Directed by: Roger Young
Character’s Name: JuhA senseless tragedy thrusts a young Apache into history in the true, awe-inspiring adventure of the last and most feared frontier warrior. This thrilling tale of superhuman courage and grace features an all-Native American cast and provides a revealing glimpse into Native American life.Michael says, “This was my first film. It was so exciting to be on a movie set. I didn’t know really what the hell was going on, so I kept my mouth shut and watched and listened. I learned a lot this way. The film was about the life of Geronimo and how the encroachment of the Mexicans and then the American settlers turned him from a simple family man into someone who had to devote his life to protecting his community. It was a beautiful movie that showed a lot of the women in the Apache community. Women weren’t in the background in real life and this film attempted to show that side of it – sadly, one of the few native-themed films made in Hollywood. I’ll never forget my first day on that film. I was so nervous that when it was my turn to speak my first line, it only came out as a whisper. The director yelled, ‘CUT!,’ and said, ‘Okay, let’s do it again!’ Then he came up to me and said, ‘That was good. Next time try to say it a little louder.’ I laugh about it now.”
DANCE ME OUTSIDE (1994)
Directed by: Bruce McDonald
Character’s Name: Gooch LaCroix
This excellent movie has been an audience favourite at the Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals and especially among young Indian people. Over the course of two weekends a year apart, the lives of several Indian teenagers are forever changed. Storylines interweave: one deals with the tragic murder of one of the young people, while another deals with a complicated love story-the return of Gooch, who has just been released from prison and comes back to the rez to find that his former girlfriend, Illianna, has married a yuppie Toronto lawyer, Robert McVey. Robert and Illianna can’t have children so Illianna asks Gooch if, for one night, he’ll reignite their old romance. Throughout the story, the humour of Native people emerges again and again.
Michael says, “‘Dance Me Outside’ is one of my favourite films. It is an amazing movie, because it shows native people as contemporary.So many people in America and around the world see us more easily as people from the past but that simply is long past. Even the way we look can’t be defined easily. If you go to any reserve or any of our urban communities, we have an amazing diversity–from the way we look to the way we live. That is not what a lot of people understand, but this amazing movie shows it—especially our humour. We love to laugh, and I know so many of our people love this movie because of that. Everywhere I go in Indian country, people will walk up to me and say, ‘You’re Gooch!’ (the character I played in this movie). ‘I love that movie-I’ve seen it 30 times!’ That is an incredible compliment.”
Photo © Take One magazine (Canada), summer 1995
Most people who see Michael on film or in television do not realize that dance has played a major role in his life and career. In fact, if it wasn’t for dance Michael might have remained in Saskatchewan pursuing a career outside the arts, but fortunately for his fans his path towards acting was paved by dance.
(photo © Michael Greyeyes. At National Ballet of Canada)
“I started ballet at age 6, after I got bored waiting for my sister to finish her ballet lessons. I used to wait in the car with my Mom, until she was done. It was so boring that I used to go up to the studio and watch the girls dancing. One day, I said, ‘That’s easy. I can do that.’ So the teacher told me. ‘Okay, if it’s so easy–why don’t you come and try it next week?’ I said sure. The entire next week, I kept telling my Mom, I’m going to dance class next week. She’d just nod and say sure you are. But as the day got closer and closer and I kept repeating it, she finally asked me if I was serious. I nodded and told her that the teacher had told me to come. So, the next week, I went with my Mom in tow. I think the teacher was more surprised than anyone. But she let me take class, fortunately. I liked it, and so I kept it up. Then one day, my sister (entirely of her own initiative) filled out the applications for her and me to audition for the National Ballet School. She took pictures and everything. Then we got a notice that the NBS was travelling through Saskatoon and holding auditions. My parents were pretty surprised that she had done so much on her own, but they brought us anyway. I was accepted to attend their annual July summer school in Toronto, but my sister wasn’t accepted since she was already 14 at the time and I was 10—the exact age when the NBS usually likes their students to enter their program. After the summer school try-outs, they informed my parents that I was accepted for the next academic school year and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Michael was accepted as a student at The National Ballet School in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 1977. This very prestigious school trains young people to become professional ballet dancers. It is a disciplined environment where the intense curriculum and dedication of the teachers have made it one of the ten best schools of its kind in the world. It is a privilege to be accepted there, as there are only 150 to 200 students in the entire program. Students come from across Canada, the United States and often from across the globe. Students are accepted to the school for a year at a time. “Every year we weren’t sure if we would be packing up and returning home or staying on for another round.” Michael went on and eight years later graduated in 1984. While he continued post-graduate dance study at the school, he apprenticed with The National Ballet of Canada. Three years later he joined the company as a full member in 1987.
