1. Map of Stars - Tracing the Constellations of Identity, Culture and Contemporary Performance by Michelle Olson

2. Personal Reflections of my art and life by Hari Krishnan


Map of Stars – Tracing the Constellations of Identity, Culture and Contemporary Performance.

By Michelle Olson


I was invited to be a part of the discussions of “so you think you don’t folk dance” at the Dance Centre in Vancouver in 2008.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend.  I am glad to be given this opportunity to engage in the conversation a year later, through this essay, to offer my thoughts, ponderings, and frustrations of realizing my art through my body and through dance.


My original discussions with Su-Feh Lee[i] were centered around how dance is a way of reconstructing First Nations community’s stories when there has been a rupture. Once I began to delve into my thoughts about this, I started examining the foundation of my work, and what compels me to ask the question I do through dance.  I feel like I have come across a complex map that, at moments, seems indecipherable.  So through this essay, I traverse some of this unknown space in order to name my hunches and to create a container where my process and perspective can be held. Tethering my experience to words has been a challenge.  I want to put forth ideas that land true in my body and offer my perspectives on contemporary aboriginal work.

My thoughts have organized themselves into these themes:

-       The relationship between Inner/ Outer and how this resonates in our traditional bodies and colonized bodies;

-       Rehearsal room and Theatre as hunting grounds and sacred space; and

-       Proscenium Stage and the Police Line up.


My Lens


In order to offer my perspective on contemporary aboriginal dance, I also have to share the lens from which I see the world.  I did not grow up with my traditions or on my traditional lands. I am suburban girl of Edmonton.  My weekend hangout of West Edmonton Mall was a far cry from the rivers and hills my dad grew up on in northern Yukon.  It is when I started my dance training and creating my own work that I started to long to know the land and my community. My impetus to create contemporary work has largely been about connecting myself to my inherited past.


I am a member of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation, a nation that resides at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike River.  An elder affectionately calls me Bird Girl, because I come up with the birds in the early summer and leave before the fall.  I began creating work in Dawson City eight years ago, and this work has become the repertoire for Raven Spirit Dance[ii], the dance company of which I am currently the Artistic Director.  I focus on the development of contemporary aboriginal dance in Vancouver and have also worked in theatre and dance across Canada.




Through my training in Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies, I have been introduced to the principle of Inner/Outer.  It is a foundational principle of the Bartenieff Fundamentals. This concept can help me explore the idea of our traditional and colonized bodies and how this manifests itself in the work.


This concept can be explained through the idea that-“inner Impulses are expressed in outer form”, and that ”involvement in the outer world in turn influences inner experience.”[iii]


Inner/Outer is a great container to hold the idea of “folk practice” /“folk dance”. Irmgard Bartenieff said, “ Body movement is not a symbol for expression; it is the expression.”[iv] From this, I venture to draw the parallel that folk practice is the expression, not a symbol of the expression.  The dance has a clear purpose: to make it rain, to give thanks, to honour the environment and ancestors, to find a wife/husband, to encourage sex and making lots of babies, plant seeds, to create community, to tell a story and to impart a cosmology that is the underpinning of our lived experience.  When I compare different First Nation dance expressions with this model of Inner/Outer, I can see how the fluidity of the inner impulses feeds into the outer environment and vise versa.


As an example of this, I have had the privilege of attending a daylong ceremonial dance of the San Juan Pueblo, just north of Sante Fe, New Mexico.  The Nation is in an arid climate; they grow crops of corn and beans, and it always needs rain. Their sedentary way of life and relationship to the environment is reflected in their dance. The simple formation of the dance is a single line and there is symmetry in body gestures and movement.  As the dancers gently stomp on the ground, there is an internal focus as their gestures offer thanks to the Creator and ask for rain or snow.  The dance is done over eight hours with all ages from preschoolers to elders. It was an amazing day to experience, to start the day, watching the dancers come out of the kiva (the central building in the community for ceremony and council) and dance all morning, to feast with them during lunch and then to go back to the kiva to witness the rest of the dance.


Their own dancing bodies were straddling the inner experience to the outer world, wanting their inner desires to manifest in the outer environment.  After the Buffalo dance was completed at the end of the day, it lightly began to snow. I overheard one young dancer happily exclaim that they made this happen. It was a stunning moment to see how this young dancer felt her actions influenced and shifted the world in which she lives.


