The Dance Current
An Artist Awakened
Yvonne Chartrand explores her Métis heritage through traditional and contemporary dance
Yvonne Chartrand first saw a dance performance when she was twentyfour years old. Now, she is the artistic director of V’ni Dansi, a Canadian dance company that teaches and performs Métis and contemporary dance.
Alarge black wolf fur lays flat in the centre of the studio. It begins to move, the head looking from side to side, sniffing inquisitively. It’s so realistic that I almost forget Yvonne Chartrand is underneath. Slowly, she moves to a seated position, the wolf still sniffing, searching. Chartrand is in the studio rehearsing her next solo, based on the Métis legend of the rougarou, a werewolf-like creature. In many of the traditional stories, a Métis person becomes a rougarou, and she’s exploring this transformation from woman to wolf. She lopes over to a large buffalo bone and begins to gnaw on it, the wolf’s claws clicking on the wooden floor.
Chartrand was initially inspired by a story in Métis Elder Maria Campbell’s book Stories of the Road Allowance People and Sherry Farrell Racette’s painting on the
cover depicting a Métis woman rougarou. After spending several years exploring and performing rougarou stories with Campbell, she is now developing this solo that she envisions performing outdoors, perhaps at dusk, where she can embody the wolf character in a natural environment. Although she’s only been in rehearsal with these props for about a week at the time of my visit in March, she feels connected to them through her ancestors’ relationships with the animals: her great-greatgreat-grandfather was a buffalo hunter; her great-grandfather was a hunter and trapper; and her father dreamed of wolves and trapped them and other animals around her ancestral community of St. Laurent, Manitoba. “When you’re doing art, whether it’s dance or another form, you’re channelling something from the ancestors or the spirit world,” she says. “I’ve heard lots of artists say, ‘It’s not really me that’s telling you this story.’ ”
The small rehearsal studio, on the seventh floor of Scotiabank Dance Centre in Vancouver, is surrounded by windows on three sides. But the blinds to the hallway are drawn shut because Chartrand worries that she may offend someone with her authentic wolf fur and buffalo bone. For her, this new work is also about decolonizing her audiences, herself and her contemporary dance practice.
As the artistic director of V’ni Dansi, Chartrand has found a niche that nobody else has filled – V’ni Dansi is the only Canadian company that teaches and performs Métis and contemporary dance. She founded the company in 2000 and, for the first four years, directed it alongside Mariko Kage, a Japanese-Canadian dance artist. Her other professional performing group, Louis Riel Métis Dancers, performs at festivals, cultural events and schools while she creates her own solo and collaborative contemporary works.
After rehearsal, Chartrand packs her wolf fur and buffalo bone into a suitcase and we head to her apartment in East Vancouver. The first thing I notice about her minivan is the large eagle feather hanging from the rear-view mirror, a gift from someone close to her, and a colourful beaded lily sitting on top of the mirror. I later learn this is in memory of her daughter, Lily, who was born prematurely and lived for just over an hour. There are many other souvenirs decorating the vehicle, and they all have a story behind them. Her apartment is no different. Having lived there for fifteen years, she’s collected many keepsakes. Beaded curtains and brightly coloured scarves hang in the doorways; Louis Riel’s face looks down from a tea cozy sitting on top of the fridge; and a large abstract canvas hangs in the living room. We sit down with our tea, and she tells me about her journey from growing up in small-town Manitoba to running her own dance company in Vancouver.
Chartrand wasn’t exposed to the arts as a child. She had always been active, figure skating and running, but she says, “I never even asked my parents to take a dance class. We lived in small towns, and I didn’t even know that such a thing existed.” She didn’t attend a live dance performance until she was twentyfour. She saw Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers in 1985 at the University of Manitoba where she was studying visual arts. “I just stopped in my tracks. These people had bare feet; you could see their muscles; and they were doing all these amazing moves and jumps. I had no idea what contemporary dance even was before that.”
