Indigenous winner of Walter Carsen Prize has roots in tradition and her mind on future generations

​Margaret Grenier, the executive and artistic director of the Dancers of Damelahamid, is soaking it all in after being named the 2020 recipient for the Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts.

The Vancouver-based dance artist was recognized for “the highest level of artistic excellence and distinguished career achievement by a Canadian professional artist in music, theatre or dance.”

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The Carsen Prize has been awarded by the Canada Council for the Arts since 2001 and recognizes a lifetime body of work.

Grenier’s work has been seen in many countries around the globe. Most recently, her show Mînowin was first performed with the Dancers of Damelahamid at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa for the 2019 Mòshkamo Festival. It was again shown in Guanajuato, Mexico at the 2019 Festival Internacional Cervantino.

Grenier was nominated for the prize by Jane Gabriels, the executive director of the non-profit dance organization Made in BC.

Grenier said she and Gabriels collaborated on the award application, but she was still surprised when she’d found out she’d won.

“I felt very emotional and very overwhelmed because I wasn’t expecting to receive it,” she said.

Grenier said she held the news from everyone except her husband Andrew, the creative producer of Dancers of Damelahamid, and Gabriels for about a month until the Canada Council for the Arts made the announcement.

“It was a lot to keep in to yourself. It was pretty big. I knew it was very significant that there hadn’t been an Indigenous artist to win the award before,” Grenier said.

The award comes with a $50,000 cash prize.

“It’s very helpful in a year when the majority of our company revenue is not here,” Grenier said.

With the prize, Grenier is looking to reinvest some of the funds in a new woven regalia piece that she’s looking to keep within her family.

Grenier said the unfortunate aspects of the pandemic for her business is that youth workshops in schools were cancelled, as well as programming for the Vancouver International Children’s Festival.

“There was a lot of connection with young people that was unfortunately not possible,” Grenier said.

Grenier’s family connections in the dance world run deep. Her late parents, Kenneth and Margaret Harris, were influential in the founding and operation of Dancers of Damelahamid, which has been performing since the 1960s.

Both are 2019 inductees of the National Dance Hall of Fame located in Toronto.

“What I’m doing as an artist is very much rooted in something that goes back to the previous generation,” Grenier said.

Grenier’s mother was a teacher of Cree and Gitxsan dance, as well as the founder of the Haw yaw hawni naw Festival, which lasted for two decades from 1966 to 1986 in Prince Rupert, B.C.

Grenier’s father also served on an advisory committee against the White Paper put forward by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1969, as well as being an Elder and consultant for numerous First Nations organizations.

Grenier’s continuing body of work has consisted of both dance and choreography.

“I’ve danced ever since I can remember,” she said. “I think as a choreographer it’s come from an understanding that my work is not to simply replicate what my parents did but to offer what I can to the continuation of this dance form into something the next generation can inherit.”

The Dancers of Damelahamid has always been a “intergenerational practice” — perhaps emphasized best by her son Nigel, who works as the outreach coordinator and lead dancer for the company.

“For me, [dance] was very much connected to our identities, our stories. It was of utmost importance that my children had the opportunity to experience that,” Grenier said.

Grenier spoke of her hope for the next generation of artists and how that has evolved throughout her lifetime.

While there was a period where the dance industry was hit hard by the pandemic, Grenier is looking forward to an upcoming online performance with Vancouver-based presenter New Works on a show titled Spirit and Tradition.

It’s being marketed as “projected imagery, soundscape, and Coastal masked dance, immersing the audience into the rich and diverse ecosystem of British Columbia’s coastal mountains and Pacific Ocean.”

The show, which honours her father’s Gitxsan heritage, was produced in October and will be run as a pay-what-you-can format.

“It’s based within the traditional art of the Gitxsan, with some contemporary approaches,” Grenier said.

It will be run from Nov. 23 through Nov. 30, and focus on key themes of “reciprocity and ecological sustainability, conveying important cultural teachings on balance, interconnectedness and community.”

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