Another example of this is how the Plains Cree Pow Wow dance, in particular the Fancy Dance, clearly straddles inner impulse to the outer environment. Plains Cree originally were nomadic; their travels ebbed and flowed across the prairies in response to the seasons and the buffalo.  So the outer environment was about constant change, moving like the wind.  The Fancy Dance is multi-focus movement with quick jumps, always on the balls of the feet, ready to spring into complex spatial patterns with strong cross-lateral connectivity. It is a reflection of all the skills needed to live in their environment.


As I have witnessed and reflected on the many indigenous dance forms across Turtle Island, I have come to this understanding.  Culture is formed from thousands of years of impulses firing in response to the environment.  Kinetic chains are established and passed on creating identity, cultural perspective and community.  The complexity of it all is reflected in how each nation has their own cosmologies, stories, ways of living and seeing the world in which they inhabit.


I cherish moments when I am able to witness dance that has been birthed out of a certain Nation’s perspective, be it community or ceremonial dance.  It is the healing balm that I need.  I present these examples to show how interconnected the inner and outer is in traditional dance across Turtle Island and how it once was before contact.  But there has been a break between this connectedness over the last two – three generations for many Indigenous people.  This is the abyss where, for me, ceremonies were lost, stories untold, and connection between generations has disappeared.  This is the abyss I try to straddle with my work.  This is my reality as a contemporary aboriginal person.


So how does one try to kill a culture? Residential school was the prescription from the government and the church. They were right in that to break a people one goes to the hope of a community, the child and breaks them.  They are the ones that integrate into cultural perspective and carry it forward as they learn to crawl and walk, sing and dance.    Being a mother, I cannot even think of anyone coming into my home and taking my daughter away from me.  The elders in my community had to endure this ripping apart as they were taken away from their own mothers, from their own land, their own culture and put into schools where they were stripped of their language, beaten and abused. 


I was visiting my community’s graveyard this past summer, and as I walked around, visiting family and friends who have passed on, an odd thought came into my mind.  This grave was the Truth and Reconciliation.   Many of our people gone to the grave with their stories about what happened at residential school.  They were not able to find justice in this world, and lay down the heavy burden of their stories.  They found their Truth and Reconciliation[v] in the arms of the land. The land embraced them again and I am sure they fell into her arms with a heavy sigh.


So I share these things because this is what I bring into the rehearsal room with me, whether I like it or not.  This brokenness is mine, and as an artist I am trying to set the bones.  These unspoken stories are mine, and in some way, I try to give voice to them.


At times, I feel like there is a huge void between my inner impulses and my connections to my place and space in the world. I do not have the traditional language to bridge between my inner experience to the outer world, or the ceremonies or cosmologies to hold my inherited perspective.  So I search for these connections in the creative work and with artists who are trying to traverse this same divide.


I also go back north, to be in the community with friends and family, to be near the river and the mountains.  I connect into who I am by planting my feet on the land and breathing the northern air.  And there are moments when I am embraced by such rushes of hope that I do not need to go looking for it.


I am blueberry picking on the top of the world highway. Close enough to kiss the sky and the mountain hills spill out from my feet into the deep valleys to meet the Yukon River. There are shadows of the clouds on the hills and my family is scattered along the hillside. The instincts come back to me. The instinct to stand up from my berry picking spot, to scan my horizon to look for bears, check to see how far people have wandered and then back to my spot of fragrant moss and sweet, plump berries.  There is fluidity between my Inner/Outer connections.  I am at the right place at the right time.  I am doing as my grandmothers would have done and see as they would have seen.  It is a simple sequence of actions but a profound moment.  I am flooded with what I am and what is, and in this moment it is good.


Rehearsal Room as Hunting Grounds and Sacred Space


Claiming territory and self-governance in the rehearsal room is a discovery I have made over the past couple of years, by engaging in my own creative process and in process with other indigenous artists.  Song, smudge and feast have been the containers for the work to be held in a sacred way. 


