By Elizabeth Emond-Stevenson
This Friday I had the chance to see Montreal-based Lara Kramer Danse’s latest works: a performance of Windigo and the accompanying installation Phantom, Stills & Vibration. They are being presented at Ottawa Dance Directive (inside Arts Court) from February 21–23 in co-production with the National Arts Centre.
Phantom, Stills & Vibration
I’ll start with Phantom, Stills & Vibration because I experienced it first. Described as “an immersive experience that anchors itself in close proximity to the former Pelican Falls residential school in Sioux Lookout in northwestern Ontario,” I am struck by visually rich details, simple but clear in their impact. There are twenty piles of towels on green benches along one side of the room and a plastic-wrapped enclosure containing two halves of a canoe, a folded sheet stained rusty brown with pigment and knives on the floor, among other items. Overexposed Polaroids are grouped across a brown papered wall, many of them repeats of the same two shots: Kramer hugging what appears to be a pine in a white dress or sheet, dirty at the bottom, staring straight into the camera, and a photo of the former residential school.
As visitors we can sit, stand or walk through the room, and I do a little of all three to spend time in different areas. I also choose to look through the view-masters scattered on a bench and listen to Kramer discussing her family’s relationship with the residential school through headphones. Throughout my exploration the installation shifts and changes with groups of bodies entering and exiting the space.
Phantom, Stills & Vibration feels like an intimate introduction to Kramer’s creative universe and the profoundly personal, marking and haunting impact Canada’s treatment of its indigenous peoples has had on her and countless others. Through a different kind of immersion than traditional performance, I appreciated how my experience was shaped by where I chose to linger in the installation and what I lingered over. An excerpt of an information sign in one corner stays with me: “I am the first generation to not attend the Indian Residential School. This is my legacy”.
As I enter the black box the three performers—Lara Kramer herself, Jassem Hindi and Peter James—are already on stage. Dressed in grey or white t-shirts and jeans, they sit or crouch in the space between two mattresses on the stage floor for quite a long period of time, with some very minimal adjustments, toe wiggling, and rocking. A third plastic-covered mattress lies in a back corner, a pile of clothes and miscellaneous objects in another and some plastic sheets occupy one side of the stage. Eventually Kramer gets up unceremoniously and kneels by a laptop and mixing board, alternating her attention between adjusting levels and watching the others. This feels almost like a second beginning to the 75-minute work, which progresses with more stillness punctuated by swift and sudden yet subtle physical actions and changes in the soundscape.
Early on in Windigo I become aware that Hindi has found a knife in his pocket. He drives it into the mattress he is lying on then slides that same hand under his pelvis, returning to quiet. Shortly after he gets up, strokes the mattress tenderly, tears into it again and stuffs some batting into his mouth. It is moments such as these, which occur throughout Windigo in different instances, that reveal small details with much weight, similar to aspects of Phantom, Stills & Vibration, and that carry with them a trauma that communicates beyond the movement itself.
Hindi and James never really look at one another in the eyes. They are wholly absorbed by whatever they are engaged in at that moment. They don’t respond to Kramer’s focused attention, either, and she does not appear to react to their movement or lack thereof. They do join together at one point, making a connection, but it feels heart-wrenching to me because the connection doesn’t penetrate beyond the physical—it stays rooted in the surface and this feels important.
The soundscape acts almost as another performer in the space. Sometimes a fire crackles, sometimes thunder sounds, sometimes a child speaks of a creature (perhaps Windigo), and laughs, yells and cries. Occasionally, tinny songs come through to meet us, changing the energy, either challenging or complementing the action of the performers depending on what is happening.
Windigo went by quickly for me—I was actually surprised that over an hour had passed when the performance ended. This was not the case for my plus one, however, so YMMV. I am still absorbing my experience, which is to say that it most definitely has had a lasting impression. There is time for reflection as audience members and perhaps as performers. There is space to digest Kramer’s offerings and fill in the spaces between, so to speak, or to sit with the resonance and let it speak to you—however unsettling it may be.