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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Dance review: art imitates life imitates art in TransMigration

Based on the life and art of native artist Norval Morrisseau, TransMigration blurs the lines between the man and his prolific work. Not quite a biography, although it does draw upon periods in Morrisseau’s sometimes troubled life, and not fully a work of pure art, TransMigration is a representation of those two forces.

With art and life colliding at every turn, there are glimpses of Morrisseau’s real life struggles, but those moments will likely only resonate with those familiar with the artist.  Scenes such as those representing his time in a Catholic residential school may be immediately recognizable, but others such as Santee Smith’s recurring Thunderbird theme, will be less so. To get the most of TransMigration, some pre-show reading is necessary; disappointingly there is nothing in the program to help, and given the significance of the Thunderbird in Morrisseau’s life and in TransMigration, it deserves to be highlighted.

(For those not familiar with that part of Morrisseau’s life, he underwent a renaming ceremony at the age of nineteen during an illness that almost killed him. In that ceremony he was renamed Cooper Thunderbird with the belief that by giving him a new powerful name it would give him energy and save his life.  Morrisseau lived to be 76).

Morrisseau’s life was filled with other tragedies, even as his art propelled him to stardom, earning yet another name: Picasso of the North. Suffering from alcoholism, homelessness, severe burns as a result of fire in a boarding room in Vancouver and finally his battle with complications from Parkinson’s, which ultimately contributed to his death in 2007.

In TransMigration, glimpses of these moments in Morrisseau’s tragic life are interwoven with the distinctive style of his art, a style reinforced by the gorgeous costumes inspired by his paintings from Elaine Redding, Lisa temple and Kathy Guitar. In the more powerful act two, Morrisseau’s artwork literally takes center stage as the seven dancers perform on and around a large mural inspired by his art.

TransMigration resides in a space between art and life. It is at times as beautiful as it is perplexing. Just like life. Just like art.

TransMigration continues at The Cultch (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) until March 21. Visit for tickets and information.

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