Because of the loss of ritual in many of our communities, I believe spirits are attracted to the ritual of the rehearsal room.  To acknowledge this, they are feasted. The first feast I was a part of was when I was in the cast of Unnatural and Accidental Women[vi] at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver.  Being on the downtown eastside and telling the story of the missing women drew spirits into the rehearsal room that needed to be acknowledged in a ceremony. Working on Native Earth Performing Arts[vii] productions, I have come to realize that feasting is a rehearsal requirement.  Feasting acknowledges those who have passed on and their presence in the rehearsal rooms with us.  Doing this names the spirits and gives them a clear space to exist in the room.


The room is held by the traditional medicines of sage and cedar and sweetgrass.  Finding words, finding impulses and making them exist in space is a vulnerable process. These medicines are a container for when images, sounds and song surge through us and into space.  Their presence also reminds me of my strength and helps me find trust in the moments that reveal themselves, no matter how beautiful or devastating they may be.


 As the words, images and impulses begin to knit together, I realize that I am starting to uncover a larger cosmology, a cosmology that my blood and bones know and that my mind is furtively trying to grasp at its hem.  Cosmology is the lens in which to see the image and see the story. In the rehearsal room, one can be confronted by images that stop you in your tracks and instinct is to run far away from the moment.  When I stumble into these moments, I am always required to ask of myself what do I believe deep, deep inside of me.  Traveling this far inward, out surges a cosmology that can hold the moments for me in the rehearsal room.  When I step outside, that cosmology travels with me and helps me hold my life in a new way.


 I was recently talking about this idea with a couple of storytellers and we concluded that a new cosmology allows you to see the work in a new way, and add the commas where they need to be.  A comma, a beat, a movement shifted because of cosmology can mean the difference between being victimized and being powerful, between keeping the door shut or letting it fly open.


Looking for image and impulse, I equate to hunting in the rehearsal room.  This idea of hunting first came to me when I was working with Muriel Miguel[viii] on my one-woman show, Evening in Paris. I was stuck, we were trying to find a moment and I couldn’t find it.  Muriel took my place, and I saw the instinct kick in, a rarified sensing that years of training would develop, but also this electric current from body, thought and image.  She was hunting for images.


Once, when I was in Jay Hirabayashi’s[ix] butoh class, all of the dancers were a bit too heavy on their feet so he had us all stop the choreography, and we all had to line up at the end of the room and with two feet, leap forward, land in deep flexion, fully on our feet….without a sound.  He was getting us to develop our hunting skills. 


In the rehearsal room, sometimes I feel like the “city Indian” in the bush, making so much noise, I have no hope in hell to come across any deer, moose, or even rabbit.  As I clobber through the bush, I clobber in the rehearsal room and I chase all the images and impulses away.  So I am learning to tread lighter, listen closer, and wait for the offering, and once the impulse/image is offered up, accept it.


Proscenium Stage and the Police Line-up


Raven Spirit Dance hosted an Aboriginal Choreographic Workshop in December 2006 at the Scotiabank Dance Centre in Vancouver.  It was an intensive period of research with invited Aboriginal choreographers from across Canada.  The impetus was to examine process and challenge the notion of an indigenous creative process.  One of the themes of the work was: What is Original Source: ways to explore traditional and colonized bodies.


A movement exploration rooted in this theme was lead by Floyd Favel[x] and Geraldine Manossa[xi].  It was a police line-up.  The movers were to stand in a line, facing the choreographers.  We were to face forward, turn right, face back and face left, the basic police line-up movement sequences.  We were being seen but unable to see who is watching us.  We were asked to hold a secret somewhere in our body.


Walking into a theatre and sitting down in the audience, we walk into a space that is constructed on assumptions, and unseen but imposing power structures. This is the two-way mirror. We all have stepped into the palace and the marketplace, the arena of consumption and the ruling aesthetic. The shift from a self-determined rehearsal room to the theatre, for me at times feels like a punch in the stomach.  The imposition of the proscenium stage and what it holds is pressing.  I am thrown behind the two-way mirror, holding my secret close.


To resist against how the space presses down on me, medicine is brought into the theatre.  For Evening in Paris, I had Bob Baker [xii]do a cedar sweep of the theatre the morning of opening night.  With cedar boughs, he swept the walls, corners, backstage, stage and audience. Then the cedar boughs are placed in the Lynn Valley headwaters, the ceremony complete.  This gesture is done to cleanse the space, clear it of energies that don’t belong, so what is about to happen in the space can happen in a good way. I found comfort in the image of the cedar boughs floating down the mountain, in honour of the moment I was in.  It opened up a space within me and it opened up a space on the stage for me to present my work in a good way.


