The missing and murdered indigenous women is one of the most important issues in Canada today and a tragedy that will cause us much retrospective shame and grief if we do not address it immediately. One artist tackling awareness and impact of this travesty is choreographer and dancer Daina Ashbee through her new show Unrelated. This two-dancer piece captures the themes of disappearance, absence, addiction, and identity, all issues pertinent to women today, especially Aboriginal women. After the upcoming première in Montreal, the show will tour in Monterrey and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I spoke to Ashbee about the work’s meaning and her own development as an artist.
Rachel Levine (RL): Your current work tackles this important topic as it comes more and more into public consciousness, the disappearance of 1,200 native women and girls over a 30 year span. Do you want to tell me a bit more about the importance of this issue to you and how you are using it to inform Unrelated?
Daina Ashbee (DA): Well, I feel like it’s my standpoint that these women and their families should have closure and for the government to do a public inquiry into their deaths. We are using the dance piece to try and get empathy out of people and get people to feel more deeply about how these women might feel or what their lives were like or just to be a part of this issue. The larger picture is about violence against the young vulnerable women, the Aboriginal women. I’m against this violence but using it to create a piece. I’m trying to portray their vulnerability and feel it and be a part of that and get close to it. I’m trying to tap into that deep emotional place, and the vulnerability of young women — young indigenous women especially. I also think that all people can relate to this piece. We can all be vulnerable and collapse again and again with cycles of abuse and addiction. The piece sources from my idea of the aboriginal women and my experiences.
RL: I’m under the impression that a good deal of research came before you choreographed the piece.
DA: It’s taken time. I started thinking and manifesting the idea in my brain when I was quite young, when I was 20 to 21 years old. It’s been a long process. I started working on it in 2012 and that’s already 2 ½ years ago.
RL: What kind of movements do the dancers in engage in to express the ideas you are expressing?
DA: It’s a very emotional piece and my job is to take care of the emotional part of this issue. My piece is very personal and all the material was forced from my body and experienced on top of my interpreters’ bodies. The dancers use a lot of self-destructive behaviours, slamming themselves against the wall or floor. There’s repetition. It creates the rhythm of the piece. It’s also very sexual. Sexual self-destructive movement is juxtaposed with innocent movements. There’s lots of stillness. The cycles of abuse are represented with repetition. Also, the way I see it, they are constantly transforming. One state brings them to one state to another. There’s also the idea that there’s a possibility of transformation. Within this transformation, though, you can get back in to the cycle of abuse, so it’s constantly on the edge. They never fully erupt, but there’s a lot of tension. They’re about to explode but never do. They’re waiting for it to happen.
RL: Can you tell me more about this transformation?
DA: Yeah, there’s the possibility of transformation. At the end, there’s almost a resolution, but not a resolution. Two dancers come together and you’re satisfied because they connect to their bodies and to each other, almost like a resolution, but there’s a feeling of emptiness and lack of closure. That’s important to me, the lack of closure. If we back away from the piece and think about the bigger issue, I want it to be for the families of these women. They haven’t gotten closure yet. So, I’m leaving that open. I’m not closing it yet. People who have seen it have felt quite disturbed in the end, like there wasn’t enough resolution. I did it deliberately.
RL: How did you find your dancers Areli Moran and Paige Culley? Is there something specific about them that you wanted for it?
DA: I met [Moran] in 2012 because she went to same dance school as I did but it was two years after I finished. I saw her dancing and thought she’d be an interesting person to work with. I invited her to dance and knew she’d be perfect for my dance piece. She joined for 2013. She came from Mexico to Montreal for the final parts of piece and is fantastic to work with. We’re arranging this tour together. [Culley] came in more last minute. I lost two other dancers. I never met [Culley], but I’d seen her perform. When I met her, we clicked. The piece evolved over time from a trio to a duo.
RL: Can you comment more on something you said in an earlier biography that connects the body and the subconscious?
DA: Well, I believe that we’re able to tap into our subconscious and learn a lot of about ourselves from dance and movement that we aren’t aware of. I didn’t know that when I was younger and going to dance school, the movement I was creating was very violent. I didn’t realize there was this repressed anger in my body, this self-destructive behaviour. It exists in me and in my family lineage, yet I never got into it when I was a teenager. I never drank. I never did anything that destroyed my body, but I still found it in other ways. The body taps into so many things. It’s complex when you’re dancing.
RL: Anything else you would like to add?
DA: Yes, in a bigger picture, one important thing is the violence that has been inflicted on these women and violence in the dance piece is the same violence towards the environment and the animals. It’s the violence of factory farms, residential schools. That’s where title Unrelated came from. All of this is so related. If I stand and look at this as a big picture, it’s all the same violence, it’s not being able to relate to one another and to these women and the things that cause these kinds of issues.
Daina Ashbee’s piece Unrelated is at the MAI (3680 Jeanne Mance) on October 3 and 4. 8 p.m. $18