Every culture, belief system, and people have a creation story. They define us, document a history, reflect who we are as a community and a people. Canadian Native choreographer Sandra Laronde (Misko Kizhigoo Migizii Kwe, which means “Red Sky Eagle Woman” in the Ojibway language) traces her people’s origin story in a dramatic and compelling multisensory performance. Miigis: Underwater Panther brought her eponymous Red Sky Performance to the Kennedy Center for the first time Thursday, March 2 through Saturday, March 4, 2023, in the Terrace Theater.
The hour-long work lovingly honors the elemental components that comprise Native American archetypal storytelling: fire, air, water, and earth. In Miigis, six agile modern dancers flow through a formidable journey across time and space, oceans, woodlands, fire, and air, leaving in their wake metaphor-filled images of the natural and built worlds of the Anishinaabe (Ojibway) peoples of North America.
First, a breath and a hum awaken the ears. On stage rests a skeletal scaffold boat-like structure, overturned like a turtle shell. Dancers, clad in navy bike shorts and tank tops, their bare limbs marked with hand prints and symbols, crawl to the shell, clump into a pod. The video backdrop fills with waves, the dark moving water on the scrim whorling the group while the on-stage musicians crescendo with drums, flutes, guitar, calls, and chants to composer Rick Sacks’ evocative, nature-imbued sound score.
This metaphoric journey travels across many landscapes, time periods, and habitats — made visible in the motion video designed by Febby Tan. Accompanied by vocalists Marie Gaudet and Ora Barlow-Tukaki and the musical ensemble, the dancers undulate into birds in flight, skitter and crawl as small forest mammals, surf-like sea creatures, and hunters stalking prey, knees rising and lowering, feet stabbing the ground. Sometimes a single dancer morphs into a land or sea creature, at other moments, two, three, or even the entire company coalesces into anthropomorphic beings.
Darkness fills the stage and a figure slides out effortlessly — the dancer with his belly hovering on a low wheeled stool contorts his torso and shoulders, his preternatural demeanor suggesting a shift toward danger, as the soundscape crunches, bangs, gurgles, and exhales. There’s an animal-like ferocity that suggests he is the panther of the title, poised to attack. The company returns, shaping themselves into totems arms and legs intertwining around torsos as they stack their heads. But soon their zoomorphic parries and attacks become a monstrous forest creature — unrecognizable, insatiable, out for blood. Together the six wind themselves into a many-headed, many-armed leviathan
This heart-beating horrific moment in nature shifts to the human-made tragedy of Canada’s troubled colonial history and treatment of Indigenous people, particularly children. A fast-moving slide show of photos depicting native children in residential schools and the governmental documents and acts that perpetrated this heartbreaking episode in history leads into a powerful reenactment of church-supported child abuse. A woman embodies the colonizers by wearing the ship scaffolding covered in white cloth as a hoop skirt while simpering to the strains of a Strauss waltz. Later, three dressed as two nuns and a priest savagely mimic cutting the hair of a dancer portraying an indigenous girl child.
This journey from sea to land to sky reaches its apotheosis beneath a fiery yellow sun, with drumming and chanting: “I am Father Sky and Mother Earth … part of the circle of all living things.” The dancers gather, pause, and unfurl their arms like wings — a soaring eagle-creature, a flock, soars to the future.
Red Sky’s gorgeous dancers — Daniela Carmona, Kristin DeAmrim, Eddie Elliott, Mira Humana-Blaise, Jason Martin, and Mio Sakamoto — perform with agility, intensity, grace, and strength in a vocabulary firmly rooted in American modern dance techniques. Choreographer Laronde’s visionary work firmly centers Miigis: Underwater Panther in the cultural, historical, and spiritual worlds of Canada’s Indigenous population permeating every breath, note, and step in this multifaceted evening. The rich collaborative nature of the piece with live music, film, choreography, and storytelling opens doors to accessibility to all who can follow their imaginations on this moving metaphorical journey to its end.
Running Time: 55 minutes, no intermission.
Miigis: Underwater Panther by Red Sky Performance plays to March 4, 2023, in the Terrace Theater in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($39–$49) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.
The program for Miigis: Underwater Panther is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. See Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.