It is an interesting collision, the proscenium stage and ritual of performance, the seeing and not being seen.  As practitioners we have even named the wall (the fourth wall) that sits between the performer and the audience.  The question is how do we traverse this divide? How do we acknowledge it and even see each other through this wall?  How can we shift the marketplace to the ritual?


The concept of witness, Ut’sam, is foundational in the West Coast traditions.  The witness is a vital part of a ceremony. They hold the space for the event to occur.  In conversation with Bob Baker, he talks about the role of the witness is to enter the space with a clear mind and light heart so one can perceive clearly and cleanly.


In the The Whole Beast, Su-Feh Lee came out on stage, house lights up, and talked about art as not a commodity, it is to be shared; it is a gift that she is offering to us.  She asked us to close our eyes, and listen to our breath, inhale and exhale.  Then we opened our eyes, she began to dance. The shift into the performance was not the house lights coming down but the shift was the presence of the audience.  We were transformed into witness.


For me, the heart of art is conscious. Its own structure names, challenges and breaks the power lines of the “palace”.  Codes of aesthetic are not present to nullify and entertain but to push boundaries landing in the place of ritual; a transformed space where the secrets can be shared and our hearts can be touched.


The secret for me is that we are all broken, yet pulled by a deep longing to know our hearts as we walk the tightrope between our joys and pain, and holding the hands of both fear and trust.


The artist has been equated at times to a shaman (even though the word shaman makes me queasy with all the New Age connotations it brings).  The Webster dictionary describes the shaman as “one who divines the hidden.”[xiii] This is the role of the artist. This divining does not happen in the palace or the marketplace. It is impossible. It happens in the ritual of day-to-day life, it is in how we love and in how we hate, how we find joy and how we despair.  The ceremonies hold us from our birth to our death.  It is what the ‘folk’ do.


Ending with a story…..


My sister worked with the Beaver people in Northern BC.  She would commute from Edmonton every week.  Late one night as she drove home, she was convinced that someone was in the back seat.  She drove and drove out of complete fear of what would happen if she stopped.  It turned out to be no one.  She mentioned this to an elder from the community and the elder nonchalantly assured her that it was probably one of the lost spirits that have mistaken the Alaska Highway for the road to heaven.  Before the highway came into their territory, dreamers, or Prophets, had mapped out the trail of stars that would lead them to the other world.  However, once the highway rolled straight through their community, the spirits got mixed up and that old knowledge of how to travel the stars to heaven became confused with the new trails and paths set before them.


At times, I feel like the spirit that is wandering up and down the Alaska Highway, trying to remember where I have been and where I need to go.  It is in the creative work and in the rehearsal room that the patterns of stars begin to reveal themselves.  The cosmology is deep in my bones.  So I move, create, sweat, question, ache and dig deeper and am graced at times with a clear night, where I can see the stars and the constellations.  


And I know I am on my journey home.



[i] Su-Feh Lee is Artistic Director of battery opera.


[iii] Hackney, Peggy.  (2002).  Making Connections.  Routledge, New York.

[iv] Bartenieff, Irmgard. .  (2002). Making Connection.  Peggy Hackney.. Routledge, New York

[v] The Canadian government formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as part of the court-approved Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement that was negotiated between legal counsel for former students, legal counsel for the churches, the government of Canada, the Assembly of First Nations and other aboriginal organizations. [ accessed on November 28th, 2009]

[vi] The Unnatural and Accidental Women written by Marie Clements.

[vii] Native Earth Performing Arts -

[viii] Muriel Miguel is an actor, writer, director, teacher and mentor. She is a founding member of the Native American women's Spiderwoman Theater in New York City.

[ix] Jay Hirabayashi is the co-Artistic Director of Kokoro Dance ( and is the executive director of the Vancouver International Dance Festival (

[x] Floyd Favel is a theatre and dance director, writer, journalist, and cultural theorist.

He has worked across Canada as a director and writer and performer but his primary interest has been the development of theatre theory and methods he calls Native Performance Culture (NPC).