(photo © Michael Greyeyes. At National Ballet School)
Looking for new challenges and a chance to perform in the dance capital of North America—New York City, Michael then went to work as a soloist for Eliot Feld and his company Feld Ballets/NY from 1990-1993. From his work with Mr. Feld, recognized as one of America’s great choreographers, Michael says, “He was especially influential on my own choreography: how you can create something from nothing, creating a world on stage, using people in movement alone. No words were used to explain emotion or meaning, just movement and shape. He was very demanding of his dancers and of himself. Sometimes this meant that work in the studio would get very tense, with shouting and many frustrations. This made work harder, but it also made the quality of the work improve as well. Many times he created brilliant choreography. That is not easy to do even once, let alone time after time. I believe his stringency and his uncompromising and critical eye have led me to also reject mediocrity in dance, in my own choreography and now in acting.”
colour photos © Kent Monkman
black and white photos © Vincent Mancuso
In 1994, Tipiskaki Goroh (meaning “Night Thunder” in Cree and Japanese), a dance company formed by Michael, visual artist Kent Monkman, and theatre director Floyd Favel, debuted at The Canada Dance Festival in Ottawa, Canada. The company performed two works:
CHILD OF 10,000 YEARSCast:
Mariu OlsenArtistic Director:
Floyd FavelNIGHT TRAVELLERCast:
Christine O’LearyArtistic Director:
Floyd FavelSet & Costume Design:
Kent MonkmanLighting Design:
Efterpi Soropos”Looking back now to those performances, I can see an interesting pattern beginning to develop in my work—which I’ll describe as an attempt to subvert the expectations audiences have of native art. I thought Night Traveller was the best work I had done up to that point. The dance had 4 dancers (the most I had worked with up to that point). It also had complex, difficult choreography, and a brilliant set and costume design by Kent Monkman complemented by a haunting lighting design by Efterpi Soropos, an Australian designer we had met earlier that summer. Unfortunately, the audience did not seem to understand it or like it as much as Child of 10,000 Years, the second piece on the program. In retrospect, I realize that Tipiskaki Goroh was billed as a “native” dance company and the audience came expecting something more typically native, something more like Child, which had traditional native and Inuit dance choreography, design elements like cowboy hats, rocks, tree branches, and water. Mariu even sang a traditional song in Inuktitut.
On the other hand, Night Traveller was ‘native’ in more subtle ways. Firstly, the narrative of the piece dealt with dreams and the central image of family members that came back to visit the lead dancer (my soon-to-be wife Nancy) from the dead. I remember hearing my mother’s stories about when the dead visit you in your dreams and that formed the basis for the work. Also, the music was by Bartok and Janacek. Bartok, especially, was known for researching and documenting the traditional Hungarian folk songs and melodies he had grown up listening to and then using them as the basis for his classical music compositions. My choice of music then mirrored what I was doing with the choreography, where I used “classical,” western dance to express native themes and images. Even the title came from my roots, since ‘Night Traveller’ is a traditional Cree family name back in Saskatchewan. To outsiders it may sound poetic, but to my ears I know that it is also a surname, like Smith or Jones. I suppose that all this went right over the heads of our audience at the Dance Festival, as they missed entirely seeing the piece’s native roots. This idea of subverting an audience’s perceptions of Indianness has always played an important part in how I approach creating native characters and, in fact, this eventually formed the basis of my Master’s thesis at Kent State University. Looking back it is easy to see how this early piece was the beginning of much of the work I have done subsequently. I remember one of my dance teacher’s commenting that the piece was ‘a little gem’.”
Michael has continued to choreograph, notably for Kent Monkman’s video A Nation is Coming and the CBC documentary He Who Dreams: Michael Greyeyes on the Powwow Trail. His research into native dance traditions culminated in songs, a concert dance work presented at The Robert Gill Theatre in Toronto,1998, as part of the inaugural year-long training program at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre – CIT – in Toronto. In 2008, Michael created a new dance work for 4 male dancers, as part of Monkman’s new installation: Dance to the Berdashe, commissioned by Urban Shaman Gallery in Winnipeg, Manitoba. This work will also be shown in Toronto, in the fall of 2008 during the ImagiNATIVE Film Festival.
