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New World Disorder

A French choreographer preps an epic spectacle of culture clash


Published July 8, 2009 at 6:58 a.m.

As everyone within 100 miles of Burlington now knows, Samuel de Champlain was the first European to venture onto his namesake lake in 1609 as part of a scouting party led by the Montagnais, rivals of the Iroquois. A kerfuffle broke out between the two tribes, which gave Champlain an opportunity to fire his arquebus, alarming the natives who had never seen such a weapon.

What isn’t so clear, days into the quadricentennial celebration of Champlain’s famous, or infamous, canoe ride, are the deeper repercussions this chance encounter had on the native population. Until recently, their history wasn’t integrated into the official state story, and quite a few generations of schoolchildren accepted the myth that “Indians didn’t live in Vermont.”

This week’s four-day Vermont Indigenous Celebration, which features a native encampment at Burlington’s ECHO Center, wampum readings, pow-wow dancing, films, lectures, a traditional gardening demonstration and even a fashion show of the “last 10,000 years” of Abenaki attire, should help correct some of those misperceptions. But when it comes to the sordid tale of Native American/European relations, we turn to art for a fuller, franker depiction.

In fact, we turn to a philosophical Frenchman who’s had his own firsthand experiences with colonialism. Internationally renowned choreographer Heddy Maalem recreates the history of the native people’s encounter with Champlain as a standoffish dance between competing interests in the premiere of “From the New World” this Friday and Saturday on the Flynn MainStage.

Set to Dvorak’s grand Symphony 9 in E minor, aka the New World Symphony, and to the composer’s “American Quartet,” the dance integrates the story of Champlain with themes of colonialism, repression and loss. Two groups of dancers — the Native Americans (15 traditional dancers from U.S. and Canadian tribes) and the Europeans (20 or so amateurs and professionals) — interact on stage as we’d expect: They dance in separate circles to the beats of very different drummers, often in counterpoint to the symphony. Though at one point they come close to greeting one another in an exaggerated salute, they can’t bring themselves to cross the invisible line that bisects the stage. In the end, the Europeans go through the motions of prosperous settlement — cutting sheaves of wheat, dancing in hoop dresses, building houses — while the Indians all but disappear from view.

“I told [festival producer] Jay Craven I will come to do this choreography if Native American people are involved, because the story of Champlain is not the story of Samuel de Champlain — it’s the story of America; it’s the story of Native Americans and Europeans,” Maalem says. “All around the world you have this kind of colonialism. You are living on one land, and then somebody comes and everything changes. This is a universal thing.”

“From the New World” isn’t a ringing endorsement of white mores and culture, but it isn’t sentimental about native culture, either. Maalem strikes a bittersweet balance between the two societies, probably influenced by his personal experience growing up in colonial Algeria during the war with France. His Algerian father was killed there. When Maalem was 10, he and his French mother moved to Toulouse.

“I feel a strong link between this story and my story,” Maalem says. “A lot of philosophers and historians believe the story [of Champlain] has ended, but I believe we’re in a new story ourselves. The proof is in the fact that Vermonters feel the need to celebrate Champlain. These celebrations are to understand who we are and where we come from. It’s still very much present in people’s minds.”

In an interview during a recent rehearsal at the Flynn, Maalem describes the encounter between Champlain and native peoples as a big mistake.

“There are several themes in this dance: One of them is the narrative of Samuel de Champlain, and one of them is the kind of cultural tension between the whites and the natives and how it should not have been possible that they met,” he says. “It should have never happened, and it did, and there was no possible way it could have gone well.”

Maalem conveys the two groups’ profound cultural differences through the alchemy of his choreography, which relies on counterpoint rhythms, the dynamics of ensemble movements and finding ma’ai, a Japanese martial-arts term that refers to the space between combatants. Maalem describes it as finding the harmony between time and space.

Given that Maalem trained as a boxer, perhaps it’s not surprising that he thinks of dance movement in terms of battle. He taught the Japanese martial-arts discipline aikido in France for 22 years. Now in his late fifties, Maalem didn’t turn to modern dance until he was 28. He formed his first company in 1990, but achieved acclaim just four years ago with his modern treatment of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, featuring an African company. Last October, Maalem and his troupe performed the piece at the Flynn. It was then that Craven asked him to create a world premiere for the Quad.

Maalem likes to use traditional dancers in his performances because of the authenticity of their movements and energy. For “From the New World,” his co-choreographer, Gaeton Gingras, sought out 15 Native American professionals from Canada, the northeastern United States and as far west as Wyoming who perform traditional tribal dances. The “Europeans,” by contrast, are a mix of amateur and professional dancers, largely from Vermont. In just over three weeks and more than 100 hours of rehearsal, Maalem has brought all the dancers in sync with one another for this grand historical pageant. Through the choreography, both groups become archetypal figures who tell the history of their peoples through movement.

Annelies McVoy, a Burlington-based dance instructor who performs in “From the New World” with her two children, says Maalem emphasizes the connections between dancers and their power to combine their stances and steps to create fluid motion.

“It’s rare to have someone focused on having dancers so connected,” McVoy says. “It feels like everyone is responsible for everyone else all the time.”

If the audience catches on to that sentiment, Maalem believes, the premiere will be a success. He’d like to remind viewers that we are all connected in this great globalized world of ours, regardless of which dates we celebrate.

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