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Miigis: Underwater Panther draws inspiration from a prophecy in which the Anishinaabe must move westward or perish, exploring a journey from the Atlantic to the great lakes.John Lauener

  • Title: Miigis: Underwater Panther
  • Director: Sandra Laronde
  • Choreographer: Sandra Laronde
  • Dancers: Rick Sacks with Julian Cote, Pura Fé, Marie Gaudet, Marc Merilainen, and Pierre Mongeon
  • Company: Red Sky Performance
  • Venue: Canadian Stage, Berkeley Street Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Jan. 22 – 29, 2023

The global premiere of Miigis: Underwater Panther is a tour de force spanning thousand-year-old legend to recent history, through contemporary dance. This latest production by Red Sky Performance showcases creator and artistic director Sandra Laronde’s vision, and the company’s commitment to innovative storytelling through contemporary Indigenous dance, live music, and visual arts.

Miigis, choreographed by Laronde, is a story of Anishinaabe survival, based on a westward migration from the Atlantic that occurred at least four centuries ago, according to current archeology. Stories of this migration have been passed down through so many generations, it’s become part of a greater mythology. Sadly, like many, I grew up without our stories and it feels almost alien for me to think about eastern Canada being a site of profound historic, spiritual and mythological significance. It’s thrilling to see this story shared, an epic journey that took place on the ground beneath our feet instead of in distant lands such as Greece, Rome, the Middle East.

While the Anishinaabe travel for survival, the dancers convey a deep sense of cohesion as they work together, interact with the environment, and become a part of nature. The small but mighty ensemble uses traditional songs that will be familiar to many Indigenous people and fans of this genre. The music and background animations (by Febby Tan) accompany the dancers to create a pleasing otherworldliness as the performers struggle and transition from a salt water world to a freshwater one. It’s visually compelling – the ensemble is fluid and connected, even in smaller groupings and during solos, and there is a clear sense of unity amongst them.

The production by Red Sky Performance showcases creator and artistic director Sandra Laronde’s vision, and the company’s commitment to innovative storytelling through contemporary Indigenous dance, live music, and visual arts.John Lauener

While the show captivates the audience with its themes of spiritual and mythological origins beginning on Canada’s east coast, one dancer silently slips away only to creep back as a destructive agent of chaos.

The journey is disrupted by the newly returned dancer and the disease (powder) he blows on them. His arrival quickly turns the natural world into an apocalyptic hellscape. The backing animation and lighting design take a turn for the dark and ominous. It’s a jarring mid-show change of pace – and one that, judging by the gasps I heard during the performance I attended, startled much of the audience. The already athletic choreography has dancers taking greater leaps and falls as movements become increasingly disjointed and severe. The dancers lose their initial connection as they find their world burning, invaded and dominated by outside forces.

All six dancers boast an incredible technical and emotional range; at times throwing themselves around the stage, letting out primal vocalizations. The music loses its dreaminess and a familiar melody from the western canon is worked in. Every element of the environment is swallowed by colonial forces. The migration of the Anishinaabe, an ancient survival story, is replaced with a modern survival story of colonialism. This time, however, the Anishinaabe can’t simply move west; there is nowhere to run. With this narrative shift, historic pictures from residential schools and other snapshots documenting colonial expansion are used in the background; this is not a history lesson as much as it is Laronde attempting to evoke empathy from the audience and succeeding. The team create a visceral sense of being institutionalized, the pain of having one’s way of life destroyed. When it feels almost too much, Laronde deftly weaves a few jokes in. To avoid getting stuck in trauma or turning it into trauma porn, one strategy is to dress it in a clown costume and laugh. Laronde and Lesley Hampton (costume designer) opt to dress it in a hoop skirt for a much-needed tension break.

A story that begins with Indigenous archetypes and ancestral stories can’t only be about our origins and legends – where we began from thousands of years ago – any more than it can end with the horrors of residential schools and their painful legacies. Miigis begins with part of an Indigenous canon of stories that is interrupted by an apocalypse and ends on an optimistic note: There’s always a new day, a new generation. Our stories are still being written.

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