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.