'Dreaming Roots' stage show premieres, wows Whitehorse audiences

·4 min read
'Dreaming Roots' was staged at the Yukon Arts Centre last weekend. It will eventually go on tour to other Yukon communities. (Mike Thomas/Yukon Arts Centre - image credit)
'Dreaming Roots' was staged at the Yukon Arts Centre last weekend. It will eventually go on tour to other Yukon communities. (Mike Thomas/Yukon Arts Centre - image credit)

Joy O'Brien says she wasn't quite sure what to expect when she managed to secure a ticket to Dreaming Roots.

The multi-media stage show had just premiered in Whitehorse on the weekend, and O'Brien had heard a lot of people talking about it. She managed to find a ticket for the next performance — and days later, she's still beside herself about what she saw.

"I loved every minute of it ... it was so good," she said.

Dreaming Roots incorporates dance, music, story-telling, theatre and visual art to tell the story of Yukon's Indigenous history and culture. It's directed by acclaimed Toronto-based artist Alejandro Ronceria and Yukon's Diyet van Lieshout and features work from more than 50 Indigenous performers and creators. The Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association led the production.

It was staged a few times last weekend at the Yukon Arts Centre, to coincide with the Arctic Arts Summit and the Adäka Cultural Festival. The plan is to soon take it on the road to other Yukon communities, and eventually, across Canada and beyond. No dates have yet been announced.

"This is the story of Yukoners, Indigenous Yukoners, from all parts of the territory. It's their stories, their words, their dances, their songs," said van Leishout.

Alistair Maitland
Alistair Maitland

"It's their cultures, in their own way, without anybody else telling them how to do it."

The show hearkens to What the Land Remembers, a performance by Yukon First Nations at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, and touches on issues related to environmental change, family, cultural upheaval, trauma and resilience.

O'Brien was particularly affected by the hip-hop duo Vision Quest, who performed a powerful piece about residential schools. She said she wasn't quite prepared for it.

"That just hit me to the core. It brought out a lot of emotion," she said.

O'Brien, who lives in Whitehorse, is a member of the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation. She and her three siblings all went to residential school. O'Brien, the youngest, was the last to go and she still vividly remembers being taken there by her parents. She remembers her first night at the school, a six-year-old alone in a strange room, scared and crying and wondering when her parents would come bring her home.

Listening to Vision Quest conjure that experience through their lyrics triggered a powerful reaction, she said.

"I thought, oh, I need to get out of here. I'm sitting amongst all these people, and I'm having a breakdown," O'Brien recalled.

"And then I kind of looked around me, and the people that I was with were both crying too ... other people were feeling the same emotions. And then I didn't feel alone."

Mike Thomas/Yukon Arts Centre
Mike Thomas/Yukon Arts Centre

O'Brien also loved that the show was not always so heavy with difficult emotion. There was plenty of humour, she said — and that's important. The Vision Quest performance was soon followed by another segment with some laughs.

"As Indigenous people, we're always laughing. And, you know, at every function or every event that we go to, there's always laughter involved," she said.

"So they threw that in there, even though it was really a serious subject ... we can laugh also."

'I kind of braced myself'

Donna Kisoun was also bowled over by Dreaming Roots. She says she was lucky to get a last-minute ticket, and like O'Brien, didn't know a whole lot about the show beforehand.

"I was given a little heads-up that it's going to be very powerful. So I kind of braced myself for that," she said.

Kisoun grew up in Inuvik and now lives in Whitehorse. Her mother was from Vuntut Gwitchin. She loves that the show represented all of the territory's regions and varied cultural traditions.

Mike Thomas/Yukon Arts Centre
Mike Thomas/Yukon Arts Centre

"I like the writing. I like how past, present and future, you know, how that came about, and the messages from all of those generations," she said.

Kisoun hopes the show finds a massive audience once it goes on tour. It's a powerful story that needs to be heard and a performance that needs to be seen, she says — and not just by Indigenous people.

"Of course we're going to say it's amazing, because those those are our people, right?" Kisoun said.

"This is the story of Indigenous people, gone mainstream, and it's making an impact. And we just need more of that ... I really believe it's something Canadians have to see."

Mike Thomas/Yukon Arts Centre
Mike Thomas/Yukon Arts Centre

The show has already had a big impact on everybody involved, van Leishout said. The production has allowed people to develop new skills, make new connections across generations, and experience the power of finding one's voice through art.

"The beautiful thing about creation and art is that when you are open to it, and you have a community that will support you, it informs the rest of your life," she said.

"And it's a ripple effect, on how much that affects everyone else around you, in the most beautiful and positive ways."

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