The music of Peter Gabriel and Writing-On-Stone provincial park may not seem to have much in common, but for Deanne Bertsch they were sources of inspiration that led to a student dance production that has performed over 300 times across western Canada. Named in honour of the Peter Gabriel album (who sent a video to the cast giving his blessing), New Blood combines contemporary and traditional Blackfoot dance to share the all-too-common story of residential school survivors.
Set to music from the album of the same name, the performance was created in 2014 as a collaboration between the dance and Blackfoot classes and was choreographed by students at Strathmore High School with the guidance of Bertsch, their dance teacher. Though the choreography has evolved over time and grown as a new cast of students comes on board each year, the story has remained the same. While the initial inspiration came from the pictographs in the park and the lyrics on the album, it was talking with former Siksika chief, Vincent Yellow Old Woman and other local Elders, that Bertsch says helped inform the narrative and create the framework of the performance. The former chief spent time in Residential schools and battled addiction before his time as a leader.
Every academic year, Bertsch welcomes a new cast of students to learn the dance, some brand new to the choreography, and others having been involved in previous years. The upcoming Lethbridge performance will feature students who graduated Strathmore High School and are now attending the University of Lethbridge.
Participation in the performance is entirely extra-curricular for students and Bertsch says many of the dancers are beginners. For the Indigenous students involved, much of the choreography is inspired by Blackfoot traditional and Pow Wow dancing, while the non-Indigenous students take on contemporary, a style that embodies modern, ballet, jazz, and lyrical dance styles.
Songs such as “Digging in the Dirt,” “In Your Eyes,” and “Wallflower,” serve as the soundtrack to the performance and are arranged with orchestral backings that Bertsch describes as “ethereal.” In addition to the music, the poem “Words to a grandchild” contributes to the narration, a piece both written and performed by Eulalia Runningrabbit.
“What’s amazing is the show helps people understand the impacts of residential school rather than just hearing it because you’re seeing these high school kids – 15/16/17 year olds – playing the parts of their grandparents in residential school. So every single one of our Blackfoot students that are on that stage had a grandparent, and some of them even a parent, who attended Residential School. It has had such a huge impact,” says Bertsch.
“I think it’s important for everyone to really understand, and I feel like art helps people understand that more than just hearing a news story or reading it in a book.”
New Blood will be performed in Lethbridge on Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. at CASA. Tickets are on sale now.
Original Published on Sep 12, 2023