Interview by Angela MacKenzie
Portrait by Richmond Lam
Lara Kramer is an independent choreographer and dancer based in Montreal. She received a BFA in Contemporary Dance from Concordia University in 2008. She is Ojibwa and Cree from her mother’s lineage and creates works that are primarily influenced by her Aboriginal roots. Her contemporary piece Fragments was inspired by her mother’s experiences in the residential schools. I interviewed Lara this fall over hot chocolate and soup at Santropol in Montreal.
Angela: I read when you created Fragments you were inspired by stories that your mom had told you about growing up in the Canadian residential schools. Could you tell me more about the stories she shared?
Lara: Well growing up my mom was always quite verbal about her childhood. I can remember being as young as four or five years old and hearing my mother refer to the residential schools. There would be stories here and there that I remember being repeated over the years. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I really started to get the implications of what she was telling me. I found it interesting, the notion of repetition through hearing stories. Repetition in itself is a creative process in dance. So I actually did what you’re doing now, I interviewed my mom. The oral traditions are lovely to have but a lot of survivor stories around this time were just starting to surface and they weren’t really being documented. I thought Wow, this is my mother, a survivor, it’s important that if she’s ever not here anymore that these stories can resonate. After interviewing her I decided I wanted to put it in movement, and that was the next step in creating Fragments.
So what is your creative process like when you’re developing? Do you work alone at first?
Yeah, typically I start alone. Each process is different but for Fragments I remember the sensation of feeling immobile. Like I wasn’t able to mobilize the concepts and stories into my body. I think it was just so emotionally charged for me. So I started by working with dancers—those who had a certain depth and sensitivity to be able to go forward with the work that I wanted to do. I was really straight up and I would read the stories that I had transcribed from my Mother and we would do these open improvs. I wanted somehow for her history to resonate in their bodies. And then those improvs developed into me selecting sequences or images that they had proposed. I would pull them out and put them into specific forms for choreography.
Was it difficult to get into the mindset of young women from a previous generation?
I definitely have the advantage of having a parent so close to it. I mean there’s that concept of blood memory. So the memory of my mother is not far removed from my own DNA. In terms of my dancers I imagined it being quite difficult as many of them had very little reference to the residential schools.
My mother and I actually took a trip back to the first school she attended, in Portage Le Prairie, Manitoba. The reserve now owns the school and they’ve transformed part of the first floor into a museum. We spent a whole week at the school and I think what it brought out was a much richer element of culture that I realized I hadn’t really informed the dancers of. I think what I needed to bring forth was the context, how the culture was basically beaten out of them.
When we got back I decided to invite some elders into the process. They shared some traditions and some storytelling. One of them was a survivor and that was the moment that made the project real for the dancers because now a survivor wasn’t just an idea but it was an actual person that they were meeting and engaging with.
Have you taken Fragments on tour to any of these communities now that it’s complete?
That hasn’t happened yet. Predominantly the work has been in theatres and a few times in the context of aboriginal festivals. I’ve had survivors come or people who are somehow directly linked to the residential schools but it has yet to be shown on a reserve. I had an experience when I was in Banff last year where a lot of my students were affected by the residential schools and were very much appreciative of the work. But I also saw the effect it had on them. It was very heavy.
It must be so hard to revisit.
Oh yes, it was awful. But they definitely appreciated and asked me to keep showing this work. It made me realize that when I initially created this I did it for a mainstream audience that needed to be informed of the residential schools. Not to say it’s not sensitive to survivors who watch it. I still get an emotional reaction but an appreciative one.
I imagine showing it to people who don’t have an understanding of what happened would be your main focus?
Yeah, that’s what was the intent behind it. It was meant to be more of a communication tool just to create dialogue about the subject.
What kinds of things help you to maximize your creativity?
