North Bay, Nipissing First Nation

Have you ever met someone who laughs often, laughs freely, and laughs with delight simply because she appreciates all the wonderful, quirky and innovative things that happen when people work together? Well, I have. Her name is Penny Couchie, and she is co-founder of the theatre company Aanmitaagzi (He/She Speaks). When Penny laughs you just can’t help but laugh along with her. Penny and her husband Sid Bobb (the other co-founder of the company) and their son Ouske started with Train of Thought in Vancouver and then stepped off the train after Edmonton. We are all glad to see them again. They call their studio Big Medicine and it is an apt name. There is a palpable sense of healing energy here. The studio, with its big windows, sprung dance floor, and walls covered with art and giant puppets looks out over Lake Nipissing. There is a steady stream of youth, moms and kids, and others coming in and out of the space and it feels like a family hub. The Nipissing people are known for their generosity as hosts and their good cooking and that is certainly evident over the several days we spend here. Our visit coincides (though not coincidently) with a conference of panels and workshops called Dream Big North held in a theatre in downtown North Bay. We are invited to take part in the conference if it suits us, but there is another task at hand as well. Penny and Sid and their team have been working up plans for a show to present at the culmination of the conference. They have the outline and are in need of a cast. It turns out we are the cast, joined by Aanmitaagzi regulars and a whole crew of Jumblies artists, associates and youth from Toronto who have made the drive up here. As I watch Penny choreograph and Sid direct I am struck by the way they balance clear direction about their vision for the piece with an open ended—even what you might call loving—invitation for performers to bring their own creativity to the work. Penny works in a mode of what she calls Spontaneous Choreography. She is clearly masterful in her knowledge of dance so people trust her to guide them, and yet she implicitly trusts each and every one them to find beauty and clarity in their own work as part of the ensemble. The show is woven together in record time, including a team at the side of the studio building a dozen animal masks with guidance from Cathy Stubington. The show is a stage adaptation of a west coast story Sid has learned from his mother, Lee Maracle, who is with us here. The story tells of a time long ago when the trees walked free and frightened all the other living creatures until they entered into an agreement with the humans to root themselves in exchange for care and protection. Two days after we rolled into town, the show is being performed with a cast of perhaps 30 or 40 cast members and musicians with lighting effects and projections. More impressive than this spectacle though, is the sense of purposeful collaboration among the cast of settler and indigenous people united in a common cause to tell an old story in a new way (as Lee puts it). This is the future.

Follow From the Heart

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