Indigenous ballet dancer bringing new spin to old story

Louis Riel once said, “My people will sleep for 100 years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” 

Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB) Aspirant Cameron Fraser-Monroe, a status member of Tla’amin Nation on the West Coast, hopes his March 22 performance in Thompson contributes to the restorative Indigenous awakening envisioned by Riel over a century ago. 

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In collaboration with Manitoba educator elder Wilfred Buck, Fraser-Monroe’s piece, Pine Needle in The River, combines traditional dance and ballet, a rare combination resulting from Fraser-Monroe’s journey from Powell River, B.C. to Winnipeg. 

“I’m hoping to show people something new,” Fraser-Monroe said in a phone interview, noting his hope that people will appreciate the performance for “what it is.”

He wants to build a show that is accessible to everyone, regardless of familiarity with ballet and contemporary dance.

“You can take what you will from it,” explained the 21-year-old, who has been studying with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet for more than five years.

Pine Needle in The River, which will be performed by young male and female dancers, is based on the story Why The Raven’s Feathers are Black, which is a creation story, “where everyone was set in stone, except for raven, eagle and frog.”

“Frog discovers a longhouse that holds a man and his daughter and these boxes that they guard with their lives,” Fraser-Monroe explains. “Raven being a trickster wants to know what’s in them. And so the interesting part that I feature is that he transforms into a pine needle, and in order to sneak into the longhouse, he is swallowed by the daughter and then impersonates a grandson.”

Fraser-Monroe said the raven then goes into the house and is shown by the grandfather what’s inside the boxes. 

“What he finds in each of the boxes is the moon, stars, the northern lights and the sun, and in turn he frees them into the air,” he said. “The sun is the biggest one, of course, so he has to carry it up into the sky himself and it burns him as he climbs through the chimney. That’s why the raven’s feathers are so black … because the sun burnt him. As a result, everything came to life, and all the animals that we know were freed from their stone form.”

The dancer and choreographer explained that a large part of the inspiration for the piece is water, and a lack of potable water in many Indigenous communities.

“I was asked by a mentor I have here, Philippe Larouche, one of the choreographers, that it’s great to tell a story, but do you have any important things you’d like to say?” he explained. “Is there anything that troubles you that maybe you want to look at in the piece? One of them is the lack of access to clean water for Indigenous people, which is quite frankly a disgrace. It’s a sacred thing and an important thing for all people to have. I wanted to highlight water. Not only in a political sense, but also I think it’s a very powerful and beautiful thing, that’s how I was raised. If you’ve ever been near the ocean or a fast-moving river, you know that it makes you feel small and that you could be swept away in an instant.”

Growing up in B.C., Fraser-Monroe was active in sports, musical theatre and dance – great preparation for what was ahead.  

“I decided to hone in on ballet,” he said. “I moved to Winnipeg at 15 just to study it. I wasn’t yet done high school, that’s the thing about the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, is that we have partnerships with a middle school and a high school. In the mornings we can rehearse and do our technique training. Then in the afternoon, I would go and take classes at the University of Winnipeg Collegiate, and in the evening I would come back and rehearse more.”

Fraser-Monroe spent last summer dancing with a traditional indigenous group.

“That is part of my training and my dance background. And at the same time I was also doing ballet, so I was doing both of them side by side,” he said. “I was starting to think it would be really cool if I could make a piece that blended those two very different styles of storytelling. I started by finding a traditional story and using the ways that we craft dance as Indigenous people, and apply that over to a ballet creation.”

Fraser-Monroe’s piece will be performed as part of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet On the Edge Tour, stopping in Thompson March 22.

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