It’s usually a busy time for the National Arts Centre (NAC) in the spring, and creative producer Donna Feore says that the spring season of 2020 was no exception. “We were fast tracking on all of our shows, we were all going crazy,” says Feore.
Then, along with the rest of Canada, the teams at the NAC came to a total standstill when the pandemic hit in March that year. “It’s like we were all in this speedboat, someone threw an anchor over, and we had to stop dead in our tracks,” she says.
Feore says this disruption, along with the racial reckoning that swept across the United States to Canada and globally, gave the NAC pause to revisit who they are, want to be, and how to move forward.
“There was just a lot of time for people to really reflect, and to start listening, and to take that gift of time for us to truly reflect,” Feore says.
These reflections led Feore and her colleagues at the NAC to the idea for Undisrupted, a four-episode series that aims to bring audiences along a journey through sights and sounds. Each 30-minute episode is led and curated by a Canadian artist to share their stories and artistic vision while collaborating with the NAC’s orchestra. The artist’s creative mission is paired with the mixture of augmented reality visuals, which were produced by Montreal’s Normal Studio.
The artistic curators for the four episodes are soprano singer Measha Brueggergosman, Quebec-based composer Ana Sokoloviċ, contemporary composer Nicole Lizée and up-and-coming Mohawk singer-songwriter Shawnee Kish.
While Feore says that this series of digital video-based performances do not replace the experience of a live show in Southam Hall, she acknowledges the medium’s unique strengths. “We wanted to kind of create this immersive space that [with] the artist performing, there was an idea to immerse them in the orchestra. That’s not something we can do live.”
“I really feel like we’ve made a huge step in trying to discover what mutual respect and understanding is in collaboration. We use that word, collaboration, a lot, but I think we have to examine it, what that means,” says Feore.
“It was a leap of faith, it was an exercise in trust,” she says. “And it tells us that we can do this. Even if we’re not from the same world, we can come together and go, ‘Okay, what can I bring to the table?’ or ‘What should I not bring to the table?’ Sometimes that’s even more important.”
She says the different collaborators have learned a lot from each other. Referring to Measha Brueggergosman’s episode which explores her Black Loyalist heritage in Nova Scotia, Feore says, “It’s so moving and it’s a part of our country. But it’s also sad. And I feel that Measha has kind of ripped off the scab and gone, ‘Okay, well, this is where we’re at.'”
Mohawk and Two-Spirit musical artist Shawnee Kish says when the time came to decide what her episode would be about, her choice was a natural one.
That choice? “Empowering Indigenous youth, and beyond that giving them an opportunity to use their voices, their stories and be a part of this collaboration of us coming together,” she says.
Titled Music is My Medicine, Kish’s episode takes audiences on a journey of the self using music to heal. Discussing her decision to invite Indigenous youth to join her for her performance, Kish says it had to do with her own experience as a teenager, struggling with many facets of her identity, and “having all of these struggles that felt like I didn’t have a place in the world.”
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“It was music that helped and honestly and truly saved my life,” she says. “It was my medicine, it was my therapy.” Describing the healing power of music, Kish says, “It’s such a universal language. You can say so much with it. You can speak without even speaking.”
More specifically, Kish says music can tell the listener, “You belong, and you’re meant to be here, and you’re meant to grow.”
“Thank you for this. We needed this. This is raw, and this is real.”
Asked about what she hopes audiences will take away from her episode, Kish says, “I just hope they feel. I hope they can feel, whether it be from their own personal lived experience of struggle or emotion, or it be for the pain of someone else’s struggle.”
“I just hope that makes them open up conversations about Indigenous youth, specifically in Canada. There’s a suicide crisis in Canada. Young Indigenous children would rather end their own existence because they don’t see a future. It’s so wrong for them to feel that way. We need to empower these kids and let them know that we actually really need them.”
Asked about how she feels ahead of the series being released, Kish says, “I can’t wait for these kids to shine, because they really did.”
“You know, we were so proud of them,” she says, adding that members of the orchestra and crew were moved to tears by the young performers. “Everybody kept going up to myself and the kids and saying, ‘Thank you for this. We needed this. This is raw, and this is real.'”
To watch the episodes of the NAC’s Undisrupted, go to CBC Gem on Aug. 27.