Daina Ashbee, When the ice melts will we drink the water?, OFFTA, Montréal
Daina Ashbee, When the ice melts will we drink the water?
OFFTA, Montréal, Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui, June 4 and 5, 2016
In 2003, a group of Indigenous women from various clans walked around Lake Superior together. This was the first of the Mother Earth Water Walks, which have since continued around the Great Lakes and other bodies of water on Turtle Island. Most recently, Josephine Mandamin and a group of Indigenous elders lead a walk along the Menominee River, in response to the nearby Back Forty Mine project.
In an online public journal entry detailing the inaugural walk, Mandamin describes witnessing the visible effects of environmental degradation throughout her journey.
“The heaviness in our hearts was unbearable when we saw the destruction of the forests, the earth being gouged by machines, the rivers and creeks dying in the human filth amid green slime and brown, poison fluid flowing into the cleaner rivers. The death along the highways was sickening; of deer, fawn, moose, rabbits, porcupine, skunks, and birds killed by traffic. These scenes always reminded us that progress has no value for life. We can be knocked down at any time for getting in the way.”
The pain that courses through Mandamin’s words might find an analogue in the affective content of Daina Ashbee’s When the ice melts will we drink the water?, created with performer and collaborator Esther Gaudette, and recently presented at the Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui as part of the OFFTA.
The audience enters the small space of the Salle Jean-Claude Germain, and Gaudette is lying on her back atop a square podium. She breathes heavily, vocally, and her breathing is accompanied by movement: arms contracting over her chest, back arching and slamming down. As these gestures continue, the performer’s exertion becomes clear, and the recurring thud of her flesh hitting the podium forms a forceful rhythm of visceral contact. Given the performance’s title, described as “a question posed to the public to open the discussion on climate change,” these embodied impacts seem to echo alongside those Mandamin describes, just as the heaviness Mandamin feels takes root in Ashbee’s work.
For its tenth edition, the OFFTA has placed an emphasis on contemporary Indigenous art production. Entitled Indigenous Contemporary Scene (ISC) this element of the festival, in which Ashbee’s work is included, was produced by interdisciplinary artistic organization ONISHKA, and collaboratively created with curator Emilie Monnet. It is an encouraging and necessary initiative; one that will hopefully lead to sustained engagement with Indigenous artists and communities.
According to the program notes accompanying her work, Ashbee “is often influenced by her Cree, Métis, and Dutch heritage…using both contemporary and traditional means as expression.” And indeed, elements of Indigenous thought and dramaturgy resonate through When the ice melts will we drink the water? We might consider Ashbee’s work in conversation with Floyd Favel Starr’s notion of Native Performance Culture, rooted in a process of “isolating the basic building blocks of song and dance,” which “become the starting points for a creative and vital action.” Something akin to this framework seems reflected in Ashbee’s pared down movement vocabulary and use of gestural repetition and accumulation toward moments of intensity, even crisis.
As spectators, we are directly confronted by the work’s performative urgency. The dancer’s body is brightly illuminated, and the height of the podium places her horizontal figure squarely at eye level. The movement of Gaudette’s skin and joints, as she opens and extends her legs from the hips, is jarringly visible, and the arrangement of the performance space offers an uncomfortable invitation to our scopophilic eyes. This emphasis on the visible is subsequently subverted when, part way through the piece, the lights cut out and the space suddenly falls to darkness. Even here, the work remains aggressively visceral, as the sound of contact between Gaudette’s body and the surface on which she lies becomes increasingly pronounced, and her vocalizations escalate to moans, gasps, near-screams.
As the program notes explain, “the work is rooted in the pelvis of the performer,” as well as the choreographer’s desire to investigate “sexuality, body image, and menstruation.” Together with the ecological concerns reflected in the piece's title, these themes form a complex and weighty set of inquiries and relationships. This may account for the work’s feeling of being so intensely wrought, intent on forging the affective confrontation its premises seem to demand.
Of course, When the ice melts will we drink the water? is a work in progress, and its myriad questions remain, necessarily, unresolved. And I, too, am left with a set of questions alongside the performance’s lasting momentum. In its program notes, the work is described as “installation” and “sculpture." How do these definitions inform it, while also stoking certain tensions? If the viewing arrangement, where the audience is seated facing the performer on two sides, feels distinctly theatrical, in what sense might Ashbee’s work be read as an installation? How does the relationship between sculpture and objecthood interact with the already intensely objectifying force of the gaze Ashbee’s piece seems to invite? To what extent does the choreography’s intensity reflect the urgency of its proposed subjects, and to what extent might it burden their expanded exploration? How might the work’s focus on an individuated performing body intersect with the more diffuse environmental questions Ashbee also poses?
As Ashbee’s piece develops further, no doubt new questions will arise. And if the performance’s force and insistence can work to foster continued interrogation, these queries will surely lead in many stimulating directions, while feeding the work’s enduring engagement with the deeply felt pain it expresses.