ART BEAT: Traditional dance collaboration debuts in Whitehorse
Title: Anchorage Daily News
By: Mike Dunham
Date: Jul 01, 2012
Publication Type: Daily Newspaper
WHITEHORSE, Yukon -- An unusual, only-in-the-north, world premiere took place last Sunday at the Adaka Cultural Festival in Whitehorse, Yukon. The "Spirit of the Drum" performance was a collaboration between six traditional drum groups, two drummers from Eastern Canada and choreographer Alejandro Ronceria. Born in Colombia, Ronceria has been creating performance works in Canada for several years, including some gala extravaganza material for the 2010 Winter Olympics. He's done other work at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Sundance Film Festival and had a recurring role in the Canadian television adventure series "Amazon."
For this project, he assembled traditional performers from Alaska to Baffin Island and arranged them in a circle around an outdoor fire pit at the new Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre -- which was, not coincidentally, holding its grand opening celebration during the weeklong festival.
Ronceria paired the performers by style, with similar groups facing each other on opposite sides of the circle. The Kwanlin Dun Dancers of Whitehorse and Taku Kwaan Dancers from Atlin, B.C., represented the inland Tlingit drumming tradition, with large drums and strong, steady, declamatory songs.
The Kaska Dena Drummers from the Watson Lake/Ross River region and Dahcho Drummers from Northwest Territories presented Athabaskan music, with rapid beats on hand-held drums with strips of rawhide over the head, creating a snare drum effect.
The Inuvik Drummers and Dancers from the Arctic Ocean coast performed on drums equipped with handles with short, precise songs accompanied by dancers, the same style as seen among Inupiaq groups in Alaska; they were paired with the Miracle Drummers and Dancers from Wasilla -- the only non-Canadian group -- whose drums are similar to the Inuvik group's, but struck differently, in the format of Western Alaskan Yup'ik "yuraq." These two groups represented the two large branches of Inuit (aka "Eskimo") cultures in northwestern North America.
Two solo drummers from Nunavut, the huge autonomous region in Canada's far northeast, completed the circle, David Serkoak (now residing in Ottawa) and Mathew Nuqingaq of Igaluit. Their style is significantly different from the other Inuit. The drums are notably larger. The head includes a gap where the handle joins the supporting ring. The ring is struck with a small wood club rather than a thin stick. The drum is swung back and forth in graceful arcs to meet the club and the drummer dances while performing, making circles and rising his drum or scooping low with it.
The Nunavut songs tended to be slow and exquisitely melodic; Nuqingaq's ballad for those who were sent away from their villages was particularly touching. Uniquely among the performers, they waxed louder or softer, faster or slower, during the course of a song, sometimes becoming almost inaudible and then utterly silent as the musician continued to carve the air with his drum without striking it -- in other words, making music with no sound.
Serkoak, who is something of a living cultural treasure in Canada, said that in the tradition of the region men composed the songs and drummed, but didn't sing; instead they taught the song to women, who provided the vocals.
Ronceria combined these distinct approaches in four different ways over the course of the "piece." First, paired groups presented call-and-response couplings, the Kwanlin Dun group singing across the fire pit to the Taku Kwaan performers, who then replied with their own song, and likewise the Athabaskan, Inuit and Nunavut performers. (Each group selected its own material from its repertoire.) Then the groups took individual turns going around the circle clockwise.
In the "third round" they again paired, joining in the same song; this was a little trickier for the Inuit groups, in that the Yup'ik songs, style and language is markedly different from that of the more northerly people. They settled on a skinning song that seems to be known everywhere.
Finally, the Kwanlin Dun set down a steady pulse rhythm as, one by one, the others joined in. Each kept time with the other, but sang different songs. This part -- eight songs in at least five languages all at once -- sounded rather chaotic, but ended with a grand crescendo of all drums drowning out the voices and concluding with a great final blow.
There was a long cheer from the crowd gathered under sunny skies. Five eagles were seen circling near the area and taken as a good sign. The new cultural center, located on part of the former shipyards next to the Yukon River, is one of several such showcases of indigenous history and culture recently established as part of agreements between Yukon's First Nations people and the Canadian government.
Following a light meal, drumming resumed around the fire pit with different groups taking turns and the crowd joining in the dancing. This lasted until about 10 p.m. Then many participants adjourned to Miles Canyon, upriver, where an echo effect enhanced the sound of the celebrants. In some ways, this more free-form community event more truly conveyed the "spirit" of traditional drumming than the orchestrated gala.
But participants were unanimous in expressing pleasure in playing with each other, and many said they learned a lot from both Ronceria's experiment and exchanges of information between the groups in the three days of rehearsal that led up to it. Most of the audience would probably agree with Ronceria that it was a "once in a lifetime event."
Taku Kwaan, by the way, performs with newgrass master
David Grisman next weekend at the Atlin Music Festival.