The Shape-Shifting Serpent

Aanmitaagzi draws from an historic Anishinaabe story to narrate contemporary issues By Molly Johnson
  • Dancers of Aanmitaagzi in Couchie's Serpent People / Photo by Liz Lott
  • Image from a past performance of Serpent People / Photo by Liz Lott

Serpent People

Presented by Coleman, Lemieux & Compagnie

Toronto June 15-17, 2017

Serpent People begins before anyone arrives onstage – just inside the theatre where one would normally find The Citadel’s makeshift bar. This isn’t immediately apparent to me but when I do eventually recognize the difference, the significance of the dry space is not lost. Instead of inviting the audience to imbibe, the artists welcome us with an invitation to know more and come together via an installation built by core artist Megan Paulin to accompany Aanmitaagzi’s performance.

In this back corner of the theatre, newspaper articles, historical documents and oral traditions transcribed into written word adorn walls and tables; a sheet of canvas hanging from the ceiling creates a focal point, its body tattooed with the image of a serpent. At the far wall, just behind the technician’s booth, a multimedia work plays in loops; before it is a table laid with brown paper, colourful needlepoint thread and rubber stamps, with a written invite to inscribe the paper with these tactile tools. A parchment map of the traditional land of Nipissing First Nation rests on one wall, quietly setting the scene for the work ahead.

In our seats, we are welcomed by Aanmitaagzi’s Co-Artistic Directors Penny Couchie and Sid Bobb. After a short intro and acknowledgment of this opportunity to bring their work from their traditional territory to this one, they leave the theatre to join the rest of the ensemble. All at once, drums ring out from the adjacent hallway, driving the beat as seventeen voices strike up a song en masse. The room fills with collective goosebumps, induced by the purity and magnitude of this human soundscape and I am certain I have never felt this before – a rare moment of being overwhelmed just minutes into a work. In a long train the performers slowly arrive, bringing the music with them, eventually dispersing to the four corners of the stage. With the audience positioned on three sides, we are among them and they are among us. This sense of a shared fate becomes significant throughout the performance.

Serpent People takes its inspiration from an historic Anishinaabe story, The Black Sturgeon of Nipissing, and from the beginning we are introduced to it as a through-line for the work. While this story is an Anishinaabe one, and the area it describes is that of the Manitou Islands in Lake Nipissing, the performers are artists from a range of communities, nations, clans and ancestries. The ensemble is appealingly egalitarian, a cast of varying ages, identities and skill sets who together create an image of real community – people working together across differences. The mythology of the serpent as shape-shifter and realm-crosser that Serpent People draws on is apparent in these artists, who shift from scene to scene adapting to fulfill roles foreign and familiar.

In witnessing this work, I notice the assumptions that live inside me, particularly in relation to ideas of what makes a work contemporary. I see movement that I recognize as descriptive (ie theatrical miming), use of long-standing modes of representation like those of the chorus and traditional forms of drumming, song and storytelling. But as a whole the work can’t be called anything but contemporary. Within the ensemble are both community artists and those professionally trained. Building a work as a community requires an approach that lives in the now, that is reliant on real time, that permits the reality of bodies. I see the sculpting of choreography, the tools of theatre and the merging of musical traditions. Most importantly I see that, in the context of this work, all of these methods, ancient or recent, are about looking at the past and present to find a way forward together. This, to me, is the epitome of contemporary, and my reaction to this work is firmly rooted in the now.

In the program notes, Couchie and Bobb talk about the Nipissing Anishinaabe cultural mandate of “a critical self, familial, and nation reflection.” This approach is evident in the work, with stories serving as deeply effective modes for reflection on the damaging impact of settlers on Indigenous peoples and the perpetuation of this damage within Indigenous communities and individuals. Each story presented is a personal one, a method that allows for each performer to continue the act of discovery and reflection through the performance of the work. In speaking with one performer after the show, a residential school survivor who has found healing and a path forward through sharing her story, the importance of this is magnified.

In one scene, performer Miigwan Buswa recounts the discovery of multiple Indigenous teenagers in a river system in the Thunder Bay area, about leaving the house and not knowing if she’ll make it home. She repeats the phrase “I refuse to be another body lying at the bottom of a river.” It is disturbing, heartbreaking and unnerving and as an audience to this, I am locked into her. At one moment, she throws herself down on her knees by the prone body of another performer, face in hands. Without meaning to, I immediately see what for me is a theatrical trope; the movement calls to mind a scene I once acted in The Nutcracker and in this moment, I feel my privilege and my whiteness acutely. I recognize the recreation of true trauma as something theatrical – this speaks volumes about the difference of experiences. And so while the intent of Couchie’s choreography may be simply to reveal the story, these revelations are inherently complex and layered in their meaning.

At its base Serpent People is a piece of theatre, rooted in choreography and song. But at its essence it is a work of storytelling: stories as a means of teaching, asking questions and finding forward motion. In this work I saw with new eyes the value of this form, a form that I, as a settler, likely take for granted. To speak our truths through our art – this is of deep value to all of us. For a community who has been silenced and shamed by 150 years of government policy, whose oral traditions have been challenged by the genocidal intent of the very formation of the nation state of Canada, letting voices ring out and stories be told is no small thing. In this work it became evident to me how integral storytelling can be to just being, to surviving, to breaking the cycle.

“We are the Serpent People, we have the capacity for change” says Bobb in the final minutes of the work. His words paint the room, reverberating as Mckenzie Ottereyes-Eagle appears in full regalia and a circle dance begins, bringing us to a point of celebration. The artists exit and we are left to reflect. For me it was impossible to separate this moment or the work as a whole from the context in which it lives. In witnessing this act of dance, I remember how such dancing and acts of ceremony by Indigenous people were once banned by the Canadian government. In witnessing the range of identities living before me on the stage, I recognize the attempts of our government to reduce a complex people to one homogeneous word. In these stories of Serpent People I see the capacity for change and also the ability to rise. I see hurt and loss, but overwhelmingly I see resilience, resistance and reclamation of the right to be.

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