Coastal Dance Festival teams up with Nordic Bridges to celebrate local and international Indigenous performers

Photo par Chris Randle

Just in time to celebrate its 15th anniversary, Coastal Dance Festival will resume in-person performances at the Anvil Centre in New Westminster from April 20–24.

“It is going to be special this year, and people are really looking forward to it. As we are preparing, it just feels like it’s going to be a very warm celebration,” says festival executive and artistic director Margaret Grenier.

Exciting contemporary Indigenous dance

A lot of new initiatives are taking place for this year’s festival.

Participating in Canada’s Nordic Bridges initiative that aims to foster cultural exchange between Canada and the Nordic region, the festival will premiere works from four Indigenous Sámi artists from Norway and Sweden.

As a festival first, it will have an evening dedicated to contemporary Indigenous dance, featuring a duet from Liv Aira, artistic director of the Sámi-based Invisible People Contemporary Dance from Sweden, and Marika Renhuvud, a dance educator and member of Aira’s dance company, as well as Norwegian Sámi aerial acrobatic dancer Camilla Therese Karlsen. A local Indigenous artist Tasha Faye Evans from Port Moody will also make her festival debut, sharing an excerpt of her latest work Cedar Woman.

“I think it is important that we share contemporary work, as well as their stories. As the director, I really had to find my own path to development. How can I contribute to this conversation? How can I tell contemporary stories and also not just retelling but share teachings through stories that help navigate reconciliation, navigate colonial history,” says Grenier.

The festival will also introduce a new program called Artist Sharing, which features short presentations and panel discussions to complement the stage performances and help the audiences deepen their understanding of Indigenous artistic practices, histories and sources of inspiration.

In addition to the contemporary theme, 15 Indigenous groups from throughout British Columbia, Washington, Alaska, the Yukon and Ontario will also showcase their performances at the festival. Traditional Indigenous dance practices usually feature characters in full regalia and sometimes wear carved masks dancing to rhythmic songs.

“Everything really is a way to carry stories. Whether it is in the form of the regalia or a piece of carved mask, all of these really help to portray the stories that are being told, and they tell the history of our families and our communities. They are very specific and really help to portray our identities – where we come from when you go from region to region. You can see the difference. Every community has something unique to its region and the stories are very specific,” Grenier explains.

Carrying on the tradition

The festival was organized by Dancers of Damelahamid, a dance company that was set up by Grenier’s parents over four decades ago. Grenier sees the festival as a family tradition that has been carried through the generations to celebrate and honour the Indigenous community and practices.

Swedish Sámi contemporary dancers Liv Aira and Marika Renhuvud. | Photo by Sami Maldonado Lizarazu.

“The work they did ensured what we have today. They also hosted a festival at that time annually, and I saw how much that meant, as an opportunity to grow up with all the surrounding communities. When we started the festival again in 2008, it was really sort of to bring back that experience. My two children – who are now grown up – they had a chance to be part of the festival community as well over the last 15 years,” says Grenier.

She adds that intergenerational practices are a big focus for the festival and she is pleased to see practices get carried on by the younger Indigenous generation.

Injecting new life into hoop dance

One such youngster is Theland Kicknosway, an 18-year-old Indigenous youth of the Wolf Clan from Ontario. Beyond popularity within his own community, Kicknosway has also earned a massive social media following with his own style of Indigenous hoop dance.

Hoop dance is an Indigenous dance practice that comes from the Southwest United States, and it nearly went extinct about 70 years ago because of the legal restrictions back then, according to Kicknosway.

Git Hayetsk. | Photo courtesy of Git Hayetsk

“Because of the strength and resilience of our people, they took the dances underground and were able to still pass them on to the younger children who then grew into our grandparents. So I always give thanks to their strength for continuing on with our traditions even in the hardest of times,” he adds.

Originally the hoops were made from red willow and dancers will use them to create their own stories such as different creatures that one might see in nature. A lot of the hoop dance moves are standard and have been passed on through generations but every dancer will also create their own moves.

“It’s really up to your imagination and your creativity as a dancer to bring designs and animals to life. To me, it’s about bringing a story to the world through these hoops,” Kicknosway explains. “The beautiful thing about this dance is it shows us we are all unique in our own ways. Maybe one individual will see an eagle, another person will see a hawk and someone else will see a butterfly. We all see things differently to our interpretations.”

Kicknosway was hooked on the dance when he saw it for the first time at the tender age of four and started the dance practice at the age five. He spearheaded his own innovation in the dance by using LED light hoops and making the performances more mesmerizing for the audience.

“As a storytelling dance, I have come to the understanding that it’s also healing for some tribes and nations. I am just amazed at the type of work that I have been able to do and the people that I have been able to share this with. I think that’s really what it’s all about. It’s about our people and being able to share as much as we can,” he says.

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