Soon after Chartrand saw that performance, a friend in her drawing course invited her to a jazz and ballet class, and she was instantly hooked. That same year, her older sister asked her to join a Métis dance group, the Gabriel Dumont Dancers, and they had their first performance after only three practices. She sees it as no coincidence that her own artistic awakening happened in 1985, 100 years after Riel’s prophetic declaration: “My people will sleep for 100 years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”
Chartrand dropped a creative writing course halfway through the year to train with Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers. The following summer, she took classes at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre (STDT) where she worked with
Peggy Baker, who was a guest choreographer, and fell in love with Graham technique and the meaning behind all of the movements. “I did a lot of tai chi before that, and there is a movement described as petting the wild horse’s mane,” she says, getting up to demonstrate the slow, fluid arm movements. “So, there was a connection between that and the stories behind the contemporary movements.” She auditioned for STDT’s professional training program and was told she wasn’t a dancer. But Chartrand believes that dance is inherent in everyone. She replied, “I don’t believe that you’re telling me the truth when you tell me that I’m not a dancer. And I don’t believe you’re telling anybody the truth when you tell them that they’re not a dancer.” Martha Graham didn’t start dancing until she was twenty-four either, she thought.
When she didn’t make it in Toronto, Chartrand decided she’d head to Vancouver instead. She took a summer course at Simon Fraser University and was accepted into the dance program there, but with her student loan from her fine arts program in Winnipeg still gaining interest, she couldn’t afford it. By chance, she ran into an acquaintance who managed a silkscreen shop and needed an artist. With that job lined up, she decided to move to Vancouver in 1989 where she’s continued living since.
With no idea how she would pay for it, at age thirty-three Chartrand registered for a professional training program at
Main Dance Place in Vancouver. One day, an anonymous donor phoned the studio and paid her first year of tuition – they said they wanted to see her actualize her dreams. To this day, Chartrand doesn’t know who she has to thank for this huge gift. She danced all day and worked all evening to pay her bills while apprenticing with Karen Jamieson, Katherine Labelle and Paula Ross. Ross is Métis, had her own dance company and was a huge role model for Chartrand. In her third year of the program, Chartrand received funding from Métis Nation. “I told them I’m going to be a dancer. I’m going to be a choreographer. I’m going to be a teacher. I’m going to have my own company. And eventually I’ll get my own studio,” says Chartrand. “I had those goals right from the beginning, inspired by Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers.”
Just as Chartrand’s education in contemporary and Métis dance happened simultaneously, V’ni Dansi has always presented both forms. In 1999, she choreographed her first solo, Marguerite, in honour of Riel’s wife, Marguerite Monet dit Bellehumeur, and the role women played in the Métis resistances. Her next two works also explore important Métis stories: A Poet and Prophet (2003) is a collaboration with the butoh master Yukio Waguri inspired by the poetry and visions of Riel, and Gabriel’s Crossing (2004) is a dance-theatre collaboration with Campbell that explores the Northwest Rebellion. While butoh may not seem like a natural fit with a contemporary Métis work, Chartrand says Waguri’s explanation of embodying animals resonated with her Indigenous culture.
These three early pieces became a trilogy, The Crossing, which premiered at V’ni Dansi’s first annual Louis Riel Day Celebration in Vancouver in 2005 – a tradition that continues each year with performances featuring the Louis Riel Métis Dancers, musicians and other artists.
After co-choreographing her early works, Chartrand created her own solo, Stories from St. Laurent, inspired by a collection of stories gathered from Elders of St. Laurent, Manitoba. It premiered in 2009 in Vancouver before touring to Saskatchewan.
