Another Riel’s life inspires creative collaboration and dance

by Gregory Beatty


Sara Riel: A Journey
2207 Harvey St.
March 28-30

Louis Riel (1844-85) is a major figure in Canadian history, but he’s not the only Riel known to historians — his sister Sara is as well.

Throughout her life, Sara undertook many different journeys — the most obvious being her arduous walk to Île-à-la-Crosse, which took two months and nearly cost her her life. But as the first Grey Nun of Métis ancestry in Manitoba, and a sister who corresponded regularly with her firebrand brother, she also took journeys that were spiritual, political and socio-cultural in nature.

All that and more will be explored in the performance Sara Riel: A Journey that’s being co-presented by New Dance Horizons and Vancouver-based Compaigni V’ni Dansi March 28-30 in Regina.

The project has its origins, says NDH artistic director Robin Poitras, in a 2012 book of poetry published by Tim Lilburn called Assiniboia.

“It’s a masque [a genre of theatrical entertainment] with several parts to it, and he really saw dance in it. I read it, and was particularly touched by his poetic texts about the life of Sara Riel,” says Poitras. “Simultaneously, I’d been commissioned by Yvonne Chartrand [of Compaigni V’ni Dansi] to make a solo for her.”

The stars lined up.

“It’s always a question of what to do,” says Poitras. “Sometimes, you get into the studio without any concept and the dance seems to come out of the walls. In this case, there was this synchronous moment where Tim had approached me about his book. I’d heard Sara’s name before, but didn’t know much about her. I feel she’s a real unsung heroine of Canadian history.”

One source Poitras and Chartrand consulted during their research was Mary Jordan’s 1974 book, To Louis from your sister who loves you, Sara Riel.

“Both she and Louis were educated and her letters to him were so eloquent,” says Chartrand. “It was beautiful for me to read her words and hear her voice, and learn more about her life and the things that were going on at the time.”

Of Métis ancestry herself, Chartrand began dancing with the Gabriel Dumont Dancers in Winnipeg as a young adult in 1985. She also studied contemporary dance with the Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers, and later spent a year with Toronto Dance Theatre before moving to Vancouver.

“I worked as a dancer for a few years, then co-founded Compaigni V’ni Dansi with another woman in 2000,” she says. “The name means ‘Come and Dance’ in Michif. In Winnipeg, there are many Métis dance groups. But in Vancouver there was nothing really happening, so people were getting me to do the Red River Jig everywhere and I was like: ‘Come on, you guys, come dance with me.’ So I trained a group of dancers and we had our first performance in 2001. And I haven’t stopped since.”

Over the years, Chartrand has mentored with Métis elders like writer Maria Campbell and fiddler John Arcand. She’s also participated in several New Dance Horizons projects — most recently, the Buffalo Pound Round Dance at the Ice & Fire Festival in February — and done other dance works exploring Métis history and culture, including one about Louis Riel’s wife Marguerite.

To steep herself further in Métis culture, Chartrand attended Back to Batoche with her father last July. Last year’s event was especially memorable because it marked the return of a historic silver church bell that had been seized by Ontario soldiers as spoils of war during the 1885 North-West Rebellion/Resistance.

After that? “My father and I journeyed to Île-à-la-Crosse to see where Sara spent her adult years,” says Chartrand. “My father’s a great historian and storyteller, and it turns out we’re related to Sara and Louis — it’s fourth cousin fifth removed, so very distant, but there’s still a connection.”

When I spoke with Poitras and Chartrand they were about to enter the studio to flesh out the details of the performance. In addition to Lilburn, visual artist Edward Poitras, musician Ramses Calderon and sound artist Charlie Fox are also collaborating on the project.

“I’m not interested in making a dramatic work, as it’s not theatre,” says Poitras. “We’ve talked about shaping the work in an impressionistic style in three sections. The first, I wouldn’t call it romantic, but it looks at Sara’s search [for spiritual fulfillment]. Then there’s the walk to Île-à-la-Crosse. It has the echo of pilgrimage, in that she consciously chose to go there. Then she nearly died [from pneumonia] and made a miraculous recovery.

“She thought she’d been saved by divine intervention, so it’s quite a spiritual story,” says Poitras.

To visually portray the immensity of Sara’s journey, Poitras is considering having Chartrand wear a dress made of sticks crocheted together with fishing line to symbolize the woodlands she traversed.

“Another idea we’ve been playing with is jigging as traveling,” says Poitras. “The dance may happen on the spot, but you have a sense when you’re watching Yvonne that she’s traveling through time and space.”

Summing up her thoughts about dancing the role, Chartrand says she thinks Riel was a huge source of support for her brother.

“That was reflective of who she was — it was all about being of service to her people as a Grey Nun. She adopted some children at Île-à-la-Crosse, and was so connected with the First Nations people there. She was loved by so many people. That was her philosophy: to love and have others love you back.”