Writing. It’s hard to pinpoint where is the beginning of a process versus the end. In dance you can often think that an end is when you’ve presented
a work, you know? But for me there’s always a continuation of ideas and concepts. I always keep a scrapbook with every process I do, often just brainstorming. With Fragments I kept clippings about the residential schools, even things I had the dancers collect or write. After I present a piece I usually try to give space to completely detach from dance and choreography and that world for a while. Just to really empty myself of my last work. But then I usually get a period of time where I just feel like writing. Especially for grants it’s important to be able to articulate your work. As a dancer we’re not really trained to verbalize or conceptually talk about what it is we’re doing.
Is there a time of day or a place where you come up with your best ideas?
People inspire me but it’s not particular to a space. With the right people I’m fed and inspired, especially when I don’t feel like working. But when I think about cities Montreal is a place I can tap into creativity. Most of my processes have been in this city. I’m fed here. I have a focus here.
How would you describe creativity?
It’s a freedom of choice. The act of making choices that come from a place deep within. You’re acting on your impulses so having that complete freedom to create is scary at first but if you’re not in a state of being uncomfortable then you’re not risking much. Creativity is a certain state of risk taking.
What do you like most about expressing yourself through dance?
I think the honesty that comes through doing it. Personally, as a performer, I’m interested in conveying something that’s genuine and the body is such a useful tool for that. As a dancer you spend so many years training. There are techniques to be precise but there’s also this sense of shedding layers and becoming transparent. I feel most connected to dance when I’m fully exposed and vulnerable.
You’re allowing your authentic self to shine through.
Is it difficult to balance you art with your personal life and relationships?
It has been. I remember comments my teacher said back in university. She said it’s important to take the time to disconnect from your art and from your practice and to just live life. I agree with that so much because if I had spent even 10 or 12 months of the year in a studio day after day just having to look at walls and a ceiling and floor, I don’t know how much I would be fed by life.
Sure, because what are you bringing to the process of dance if you’re not experiencing anything outside of it?
Since I graduated school, I’ve probably devoted 98% of my life to my work. Everything I do revolves around that. I haven’t put much space or emphasis on a personal life because I’ve felt that this is what makes me happy. And this is going to sound ridiculous but I’ve always felt like I can’t live without dance. I can’t live without doing creation. It’s such a lifestyle choice. But then I took a step back from that because I know that personal connection is really important. I don’t always make all of the connections right away but I do know that satisfying my personal life is definitely
going to support my creativity as well. I just may not see it right away.
You were creating a dance theatre workshop called Children of the Crow during your residency at the Banff Center in April. Could you tell me more about what that is?
That’s a project I started with another independent choreographer, Emmanuelle Calvé. Both of us had had residencies at the Church, le Gesù. And we both had residencies at the MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels), so whenever we came together as colleagues and as friends there was a certain amount of support and excitement for what we were both doing. We had both been producing and initially when we were talking we decided we wanted to come together to create and keep it very open-ended without the idea of producing. We did improvs and we sort of touched on this persona that is in a lot of Emmanuelle’s work—the crow. We applied to Banff because we wanted a space where we could connect to nature in our process. We developed a certain amount of tableaus and a lot of concepts and now we’re going to workshop it more with youth and children. We’re now working with the government of Quebec. Through Culture and Education we’re part of a bank of artists who can be hired to go to different schools.
An artist-in-the-classroom type of program?
Yeah. And we’re not booked until the New Year but it’s something where there’s flux and it will grow.
So for my last question, what would you say to a young woman who is interested in exploring a career in dance?
I feel like I have to say something really intelligent! I would say go for it. It’s interesting being where I am now and thinking back to where I was. When I first wanted to get into dance there was that sense of urgency and that feeling that I couldn’t live without it. But in a way what I do has become a lot more broad than just dance. I think being open to new experiences really helps my career and my process. Even in school I had these ideas and notions of what dance was and they were very much challenged. I think I was just very open to exploring and understanding what was being taught. For me I guess the best advice is to always remain in that role of learning and being a student. I continue to have mentors and I continue to always be in that space of learning from people who have different experiences and more experience, because that’s how you grow right?
Lara Kramer http://www.larakramer.ca/