“I am here.”
It’s a deceptively simple statement that comes near the end of Natalie Sappier’s dance-theatre piece Finding Wolastoq Voice. Finding out where our main character is — and how she got there — is anything but simple, but a journey made engaging in this moving and thoughtful piece.
Sappier (whose traditional name is Samaqani Cocahq, or “The Water Spirit”) is a Wolastoqiyik artist from Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick. “Wolastoq” in the title is a reference to the traditional name of the St. John River.
And finding the voice of that river — and of the land, and the voice within herself — is the journey the piece’s central character goes through.
Finding Wolastoq Voice — a production from Theatre New Brunswick, which comes to Winnipeg as part of Prairie Theatre Exchange’s experimental Leap Series — is performed by dancer Aria Evans, whose lithe choreography is performed to music by Sappier and voiceover narration.
In that narration, we meet a young Wolastoqiyik woman who has been “sleeping” — separated from her culture, and from the voices carried in the river and the land around her.
She’s driven further from those powerful and essential connections by sexual abuse, family dysfunction and her own struggle to find her place in the world.
But gradually, she learns to listen for those voices — and that she is “Indian enough,” even if she doesn’t speak her traditional language or know her traditional songs. In survival, rediscovering lost connections, and knowing that “I am here,” she moves toward a certain healing.
In that respect, Wolastoq Voice is very much a story of reconciliation — not between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, but the reconciliation of Indigenous people with their own past, with their heritage, with the land and with themselves.
All of this is told elegantly in director (and new PTE artistic director) Thomas Morgan Jones’s polished production, which highlights the Sappier’s poetic writing and Evans’s powerful performance.
Performing on designer Andy Moro’s striking, circular set, Evans is a remarkable dancer — sometimes thrashing around like a fish in the river, sometimes swaying gracefully like a tree, often reaching out, as though grasping for vital connections.
The narrative significance of the dance sometimes felt elusive to me, but she’s consistently mesmerizing to watch.
Finding Wolastoq Voice is not always easy viewing — its sometimes dark themes and metaphorical style make for an intense and challenging, though always compelling, hour.
But it carries a resonant message of hope, and of the power not only of finding a voice — but of listening for the voices that we need to hear.
Theatre New Brunswick’s production of Finding Wolastoq Voice runs at Prairie Theatre Exchange’s Colin Jackson Studio until March 31.