Dance, Puppets, and Natural Coexistence: Michelle Olson on Salmon Girl

“Children are the quickest critics to let you know when it’s not important or relevant to them,” Michelle Olson judiciously tells me from the other end of the line. The choreographer, movement coach, and Artistic Director of Raven Spirit Dance, Olson is the co-director of Salmon Girl, opening April 6th at the Waterfront Theatre, along with Quelemia Sparrow. Salmon Girl traces the journey of a young girl through a magical adventure that changes her life forever. Curated for audiences of ages 5 and up, the piece uses visually enticing storytelling to inform children about the socio-cultural and environmental significance of Salmon.   

Salmon Girl offers an Indigenous lens to the global concern of protecting our waterways, translated into a theatrical performance using techniques including interpretive dance, music, and shadow puppetry. Olson and I discussed the production process of Salmon Girl, including the communication techniques necessary to keep children engaged, and to encapsulate the idea that through indigenous narratives and traditional stories, we can teach how to conduct ourselves as human beings, while co-existing merrily with the natural offerings of the land.

Photo by Erik Zennstrom.

Photo by Erik Zennstrom.

Samar Sidhu: Tell me more about the Salmon Girl. How does this performance attempt to underscore Indigenous leanings and traditions?

Michelle Olson: It was important for Quelemia and I that we share stories and teachings about salmon from our own communities, and that was the starting place for the piece […] All the traditional stories and oral history passed on in Indigenous communities are about teachings, and how to place yourself as a human in the world. So, all the stories we wove together to tell Salmon Girl are really about encapsulating this idea: that through stories, we can teach how to conduct ourselves in relationship to the natural world. The piece itself took on that role, as stories take on roles in Indigenous communities.

SS: How do you think Indigenous art forms can contribute in the current volatile political environment, such as with the Trans Mountain Pipeline issue?

MO: Salmon Girl speaks to the values that have been cultivated on this land for thousands of years [...] When you have a notion of our current society—that is western, patriarchal, and capitalist—values are just surface, they are on the surface of living on this land. When we embrace Indigenous teaching and perspectives, they are so deeply embodied that they are offerings of how we can keep doing better as human beings on this land. It is so interesting to me—say with the Trans-Mountain Pipeline—that they try to make these commercials on TV, and try to make it very environmental [....] It can’t be bought. The whole system is not based on capitalism, it’s based on this earth and being thankful for it. Acknowledging your place in making it a healthy world, or not a healthy world. It’s so apparent with the climate crisis [...] Things need to change.

Photo by Erik Zennstrom.

Photo by Erik Zennstrom.

SS: Salmon Girl employs varied techniques of theatre, dance, music, and puppetry. How important is it to build an equilibrium between all these elements in a performance?

MO: It’s really nice to have access to all the elements, because it’s a way of telling a story through different mediums. At some point it’s not the text that’s going to bring the point across, maybe it’s the dance that really shares the essence of the moment, or maybe it’s puppetry [...] At some points, there were some tricky spots that we found ourselves talking—“how are we even going to stage this really complicated scene?” But because we have dance, theatre, and shadow puppetry, we are able to shift the focus of how things are unfolding, and between those moments of unfolding is when the magic happens.

Photo by Erik Zennstrom.

Photo by Erik Zennstrom.

SS: How important is it that the production techniques create an anthropomorphic environment—that is, non-human entities or characters in the play appear as alive as the actors?

MO: That’s the trick of having all those elements. Shadow puppetry is trying to capture the children’s imagination and convince them that these things are important at the moment. Children are the quickest critics to let you know when it’s not important to them, or it’s not interesting, or it’s not relevant. When we did workshops and showed it to students, we could tell when they dropped out and lost interest. We want them to carry the stories inside of them.

SS: Your academic and professional experience has mostly been in dance, and Salmon Girl integrates a lot of interpretative dancing and body movement. How has the process of choreographing this performance been, and in what specific ways has dance been curated with children in mind?

MO: This piece is also about the environment—the environment of the ocean, environment of the river—so the movements and the dancing that happens is affected by the environment that they’re in. That, in a way, is a translation of creating environment in a sense of space for the children. When the characters dive into the ocean, everything becomes buoyant and very sustained and floaty, it is a way of translating to them the space that the piece is happening in. With the big moments of transformation, rather than speaking about or doing those transformations, it’s all danced, so that children can be a part of the rhythm of those transformations and recognize that something has changed from the beginning to the end in that dance piece. I really enjoyed the choreographing, for it’s very simple and clear. Other choreography, for instance, which is not for children, gets very weighed down by metaphor. But in Salmon Girl, the clear containers make the work easy and quite fun.

Salmon Girl runs on April 6-14, at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island. Tickets for the performances can be found here.