THEATRE REVIEW: A STORY BEFORE TIME
JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
18 OCT 2013
TORONTO - It’s not the miracle of creation that is likely to impress any adult lucky enough to catch Young People’s Theatre’s presentation of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre’s and the Banff Centre’s A STORY BEFORE TIME. Mind you, it is that very miracle, as recounted in the folklore of the Onkwehonwe First Nation, that sits at the very heart of this tale — and it is a tale well told indeed.
But the true miracle here can be found as much in watching a theatre-full of children at an age when they normally operate at two volumes — loud and “If you don’t cut that racket ...” — rendered utterly speechless by their absorption in this simple tale, as in the tale itself, exquisitely told through the fusion of word, dance, music and the artistry with which they are all brought together. But let’s start at the beginning.
In the Onkwehonwe’s version of creation, the lovely Sky Woman is sent to earth from her celestial home by her loving mate, and after being aided by the animals, establishes her home on Turtle Island, built on the back of a giant turtle. There, she gives birth to a daughter, who in turn, mates with the West Wind, and from that union, produces twin sons — the good-hearted Holder of the Sky and the dark-natured Bent One. Constantly at odds, it is nonetheless these two offspring who shape and populate our home on Turtle Island and give it its balance.
The bare bones of the story are delivered up by a storyteller (Semiah Kaha:wi Smith) and brought to life by a cast of talented dancers — Sarain Carson-Fox, Zhenya Cerneacov, Michael Demski, Louis Laberge-Cote, Emily Law and choreographer Santee Smith — making the most of Smith’s choreography, set to music created by Donald Quan, music which seamlessly blends traditional First Nations’ elements like drum and flute with more contemporary instrumentation, all with lovely effect.
There’s the same sort of blending of elements of the timeless indigenous culture and the modern in both Harry Frehner’s delightful sets and costumes and in Smith’s demanding, spell-binding choreography, both of which serve to make the story compelling to a modern young audience while, at the same time, respectfully serving the spirit of the tale they are telling. Overall, A STORY BEFORE TIME is presented more as an exercise in sharing than in proselytizing and that too is refreshing.
Finally, it is only in the text, written by Drew Hayden Taylor that A STORY ... disappoints.
In a production that clearly trusts its young audience in every other respect, Taylor’s attempts to achieve collegial status — references to ice cream and things that are “icky” — are jarring in their obvious intent to patronize an audience that has proven itself content to meet the challenges this story throws at them. And to soar on the wings of it.