Photos by Chris Randle
Performance art can have incredible storytelling power. When carefully-chosen music is paired with stunning choreography, a well-produced show makes for a compelling narrative. Artistic Director Yvonne Chartrand does this and more with V’ni Dansi, a Vancouver-based traditional Métis and contemporary dance company dedicated to sharing the dances, stories and culture of Métis Peoples. V’ni Dansi, “Come and Dance” in Mitchif, was founded in 2000, and it holds the distinction of being the only company in Canada to teach and perform both Métis and contemporary dance.
Anew Indigenous contemporary dance work, La Mitchin di Mitchif (Mitchif Medicines) recently premiered in Vancouver on National Indigenous Peoples Day and is the result of an international collaboration between V’ni Dansi and Santa Fe’s Dancing Earth. Co-choreographed by Chartrand and Dancing Earth’s artistic director Rulan Tangen, the work is inspired by cultural ancestral knowledge of Mitchif plant medicines. SAY Magazine is pleased to share more about this latest contemporary piece, how it all came together and what it means for Yvonne Chartrand.
“I am continually inspired by my beautiful culture, and hold dance as a spiritual and sacred practice that touches the soul, and feeds and heals our spirits,” says Chartrand. “This year I am delighted to share the international collaboration La Mitchin di Mitchif with my company V’ni Dansi and Artistic Director Rulan Tangen’s company Dancing Earth.”
Chartrand first met Rulan in her last year of professional contemporary dance training in 1998 when she mentored under Karen Jameison in Vancouver. They met again at the Aboriginal Dance Program at the Banff Centre for the Arts in 2001 and 2002 where, for the first time, Chartrand was able to network with Indigenous artists from around the world. “Continuing on our own journeys, we simultaneously grew our own companies,” explains Chartrand. “In 2009, Rulan invited me to participate in a gathering of International Indigenous contemporary dance artists where we explored themes of seeds and our connection to Mother Earth.” This experience further fueled Chartrand’s creativity and confirmed the idea of including Mitchif Medicines as a theme for her work.
“Before I left for New Mexico, my father shared with me that my great Aunt Zita was the healer (doctor) of our ancestral community of St. Laurent, Manitoba, known as one of the largest Mitchif settlements in Canada. This exciting new insight rooted me deeper in the concept. Throughout the gathering, we all shared our dances, cultures and Indigenous contemporary dance methodologies; we created dances and wove them together for an incredible performance in Santa Fe, New Mexico.”
Inspired by her travels to New Mexico, Chartrand had a vision for a collaboration that would explore the concept of Mitchif Medicines further. “My research phase in Santa Fe was the beginning of this project, and since then we have had two creation phases bringing our international guests to Vancouver where we shared our methodologies and expertise in creating this most beautiful work.”
Chartrand invited the international artists to visit her homeland to learn from Medicine Knowledge Keepers and Elders, to gain a greater understanding of connecting with the land, plant medicines and animals. One of the Knowledge Keepers they met was Rose Richardson who was instrumental in the creation of Mitchif artist Christie Belcourt’s “Medicines to Help Us” painting because of the knowledge of plant medicines given to Belcourt prior. This was a full circle moment for Chartrand because that very work of art by Belcourt had been a constant source of inspiration for her own work. “It was a really special moment for me,” explains Chartrand.
While visiting, the artists were also able to visit an untouched ancestral Métis script homeland from pre-colonization in the
1800s to inform their creation. “A bear stood up and pounced on the walls of the cabin in the middle of the night before our visit, and later that afternoon two bears were spotted racing full speed across an open field,” explains Chartrand. “We have been told by our Elders to go back to the land and learn our traditional ways of having that strong kinship with all things, especially now during this unprecedented time.”
“Mother Earth is stronger than we know; however, as caretakers of the land we must protect her against the human race who
are out of control with greed, pollution and destructive behavior. Now it is time for Indigenous Peoples to share our knowledge of how to care for the Earth, not to own her but to live in harmony with her and to allow these natural medicines to once again help us.”
La Mitchin di Mitchif brings attention to plant medicines, their uses and the intimate journey of connection of each
individual to the medicines that call them. It also depicts intergenerational teachings reclaimed and passed from Elder to adult to youth, honouring the vital connection between plants and pollination by bees, butterflies and hummingbirds for the survival of all.
This contemporary work also brings attention to the similarities of Indigenous cultures across international borders—the landscapes, plant medicines and colonial experiences we cannot ignore. The dance artists and audiences reignite the importance of connecting to the land and living off the land, and the healing that comes from Mother Earth and all that she provides.
V’ni Dansi is dedicated to sharing the stories and culture of the Mitchif (Métis) through both traditional and contemporary dance.
Yvonne Chartrand is a choreographer and dancer, as well as a national award-winning master Métis jigger. Her ancestors come from the Métis community of St. Laurent, Manitoba. She is the co-founder of V’ni Dansi and The Louis Riel Métis Dancers, where she continues to act as artistic director. Chartrand’s Métis dance work was passed to her through many Métis Elders, including Maria Campbell and John Arcand. As a cultural keeper, Chartrand is one of the only people in Canada who holds this traditional knowledge, and with this responsibility, she is dedicated to preserving traditional Métis dance in Canada.
She has created many contemporary works that are always informed by her Métis identity. As a contemporary dance choreographer, she has conceptualized and co-choreographed the company group works A Poet and Prophet in 2003, Gabriel‘s Crossing in 2004 and The Crossing in 2006 (a dance trilogy inspired by these earlier works) written and directed by Maria Campbell.
Her first full-length dance-theatre work Cooking It Up Métis was created for young audiences and has toured extensively to schools throughout British Columbia.
Chartrand’s solo Marguerite (2000) was inspired by the lives of the Métis women who endured the Red River and NorthWest
Resistances, and Stories from St. Laurent was inspired by stories gathered from six Elders in her ancestral community of St. Laurent, Manitoba. Her mentor Robin Poitras created the commissioned solo Sara Riel: The Long Journey with Edward Poitras, which Chartrand performed at New Dance Horizons, Regina, in 2014, and toured to Edmonton and Winnipeg in 2016. Her solo Eagle Spirit premiered in Vancouver at V’ni Dansi’s annual Louis Riel Day Celebration in 2016. She is currently developing a new solo work called Rou Garou, inspired by the Métis trickster figure. In 2011, Chartrand was recognized for outstanding artistic achievement and awarded the Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award from the Canada Council for the Arts.