CRAZY HORSE (1996)
TNT Original Films
Directed by: John Irvin
Title Role as Crazy Horse
Crazy Horse is the account of the days of the Indian Wars and the life of this legendary warrior. Told through the eyes of Crazy Horse, this is an extraordinary tale of a Native American hero who knew his destiny and fought for the freedom of his people.
Here are a few of Michael’s comments on the movie:
“He’s an extremely important figure to the Lakota culture. There’s a deeply spiritual quality to the man and about the way people revere him.”
“I learned that Crazy Horse was a man who accepted his duty with a great deal of pride. He was a member of the Akicitas, the warrior society that assumed the responsibility of protecting the people and their culture, but despite being a warrior he was also a very spiritual man. Visions shaped his life. He knew that he was going to die as a victim of betrayal.”
“I was in good shape from my dance career but I wanted to get into better shape for the film, particularly cardiovascular. I ran in the mountains and worked out in a gym. I was told by the Lakota cultural advisors that to be warriors the Lakota trained all their lives from the time they were boys. I wanted to look like I had trained all my life too. I was up at 4 or 5 every morning and worked until sunset..”
“Making the movie was an experience I’ll never forget. It took two months in South Dakota to complete. We filmed near Hot Springs, which unfortunately was a very racist place. This was ironic as the movie we were making explored how racism and hatred killed an incredible man and leader. I believe that the U.S. government was terrified of Crazy Horse. That is why he had to be assassinated. He refused to trust the government negotiators, the army, or white people in general. Because he couldn’t be tricked or bought, the government had to get rid of him. As well, he was a very spiritual man. That created a deadly obstacle to the white man’s plundering and theft of the Black Hills. The history of the Northern Plains and the U.S. would read very differently if Crazy Horse had lived. I was honoured to play this man. It was very hard to portray such a hero, so instead of trying to appear ‘great and heroic,’ I played him as a man who was motivated to incredible actions by his caring for his own people. A true patriot.”
“One of the joys of filming for ‘Crazy Horse’ was working in South Dakota, on location in Paha Sapa (the Black Hills). It’s an incredibly beautiful and sacred place.”
MICHAEL GREYEYES is an actor, dancer, director, and choreographer. He is a member of the Muskeg Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Mr. Greyeyes began his professional career as a classical ballet dancer with The National Ballet of Canada and with the company of Eliot Feld in New York City. Eliot Feld created two roles especially for him in the ballets Common Ground and Bloom’s Wake. As well, Michael danced many featured roles in Mr. Feld’s most acclaimed works, such as Endsong, Intermezzo, Embraced Waltzes, Contrapose, and The Jig is Up.In 1993, Mr. Greyeyes began to choreograph and direct his own theatre work, which has appeared in festivals in Canada and Europe. As an actor he has worked on stage and extensively in film and television for the last 14 years. Recent credits include, Terence Malick’s The New World, Skinwalkers for PBS Mystery!, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Numb3rs, Skipped Parts, Smoke Signals for Miramax, the ABC mini-series Dreamkeeper and most recently, Passchendaele, Paul Gross’ World War I feature that opened the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.
Mr. Greyeyes received his M.F.A in Acting from Kent State University, where he taught as an instructor and first began his on-going research into post-colonialism and the staging of ethnicity in both film and dance. He has presented papers on “Notions of Indian-ness” at the PCA/ACA conference in 2007 and was an invited keynote speaker at Wilfred Laurier University’s Indigenous Film and Media conference that same year.
Mr. Greyeyes has continued to create theatre work, alongside his film and television credits. This past year he was commissioned to create a new dance work for the Dusk Dances festival in Toronto and new choreography for 4 male dancers, set to a mash up of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for Kent Monkman’s installation: Dance to the Berdashe. In 2006, Michael collaborated with renowned choreographer Santee Smith to create a duet, entitled The Threshing Floor, for Nozhem: First Peoples Performance Space and Trent University’s Indigenous Studies Program. This dance work toured across Canada in the spring of 2008 and was an invited dance work for the 2008 Canada Dance Festival, as part of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre’s “Fragmented Heart” program.
Mr. Greyeyes next wrote and performed in a short dance film entitled Triptych for BRAVO!, directed by Byron McKim in November 2007, which he also co-produced and choreographed. In 2008, Mr. Greyeyes directed a new opera work, entitled “The Journey” for Soundstreams Canada, with music by Melissa Hui, and libretto by Tomson Highway.In 2009, he will appear in Ric Burn’s new documentary/ live action film for PBS, entitled “We Shall Remain: Tecumseh” in the title role and will direct Daniel David-Moses’ acclaimed play, Almighty Voice and His Wife, for Native Earth Performing Arts.
