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Spirit in the Sky

Innis grad founds First Nations theatre company

Sandra Laronde, founder and artistic director of the Red Sky performance company, is recounting a vivid memory. At 17 she was out in a boat on Lake Temagami in Northern Ontario, when she spotted a black bear swimming in the distance. She steered toward it, determined to get close enough to see how the beast moved in the water. She imitates the powerful but graceful movements as she tells the story.

A fascination with movement and a deep connection to the natural world – as well as an impressive fearlessness – have stayed with Laronde (BA 1989 Innis). These qualities are also intrinsic to Red Sky, which she founded in 2000. The company incorporates aboriginal culture, contemporary dance, theatre and music into each production. Laronde likens this approach to a First Nations perspective of art. “When I go to a traditional ceremony, all the art forms are integrated. In one ceremony alone, I will hear songs, music, orators speaking in heightened poetic text and see sacred clowns, dance and spirituality all at once.”

Red Sky’s Caribou Song, first staged in 2000, is based on a story written by Tomson Highway. The tale is of two Cree children caught in a caribou stampede. But instead of being trampled as their families fear, they become a part of the movement of the herd and emerge laughing. Laronde calls the Red Sky performance music-driven, incorporating dance and Highway’s words. The production will be touring across Canada this year and in 2006 will travel to China, Taiwan and Korea. Red Sky will soon be interpreting the work into a film, to be directed by former National Ballet of Canada dancer Veronica Tennant. “I believe there is a thirst for these ancient stories in the world right now,” says Laronde. “They resonate with everyone.”

Laronde earned her degree in philosophy at U of T before going on to intensive training in physical-based theatre (which includes dance and all other forms of movement). During her undergrad, she studied for a year in Grenada, Spain, through U of T’s Study Elsewhere program and learned Spanish in order to connect to a broader range of peoples. (It’s what made Red Sky’s production Dancing Americas, a Canadian-Mexican collaboration, possible – two of the dancers did not speak English.) Laronde, who is also founder of Native Women in the Arts, has performed in every Red Sky production to date.

A member of the Teme-Augama-Anishnaabe (People of the Deep Water) nation, Laronde draws inspiration from her ancestors and her connection to the vast landscape of Temagami. “I believe that having grown up on the land where my ancestors have been for thousands of years got right inside me. Your vision becomes immense,” she explains, “because the land is immense.”

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