – the process is infinite.

Tell us about Michif Medicines.

Michif Medicines was born out of an invitation by Rulan Tangen, Artistic Director of Dancing Earth. Rulan invited Indigenous choreographers to Sante Fe, New Mexico to share methodologies and culture, and to create a work with the theme of seeds that we wove together for a performance. I was inspired to explore Michif plant medicines and when I shared this with my father he told me my great aunt was the healer of our ancestral community. The experience was rich and so inspirational.

I invited Dancing Earth to collaborate with V’ni Dansi on this idea. Christie Belcourt’s painting Medicines to Heal Us was an initial source for the work. Our research included visiting the Métis homeland and meeting with Rose Richardson – a knowledge keeper of plant medicines and healer who inspired Christie’s painting – as well as other Elders and knowledge keepers.

We have had two creation phases working with award-winning recording artist and composer Wayne Lavallee, and with Gregory Coyes- founder of the slow media community which explores the Indigenous sense of cinematic time. Circus artist Cameron Fraser will join us for explorations of set and video projection. My work with Margo Kane of Full Circle: First Nations Performance which focused on sourcing from an indigenous perspective, has greatly informed the work in which we source from the dancers and explored Rulan’s endless methodologies and experience. A few surprises have manifested from my own explorations in clown which I studied with David MacMurray Smith. Métis humour influenced from my father, family and community has also entered the work. This work explores the importance of our reconnection to plant medicines, Mother earth and our kinship with all things, especially now during these challenging times.

What is the last thing you were working on before the pandemic?

My Rou Garou solo piece based on the Métis legend of the rou garou, a human that becomes a dog or wolf during the night in many traditional stories exploring transformation of wolf and woman.

What is your proudest moment to date?

The proudest moment of my career was when I received a national award for dance from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Victor Martyn Lynch Staunton award in 2011, and my late mother was alive to share the moment with me. My mother was so incredibly happy for me and that made it even more special. The proudest moment from my personal life was the birth and one hour & ten minute life of my daughter Lily, and the beautiful ceremony that honoured her sweet life by the Katzie and Ucluelet First Nations and Métis communities.

If you didn’t have a career in dance, what might you be doing?

I would work with horses and my culture in my ancestral home of St. Laurent, Manitoba (and continue to dance lol) including traveling the world as a wildlife photographer and having a healing centre in the South Pacific.

What are you doing at home to keep moving and sustain your artistic practice?

My oldest brother sadly passed away from cancer in early April so he brought me to my ancestral home here in Manitoba to be with my family during this pandemic. After 14 days of self-isolation, my home is presently with my younger brother who has been living as a quadriplegic for the last 25 years. Everyday I use hands on somatic and massage techniques on my brother that I learned from Helen Walkley and many other dance artists. He cannot return the experience but I know my body is getting a deep internal somatic workout with his delicate 6’4” frame weighing in at 136 pounds. He is so grateful as everyday he suffers greatly and this work provides much relief. Twice a day I run, walk and dance with my brother’s dog Zoey (a rescue dog who may be part husky and shepherd). This is a gift as dogs are not only healing for everyone but I get to study dog movement and behaviour for my Rou Garou piece.

I maintain a strong connection to Mother Earth and my Métis homeland in Winnipeg and St. Laurent working on the land of my brother and father’s places taking care of their land from hauling brush to yard work to gardening, and land dancing! The time I spend with my 85 year young father is invaluable as I hear stories of the past, discover new Michif medicines, learn some of the language, explore new territories, watch the icebergs transition to water on the lake, watch happy people fishing in the ditches and see different wildlife from the ancient pelicans to eagles and everything in-between. Soon I will jump in the lake, transform into the manipogo, sasquatch and explore other creatures on the Michif homeland.


Save the date: due to the pandemic, Michif Medicines has been rescheduled to June 19-21, 2021, coinciding with National Indigenous Peoples Day.