Hear the name Norval Morrisseau and you're likely to think of fanciful figures outlined with deep black lines, a dazzling collision of colours, the wild cacophony of man meeting nature.
The late Ojibwa painter, with his unmistakable Woodland Style, looms large in the pantheon of Canadian artists. Now, his art and life are also the inspiration for a new dance piece, TransMigration, four years in the making.
"I come from a family of artists, so I was introduced to Morrisseau's unique, self-taught Woodland Style early on," says Santee Smith, whose company Kaha:wi Dance Theatre is putting on the show. "He has always interested me, first as a painter, because he pushed boundaries, and second because his life and work are all about evolution."
For this piece – danced by a company of eight – Smith draws from a theme best summarized in Morrisseau's own words from the book Return to the House of Invention: "My art reflects my own spiritual personality. I make peace with the external work, and I recognize the higher powers of the spirit."
The word "spirit" is key. Morrisseau, who died in 2007, had a difficult life that included the trauma of residential school life, battles with alcoholism and, later, a struggle with Parkinson's disease. Yet he was able to get sober and become a shaman.
But Smith insists her show is not a biography of Morrisseau. "We reference the ups and downs of his life within the context of the Serpent and the Thunderbird, two powerful images from the Ojibwa spirit world," she says. "The piece is a dialogue, a response to his vision. It is a journey of spiritual awakening and shamanistic consciousness, a testament to the power of the spirit to transform and transcend."
For the structure of TransMigration, Smith looked partly to a six-part series of paintings by Morrisseau called Man Changing Into Thunderbird (1977). All six have inspired their own dance chapters, spaced throughout the work.
Japanese dancer Mami Hata, whose background is in classical and contemporary ballet, says she was surprised to be cast as the powerful Thunderbird. "There was already dance material developed during the various workshops when I stepped into the role," she says. "Santee is experimenting with what Morrisseau's images look like on the human body. The dance is all about Morrisseau's shapes fused with indigenous movement language."
Native actor and dancer Raoul Trujillo portrays a Morrisseau character, simply called The Artist, who plays off the "Serpent" image.
"Morrisseau was a slave to the earthly senses, our baser instincts, and this Serpent energy almost devoured him," he says. "In his later years, he fell back on his spiritual beliefs and embraced the Thunderbird energy, which is the highest plane of existence, like a Buddha. His life raises the age-old question: Do you have to suffer to create great art?"
Smith's emphasis on motivation is another key to this ambitious work. "Santee made us think about what we are doing in the dance, confronting us with questions about who we are, and what does our character want," Trujillo says. "As a result, the choreographic vocabulary has become theatrical. We move with purpose in getting the point of each scene across."
Though the trio refers to TransMigration as a visual spectacle, there are no actual Morrisseau paintings shown on stage or in the show's video projections. Cast members explain that there is an ongoing dispute about Morrisseau's estate, and Kaha:wi did not want to get involved with the feuding heirs.
"We designed our own images in Woodland Style for the projections, costumes and make-up," Smith says. "We concentrated on texture and colour. The piece is our homage to Morrisseau's artistry."
The music is complex – a carefully compiled, layered hybrid score that lists the contributions of 15 indigenous composers and musicians. Musical styles include contemporary, tribal, powwow remix, soundscape, new electronica and throat singers – plus classical cello.
Says Smith: "Just like Morrisseau, these Aboriginal music makers are pushing boundaries."
TransMigration runs at Toronto's Fleck Dance Theatre until May 13.