Wolastoqi artists partner with Atlantic Ballet to create ‘transformative’ production
Jeremy Dutcher and Possesom Paul don’t make any apologies about wanting to change the world.
The young Wolastoqi artists are at the beginning of a three-year project with the Atlantic Ballet Theatre that will culminate in a new production, and they hope another step forward in sharing their culture, making lasting connections and artistic excellence.
Dutcher, a composer and singer, says the opportunity to bring a Wolastoqey story into a “ballet space” and “concert hall” is huge.
“I’ve had this vision of what opening night is going to be like with our people there, and they know that it’s their story,” he said.
“They never even thought they were invited — we didn’t even get in the door, and now we’re on stage and we’re shaping the narrative, we’re telling the story.”
The partnership started with a friendship between Possesom Paul, a grass dancer and choreographer from Sitansisk, or St. Mary’s First Nation, and Igor Dobrovolskiy, the Ukrainian-born artistic director and choreographer at the Atlantic Ballet.
The two met at a powwow in Fredericton six years ago and after working together on several projects, including a Canada 150 production, Paul knew he wanted to do something even bigger.
“Through our work together and through our understanding of each other — we clicked,” Paul said. “And it grew and grew and then the next part was, ‘I’d like to come on board and do a real production, a full production.'”
This partnership is a first for Dobrovolskiy, who credits an elder with explaining to him how you can blend the “colonial ballet style” with Indigenous art to create something new and beautiful.
“It’s the two canoes, running together, and across,” he said smiling. “I never thought that somebody will come to me and tell me, ‘Let’s do production together.'”
Dobrovolskiy, who is nearly 60, joked he is learning how to be a “collaborator” rather than “a dictator.” This is the first time he has worked with another choreographer on a major production.
“Possesom is the first. And imagine we have to figure out our relation, how we will co-create.”
Sharing their sacred bundles
For Paul and Dutcher, who grew up together in New Brunswick, there is a strong sense of responsibility in undertaking this creative project.
Within minutes of meeting them you learn how important elder Maggie Paul, who is also Possesom’s grandmother, has been in their lives.
It was Maggie who gave Possesom his first pair of moccasins and told him, “Once you put those moccasins on, you’re going to have to dance.”
“To have that beautiful gift … gave me a pride that my peers didn’t have,” Possesom said of growing up immersed in his Wolastoqey culture. He became a professional dancer at the age of 11 and has performed around the world.
It was also Maggie who inspired and encouraged Dutcher to learn the Wolastoqey songs of his ancestors that were preserved on wax cylinders in the archives of the Canadian Museum of History.
Those songs would become the foundation of his award-winning 2018 album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa.
“There are so many of our young people — Wolastoqi young people that haven’t had the opportunity to learn from people like Maggie Paul,” said Dutcher, a member of Tobique First Nation, or Neqotkuk.
Everyone carries a “sacred bundle” of teachings, Possesom and Dutcher explain, and they are responsible for sharing them as they do their “earth walk.”
“It’s a transformative moment right now where we actually get to bring these stories in this space,” said Dutcher.” And every step we take, behind us is a room full of ancestors and people that want to see this work happen because we get to do what they didn’t.”
A genuine voice
Dutcher admits he was hesitant about sharing their stories, language and traditions with a wider audience and sometimes feels the urge to “hold them really close.”
“Tokenism is real — as Indigenous creators, we’ve all felt it,” he said. “We need to be conscious that when we enter every art space that there is a precedent of that extractive storytelling, of ‘Oh, we’ve got a brown face on the poster and somebody dancing. We’ve done our work.'”