Chartrand has always felt a strong connection to her Métis heritage, but it was deepened in 2004 when Riel came to her in a powerful dream and said, “With my sword and my shield, I shall protect thee.” The dream renewed her strength and courage during a difficult time in her life when she had recently lost her daughter. She continues to find personal ways to honour her memory: Chartrand recently made her first pair of moccasins and proudly shows me a picture; they’re adorned with a beautiful beaded lily. Riel’s message inspired her to honour his legacy
I DON’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE TELLING ME THE TRUTH WHEN YOU TELL ME THAT I’M NOT A DANCER. AND I DON’T BELIEVE YOU’RE TELLING ANYBODY THE TRUTH WHEN YOU TELL THEM THAT THEY’RE NOT A DANCER
by naming her traditional Métis dance group after him. “It was almost like I could feel his spirit touch my whole entire being,” she says, touching her heart. “I started sobbing because I thought, ‘Oh my God, he died for us.’ I really believe that was him and that he spoke to me.”
Chartrand’s Louis Riel Métis Dancers is now a professional group touring across Canada to festivals, schools and Métis celebrations, but getting started was a challenge. In 2002, she rented a studio space and waited each week for other dancers to join her. “I almost gave up,” she explains. “I was poor; I had no money except enough for bus fare and a bowl of soup. If nobody came, I would sit there by myself.” On those days when she waited alone in an empty studio, a couple of Elders, Leo and Donna Roach, would sit with her for support.
“Elders have been such a huge influence in my work,” says Chartrand. “I was mentored by all these Elders who really loved the traditional Métis style of dance, and I embraced it.”
She continues to collect traditional dances and knowledge from Elders she meets, including Jeanne Pelletier, the first woman Métis jig dance caller, and Campbell, a mentor who taught her about traditional Métis dances and attire, including the long dresses, colourful woven sashes and embroidered cummerbunds. Campbell suggested that Chartrand ask Robin Poitras, artistic director of New Dance Horizons in Regina, to be another mentor. “Robin told me years later that she could not say no to me because I told her, ‘When an Elder tells you something, you do it,’ ” Chartrand says. In 2011, Chartrand commissioned Poitras to create a solo for her. Inspired by stories about Sara Riel, Louis Riel’s sister, Sara Riel: The Long Journey was most recently presented in Edmonton and Winnipeg in 2016.
In 2012, Chartrand created the dance-theatre work, Cooking It Up Métis. “It was my own journey about discovering my culture because we didn’t grow up in Métis communities. My dad would say things like, ‘You have Blackfeet because you’re part Blackfoot,’ so in a way, I knew I was part Native, but he didn’t make a big deal about it.” Her goal was to illustrate the intersection of European and First Nations culture by showing, for example, a Prairie powwow dance alongside a European jig.
For her most recent collaboration, Chartrand is working with Rulan Tangen, artistic director of Dancing Earth, an Indigenous contemporary dance company based in Sante Fe, New Mexico. Tangen was one of the first Indigenous contemporary dance artists that she met after graduating from her dance training program, and she became another mentor.
This June, Tangen and Chartrand will be in-residence at The Dance Centre in Vancouver to develop and present their work, Michif Medicines. Chartrand pulls out a book, Christi Belcourt’s Medicines to Help Us, which is inspired by Belcourt’s painting of the same name depicting a colourful collection of traditional plants with healing properties. She explains that she’s had the print and the book for several years and has now found an opportunity, through this collaboration with Tangen, to explore
her cultural connection to plant medicine. After finding out that her aunt was the healer of her community, Chartrand now feels an even stronger personal connection to the piece.
Chartrand is keeping busy creating her new rougarou solo, preparing for the Michif Medicines residency and appearing with the Louis Riel Métis Dancers at festivals, schools and workshops. Looking longingly at her canvas above the couch, she tells me she has been thinking about getting back into painting. She also tosses around the idea of writing a book about Métis dance and passing on the traditional knowledge she’s gained from so many Elders.
No matter what she’s working on or what life throws at Chartrand, she is always comforted by dance. “The work has pulled me through so many difficult times in my life. I’m constantly learning and growing. It’s a good life. I feel blessed and grateful every day that I can do this work and that the ancestors are looking out for me. The ancestors want us to tell their stories.”