By Andrew James Paterson
Regina-based artist Robin Poitras is another of the Festival’s seven Creative Residents, who have been invited to develop and create performance works and/or actions specific to either of the 7a*11d’s two host galleries or to the public spaces of Toronto. Poitras’s body of work encompasses dance, theatre, and visual art. These labels or categorizations become blurry and arguably redundant, as it all culminates in performance.
Poitras’s work or practice has been characterized by ritual and processions, by specific focus on materials that the artist feels have multi-faceted histories, reverberations, and associations. She is fascinated by mythologies and by dreams; and she has an ability to create powerful single images that can permit multiple suggestions and/or interpretations.
Light, colour, movement, rhythm, and also cinematography are key elements of her considerable body of work and ongoing practice. Poitras combines a dancer’s discipline with a visual artist’s belief in the power and beauty of images.
In 1986 Poitras founded New Dance Horizons, of which she continues to be the Artistic Director. Being both a dancer/choreographer/performer and also a director herself, she has fruitfully collaborated with a wide range of visual artists, choreographers, musicians, actors, and other artists. In 2000, Robin Poitras organized a three-day dance festival called Stream of Dance, which showcased a blend of styles and disciplines including ballet and powwow dancing. Robin Poitras has never been one to shy away from blending different disciplines and also different audiences.
Poitras is not a subscriber to Western beliefs in superiority of mind over body. She subjects her body to endurance tests of her physical limitations. She transcends the physical body while simultaneously moulding it, or sculpting it. She is a believer in thinking as a bodily act and not as a detached egghead ivory tower form of gamesmanship. She is unafraid to explore terrain dismissed by many women (as well as men) as being essentialist or biologically determinist, although she is too open to chance to be pinned down by such labels.
A significant multidisciplinary and community-based work by Robin Poitras is The Pelican Project. This processional performance is heavily influenced by Japanese culture—it is based on a series of five Dragon Procession performances designed for children. These performances take place annually at festivals such as Lanterns on the Lake in Regina. It consistently involves workshops for its participants and collaborators, from which have evolved performances utilizing pelican “prosthetics” such as beaks and wooden shoes, and pleated paper costumes as well as paper lanterns. A march or procession occurs at Wascana Park, and the wooden feet create strong memorable rhythms. Sound generated by movement is a commonplace of Poitras’s works.
The Pelican Project was echoed by some times three, the outdoor performance that Poitras presented in Toronto’s financial district with Brenda Cleniuk and Leanne Lloyd (both from Regina). In that piece, the performers were silent, except for ringing bells strapped to their legs. Poitras and her co-performers had undertaken a vow of verbal silence in the heart of the financial district, a district in which constant chatter is a given. Many denizens of that district stopped what they were doing for a moment and pondered the three identically dressed women.
In 2000, Poitras commenced a body of work titled Invisible Ceremonies, works combining performance, dance, spoken word, and ritual. Many of these works, such as Ursa Major, attempt to forge connections between conscious and unconscious by deploying recognizable shapes and outlines Or perhaps pre-conscious is a better word here—animistic, instinctual, and elemental. Poitras at least flirts with occult elements. Poitras
“plays with symbols and the fairytale as part of a multi-pull deck of historical, social, scientific, and poetic thoughts and images…to trace some of the origins and mythological inheritance that perceives the way women are viewed” (from the artist’s notebook, 2003, quoted in Brenda Cleniuk, “Robin Poitras,” Caught in the Act; an anthology of performance art by Canadian women, eds. Tanya Mars and Johanna Householder, YYZ Books, 2004, p. 372).
Poitras uses a stage or playing area as an installation space, a space for gathering and arranging materials and referencing art, science, and nature. She does not see these fields as separate disciplines but rather as being complexly interconnected or co-dependent. Poitras often references non-white Western cultures (particularly Japanese and First Nations), and their various public rituals. Materials and fertility are at the foundation of many if not most of Poitras’s works, often in relation to site-specific locations and to landscape. An important work is Memex Ovum, drawing on stories and mythologies about Prairie winters and source ideas such as frozen embryos, the moon, Snow White, and cryogenics. The hyper-rationalist worlds of science are never a violation of nature but an organic or bodily extension. Thinking and deducting and experimenting are all body acts. Memex Ovum also drew on the works of visual artists who have made significant amounts of work examining the colour white, not as a default base or non-colour but as a vividly expressive and idiosyncratic colour, with as many shades and sub-shades as the primary and secondary colours. White of course is the colour of snow, and Poitras in her notes describes Memex Ovum as “an ode to winter picnics.” It is dedicated to her mother, who initiated her daughter into winter picnics and transmitted a love of snow and fairy tales and natural magic.
The belief that crucial life materials come from the body rather than being simply ingested into or superimposed onto the body is central to the performance that Robin Poitras presented at XPACE Gallery for 7a*11d on October 30. Her material of choice was honey. When I asked the artist why honey, she regarded me patiently and informed me that she collected bees as a child. Bees may seem to be a seasonal nuisance, as far as most people are concerned. However, bees make honey and bees are endangered. Honey is a first (if not the first) food, a major source of fertility, and a timeless remedy for illnesses and immune systems. A body devoid of honey is a body in trouble.