Michael Greyeyes has a restless nature. This could account for his peripatetic career: He has been a dancer, choreographer, actor, director and university professor.
All of this is taken into account in his epic dance-theatre piece from thine eyes, which opens the DanceWorks season at Toronto's Enwave Theatre on Thursday. And all of those skills are put to use in the piece's heavy theme – dealing with moving on from this life into the next.
"Because of Michael's varied background, he treats the body as an instrument with exciting potential," DanceWorks producer Mimi Beck says. "His robust movement vocabulary is linked with strong narrative ideas."
Greyeyes, 44, is a Plains Cree who was raised in Saskatoon. The story of from thine eyes began in the 2008 Cree opera Pimooteewin: The Journey, for which he was both director and choreographer. The opera deals with a trickster and an eagle who visit the land of the dead to bring the spirits back to the land of the living.
He wanted to explore the topic in more detail. "Aboriginals believe that a new consciousness is required for a new journey. We need new eyes if we are to move forward," he says. "What truth do people see at the moment of their deaths? The title is from the Koran, 'Lift the veil from thine eyes,' denoting that new understanding."
Greyeyes's dance journey began when he joined his sister's ballet class when he was 6 – and at the age of 9, he was accepted into the National Ballet School.
The family moved to Toronto so that their son could be a day student. "My parents gave up a lovely home and an ideal life in Saskatoon for a condo in Scarborough," Greyeyes says. "They had both gone through the residential school system, and they were not going to have their son leave the family."
But Greyeyes felt that he was "looking for more from dance.
"I had too big a brain for pliés," he quips.
It was Karen Kain, now the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, who steered him to Eliot Feld's company in New York, where he spent three years and met his wife, Nancy Latoszewski.
He became excited about acting when another Feld dancer suggested his name to a company that needed an aboriginal dance choreographed for a play. "I liked the way actors ask questions, and go deep into character, role and intention," says Greyeyes, who now teaches in the theatre department at York University in Toronto.
The scenes, dialogue and character development for from thine eyes come from playwright, director and dramaturge Yvette Nolan. Of Algonquin descent, Nolan was artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts for eight years.
"The four stories that make up the dance theatre have different age dynamics and emotional states, but all the characters have to come to terms with this life," Nolan says. "They remember things, which helps them to move on."
The major characters are a murderous junkie, an abusive husband, a couple who have lost a child and a doctor who works with AIDS patients. Each story has its own elaborate set. The six performers (Michael Caldwell, Luke Garwood, Ceinwen Gobert, Sean Ling, Shannon Litzenberger and Claudia Moore), all carefully chosen by Greyeyes, are both strong dancers and strong actors. None are aboriginal.
The question then becomes: If Greyeyes's dancers are non-aboriginal, and his choreographic métier is contemporary dance, where does his "Indian-ness" come into play?
His answer, in part, can be found in a scholarly article, Notions of Indian-ness in Contemporary First Nations Dance, that Greyeyes wrote for a conference in 2009. He came to the conclusion that there is no aboriginal dance per se, only dance by aboriginal artists.
"I'm not interested in staging ethnicity. Indian-ness as a concept is evolving and expanding. My Indian-ness is based on indigenous principles like the storytelling tradition," Greyeyes says. "My theatrical exploration deals with what matters to first nations as a community. Governance, or the way we treat each other, is also important. I may be the director, but everyone has a voice."
While Greyeyes and Nolan have different aboriginal backgrounds, in the rehearsal room they developed their own cosmology, or set of rules, that sprang naturally out of their joint native existence. "We share the same world view," Nolan says. "We believe that we are all connected, and responsible for each other. Indian-ness is not just a beads and buckskin show or a powwow. The Indian-ness comes out of us. We don't leave our Indian-ness at the rehearsal-room door."
Greyeyes says: "My work embraces what the elders believe and the values I was taught."
From thine eyes is the first live production in Canada to have its carbon footprint tested. "York University's theatre department is keenly interested in bringing environmentally sustainable practices into theatre," Greyeyes explains. "Last year, I was asked if from thine eyes could be used as a pilot project for exploring how to make greener productions." The set designers have made ecologically sound choices in construction materials, glues and paints, recycled natural fabrics and dyes, and LED lighting technology, he says. "I was very excited by the project."
From thine eyes runs at Harbourfront Centre's Enwave Theatre from Sept. 22 to 24.