“Modern dance” and “prairie pioneer life” are two phrases that don’t get used together very often. This weekend at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, however, they’ll merge, under the direction of local dancer and choreographer Tracy Houser.
On the Edge: Prairie Women
, presented Saturday, April 1, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 2, at 2 p.m., is an hour-long dance drama, combining modern dance, spoken dialogue, images, and both live and pre-recorded music to tell a collection of brief tales about the life of Saskatchewan women in 1915.On the Edge: Prairie Women
was born in 1997, when Tracy took a group of dancers to Kuopio, Finland, for the Dance and the Child International Conference.
Tracy already knew the conference was to be held in Regina this summer, and she wanted to show the international community something that would make them want to come to Saskatchewan.
What she created was a show called Prairie Passion, which, she notes wryly, “took a lot of research, because I’m not a Saskatchewan girl.” (She came to Saskatchewan from Ontario.)
About five minutes of that 45-minute show, however, focused on Saskatchewan pioneers. It was based on the journals of the great-great-grandmother of Merideth LaRocque (one of the dancers), who homesteaded in Saskatchewan from Ireland.
“I was completely blown away by the stories,” says Tracy, “by the incredible things these people lived through.”
Along with the journals came old photos, and as she looked at them, Tracy says, she began to wonder, “Who were these people? What was important to them? Who did they love?”
She used three of those photos in Prairie Passion, blowing them up and projecting them behind the dancers, who, dressed in period costume, would start in the same poses as the people in the photos, then dance a story suggested by the photo.
“That little section was always my favorite,” Tracy says, and over the next few years she expanded, revised and developed it. Then, last fall, as she re-dedicated herself to her own dancing and creating, she decided to turn it into a full-length show. That meant doing a lot more research.
Among other people, she met with Lloyd Begley, curator at Government House, with Dr. Barbara Powell at the University of Regina, author of a book called Piecing the Quilt, a guide to all the material in the Saskatchewan Archives about women. They pointed her to many other books, such as Wheat and Woman, by Georgina Binnie-Clark, the story of a woman farmer who homesteaded in the Fort Qu’appelle area at a time when there simply weren’t any woman farmers.
Most importantly, she talked to many people’s grandmothers, who provided her with more old photos, many more old stories, and copious amounts of tea.
Ideally, that research would still be going on, but Tracy knew of three other dancers currently in Regina who were good dancers, strong characters, and strong women–precisely what she needed for the show. And since Regina doesn’t have a professional modern dance company to employ them, she knew she couldn’t count on those dancers, Elaine Hanson, Corinne Harle and Andi Thurmeier, staying around forever. That meant getting the show up as soon as possible.
So, with no money and no grant, she plunged ahead; and thanks to the generosity of many people, On the Edge: Prairie Women took shape.
Among the people and organizations who helped, Tracy says, was local composer Robert Ursan, who provided her with original music; the LaRocque and Pilling families, whose journals sparked the idea; the Saskatchewan Archives Board, Laurier Gareau, who provided her with additional personal pictures and materials, Regina Summer Stage and Globe Theatre, who loaned costumes, and many others.
Four musicians from the Regina Symphony Orchestra, Steve McLellan, Richard Raum, James Fitzpatrick and Susan Sametz, will provide live music for some of the sequences; others will be danced to music recorded by Robert Ursan.
Among the stories dramatized and danced is that of a widow whose husband was killed in the First World War; the story of two girls fresh out of boarding school who get in a lot of trouble on a trip to Vancouver; the tale of a London society wife who can’t cope with the isolation of the prairies; the story of young Marjorie Poole, who steals her neighbor’s bicycle in the hope of meeting him; and more.
The piece is called On the Edge because so many women of that period were living on the edge, Tracy says: on the edge of civilization, on the edge of dreams of a better life, sometimes on the edge of insanity.
The final line of dialog in the production states, “There are stories of heartache, suicide and loneliness, of women who gave up and went back or moved on…and then, there are the women who stayed.”
On the Edge: Prairie Women
, celebrates the women who stayed.