[xi] Geraldine Manossa, is a member of the Bigstone Cree Nation in Northern Alberta.  She is a choreographer, performer and scholar. She teaches Indigenous performance, storytelling methods and traditional expressions at the En’owkin Centre in Penticton, BC.

[xii] Bob Baker is a cultural advisor, performer, traditional composer and traditional choreographer. His Squamish Ancestral name is S7aplek, Hawaiian name is Lanakila and he is co-founder and Spokesperson for Spakwus Slolem (Eagle Song) the most reputable Dance Group of the Squamish Nation.

[xiii] Merriam - Webster Dictionary Online. ( November 28th 2009)


Hari Krishnan: Personal Reflections of my art and life

When Su-Feh invited me to be a part of this panel, my first thought was “But I do not practice FOLK dance! I am a Bharatanatyam artist.” As a Bharatanatyam practitioner and scholar, I have always argued that modernities (be they colonial, nationalist or transnational) rupture the history of Bharatanatyam at several junctures over the last 200 years. So why should I be a part of this panel which focuses on FOLK dance!?
Having had the pleasure of interacting with Lee Su-Feh and sharing ideas with such an esteemed knowledgeable panel (Anis Nor, Zab Maboungou, Jennifer Mascall and Su-Feh), below are some transformative ideas/reflections that have helped me further shape my art and life after this inspiring conversation!
As an Indo-Canadian dance artist, I realize I am constantly engaged with my audiences (my FOLK) in an interactive, holistic manner as I sieve through layers of complex issues surrounding an apparently seamless history of Bharatanatyam. I prefer taking the cracks and fissures of history seriously, pausing to consider how larger social and political transformations affect the practice and representation of the dance.
The histories of Bharatanatyam dance as written over the last one hundred years by Indian and Western scholars, overwrite the actual complexity of difference, and may well be just as crippling as the earlier oppressive discourses of the colonial gaze and Orientalist scholarship.  By identifying difference as manifesting through various discourses, which label themselves as forms of ‘modernity,’ we are able to see the complexity, multiplicity and richness of the aesthetic, social and praxical principles underscoring the culture of Bharatanatyam dance.   In the nineteenth century, where I locate the core of my investigations, the dance of the indigenous community of women (devadasis) had already become a subaltern practice.  The threat of the colonial presence in the Tanjavur court in South India had ushered in an immediate process of data-collection, codification and reconfiguration of the practices of the devadasi, a task which was accomplished by the Tanjavur Quartet (ca. 1802-1867).   
This conversation has helped me in thinking about when discussing the history of the dance ‘revival’ which followed in the early twentieth century, we cannot but avoid the fact that what was being ‘revived’ was in fact, a ‘modern’ form.  By positing the dance’s first encounter with modernity as synonymous with its first encounter with colonialism, we are able to read the discourses of ‘revival’ and appropriation of the devadasi dance and its reformulation as ‘Bharatanatyam’ in a new light.   This first encounter with modernity, however, was distinct from the ones to follow because the embodiment of the dance did not change.  This modernity was created by and enacted upon the bodies of devadasi women and their teachers/accompanists, nattuvanar men.   Along with this significant historical fragment and particularly after hearing Zab talk about the politics of Congolese dance histories , I am also interested in two other ‘modernisms’ in the genealogy of the form: first, the construction of the modern form of ‘Bharatanatyam’ by urban upper-caste elites through an appropriation of devadasi dance, and second, an outright, explicit rejection of the devadasi heritage of ‘Bharatanatyam’ by new transnational elites whose vision of the dance rests upon its marketability in the context of global art.   By juxtapositioning these two points of rupture, I am interested in two seemingly divergent notions of modernity that have affected the history and historical representation of this form.