BIG BEAR (1998)
Director: Gil Cardinal
CBC-TV (Canada) four-hour mini-series – aired 03 to 04 January 1999
Character’s Name: Wandering Spirit
A four-hour historic drama mini-series on the life of Plains Cree chief Big Bear, adapted from Rudy Wiebe’s award-winning novel, “The Temptations of Big Bear.” In this made-for-TV movie, Chief Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa in Cree), portrayed by Gordon Tootoosis (Legends of the Fall, North of 60), fights for justice for his people and resists signing away ancestral rights for a reserve. The series recounts his struggle as he tries desperately to keep his people together and maintain their traditional way of life. It is also an emotional look at how one family was torn apart by the forces of history and one man’s quest. Tantoo Cardinal (Smoke Signals, Dances with Wolves) as Big Bear’s wife, as well as Michael in the role of war chief Wandering Spirit (Kapapamahchakwew in Cree), leader of the Rattler Lodge, star in this powerful production.
With a budget of $8.5 million, Big Bear is the biggest Native TV project produced in Canada to date, said Doug Cuthand, one of four producers of the mini-series. “It’s a story about the Cree people and the fact that an unprecedented number of actors are Cree is very important, something that Gil Cardinal was very aware of when he was casting. (It was an incredible experience to again work with a native director.) It’s totally unique and brings in a whole different take on the cultural perspective. The fact that he has the same perspective (as the actors) makes for a smoother path. You’re not butting heads, and, in a weird way, it’s not about cultural issues at all. We can just concentrate (on acting and) on making a great film.” Michael, quoted in an article in Saskatchewan Sage by Pamela Green.
Michael says, “I was so proud to be part of this movie. I made many great friends on the crew and in the cast as well. It was my first real chance to work beside Gordon Tootoosis and Tantoo Cardinal. I have so much respect for them and the path their generation created by opening up the field of acting for Indians many years ago. Also I got a chance to practice my French, which is very rusty. It was my first time since high school.”
Michael’s short film, A Nation Is Coming, has been shown on Canada’s Bravo and APTN cable networks. This thought-provoking film deals with native peoples’ reactions to drastic changes wrought by the introduction of technology and disease. It is interspersed with words from native prophecy and the Ghost Dance. Michael is the only person in the film. Portraying a resurrected Ghost Dancer, he appears in different scenes that express a time-line of events. He dances around a circle of fire in modern dress, performs the grassdance (those of you who have seen him in the CBC documentary He Who Dreams: Michael Greyeyes on the Powwow Trail will recognize both his regalia and some of the dance steps), dances in a simple breechcloth, and, in some very striking outdoor scenes, wears a traditional buckskin shirt and breeches and fur boots. Although there is no spoken dialogue or narration in the entire film, he does some of his finest acting to date — through facial expression and body movement alone.
Stark images of a gray, sterile industrial wasteland contrast with images of a pristine winter wilderness. Filmed in sepia-toned photography, the outdoor scenes are particularly striking. Michael trudges through knee-deep snow (and it must indeed have been very cold because one can see his breath – the film was made in and around Banff). Several shots showing him lying in the snow were uncannily reminiscent of images of the tragic victims of the Wounded Knee massacre in December 1890. There are images of disease such as Michael seeing blood trickling from his palm, and a blanket upon which are superimposed images of living micro-organisms. I understand the latter as a reference to the “blanket fever” (an early, calculated form of germ warfare/genocide when, in the 1800s, U.S. soldiers gave tribes blankets taken from smallpox hospitals).
Michael choreographed the film. His mastery of movement and his creative, artistic vision are truly remarkable. This tall young man is both powerful and graceful as he dances and leaps, seemingly effortlessly, on stage. In the final scene, as the credits roll, he appears to be a “visitor” or alien, sitting in an armchair, remote control in hand, watching a TV program about the annihilation of the buffalo. He is wearing eerie makeup (somewhat reminiscent of the late Brandon Lee in the movie “The Crow”) and comically choking as he tries to inhale cigarette smoke.
The film, which is only about 25 minutes in length, is rather avant-grade and experimental in nature. It takes several viewings to understand its messages. And due to the film’s very nature, each viewer will have a different interpretation. It continues to play in one’s mind long after one sees it. It is a thought-provoking, disturbing, inspiring and moving experience. One is left with an even greater appreciation of, and admiration for, Michael’s acting and dancing, as well.
Review © Jan
Photo © Kent Monkman