Anis has spent decades researching traditional Malay dancers from indigenous communities and is a crucial representative of articulating this research to government bodies in Malaysia. I appreciate this important archival work as I myself have spent more the last decade learning the old, pre-revival-period dance repertoire from the devadasi and nattuvanar communities, in an effort to preserve and document the last fragments of ritual and court dance from Tamilnadu, South India.  When I present classical ‘Bharatanatyam’ dance performances in Canada, they are either choreographies taught to me by these masters, or reconstructed versions adapted from the musical texts they have provided me with.   This exercise which attempts to reclaim the indigenous voices and allow them to express their form (through my body) may be called a kind of ‘contra-modernity’. This ‘contra-modernity’ exists in contra-distinction to the various post-revival, commercialized forms of text and movement we see as ‘Bharatanatyam’ today.  However, understanding that that this exercise can only be realized to a certain point on my body, I intentionally choose to retain the new name ‘Bharatanatyam’ for my performances and scholarship, and do not revert to the indigenous nomenclatures such as catir or dasi attam.
However, just like Su-Feh and Jennifer Mascall, I am also an artist by profession.  That is to say, I live in public culture, and therefore, I recognize that any form of praxis undertaken by my body inherently reflects the cultural and symbolic spaces which affect me.  For this reason, I think of my involvement in ‘devadasi archaeology’ as an exercise in post-colonial, culturally-sensitive modernity.  My own involvement with culture has been affected by multiple contexts (regional, performance-technical, sociological and historical).  Any sort of creative enterprise I undertake, therefore embodies experience I have gathered from these multiple contexts.  For this reason, I like to speak of my creative work as governed by a theory of praxis. As Hanne M. de Bruin clearly explicates, “Praxis [is]…a specialized form of practice, namely the mastery and application of technical and strategic skills, performance conventions and experience which performers require to successfully practice their profession in the lived-in world…Praxis is governed by flexibility and by the pragmatic motivations of agents to ‘make things work’ in accordance with the demands of the occasion rather than by static rules and prescriptions which tend to impede such practical efficacy. Praxis which takes its legitimization from the historical and social context in which it developed can help us understand…how…performances are considered to by efficacious by both performers and audiences.”  (Bruin, 1998, 22-23). The conversation on the panel further reinforces my belief in praxis as a clear outreach to various FOLK both from larger communities as well as government agencies.
Bharatanatyam circulates globally in our time. This is what Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge call ‘public culture’ --  a space in which “pre-modern boundaries and context-margins are ‘cannibalized,’ and elite cultural practices are given mass circulation:
Commercial culture (especially in the cinema, television and the audio industry) seeks to popularize classical forms.  Mass cultural forms seek to co-opt FOLK idioms.  This zone of contestation and mutual cannibalization – in which national, mass, and FOLK culture
provide both mill and grist for each other – is at the very heart of public modernity in India.”  (Appadurai and Breckenridge, 1995, 5). Today Bharatanatyam circulates in ever-more global pathways.  The dance operates as a form of conscious cultural reproduction for non-resident Indians in places as diverse as New York, Singapore, Roanoke and London, often achieving more popularity in these locations than in India.  It also provides a means of maintaining a separatist nationalist sentiment for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Canada, Germany and the U.K.  Non-Indian practitioners of Bharatanatyam have brought it to such far-ranging locales as Japan and Spain.  The dance form further travels as a sign that echoes with an international concept of ‘Indian-ness’.  Representations of Bharatanatyam dancers appear in American music videos, travel guides and restaurant menus. Each of these appearances of Bharatanatyam rest upon an imagined history, a history of ‘what Bharatanatyam really was.’   
Participating as part of ‘So you think you can’t FOLK Dance’ has further reinforced my belief to move the history and representation of ‘Bharatanatyam’ away from an ‘unbroken continuum’ paradigm into a paradigm which takes ruptures in the history and form seriously. Ultimately, I hope that I am able to further visualize and therefore articulate the multiple modernities that have affected and engendered this form.
Appadurai, Argon and Carol A. Breckenridge.  1995.  “Public Modernity in India.”  
Carol A. Breckenridge (ed.). Consuming Modernity: Public Culture in a South Asian World. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Bruin, Hanne M. de.  1998.  “Studying Performance in South India: A Synthesis of
Theories.” South Asia Research. 18, 1: 12-38.
Lee Su Feh, Mascall Jennifer, Krishnan Hari, Anis Nor and Maboungou Zab. “So you
think you Can’t Folk Dance”. 2008. Notes and reflections based on conversations
and interactions. Battery Opera Company. Vancouver: The Scotia Bank Dance



Cheap jordans, cheap foamposites for sale, lebrons new shoes,