Written on the Body: Lara Kramer interview

Choreographer and multidisciplinary artist Lara Kramer speaks about the use of 'state of body practice', her pivot to artistic realism and decision to navigate intergenerational trauma through performance

Article by Megan Wallace | 01 Aug 2019
  • Lara Kramer

With its free healthcare, amply-funded school system and lenient cannabis laws, Canada seems to be one of the last bastions of liberal values in a world that is increasingly polarised and riven with hate. However, glistening as it does in the international spotlight, the glossy veneer of Canadian progressivism deflects the eye from the social realities of cultural imperialism and entrenched colonialism borne by the country’s First Nations and Indigenous peoples.

Through her creative practice, Montreal-based choreographer and artist Lara Kramer (who is of Oji-Cree and settler heritage) seeks to interrogate the ways that this colonial trauma lives on in Canada and other settler-dominated nations, passing between different generations of Indigenous peoples. As part of Indigenous Contemporary Scene 2019’s Festival programme she presents works that explore the past, present and future of these experiences with a residency looking back at her career centring on narrative dance piece Native Girl Syndrome, collaborative performance work This Time Will be Different and open laboratory Miijin Ki .

Recent scientific research has suggested that trauma can be passed down through our DNA via epigenetics — alterations to the ways that DNA is expressed, caused by environmental factors. These discoveries suggest that historic suffering of individuals’ ancestors could literally be carried within their bodies, shaping the way they move through the world and making their pleasure almost inseparable from pain. Embodiment, then, emerges as an important aspect of her work — a means of exploring these tensions but also as a gesture towards the reclamation of colonised bodies.

As she explains, speaking to me over the phone from across the Atlantic Ocean, she combines a more traditional 'muscular practice' in her approach to choreography with a more holistic 'state of body practice'. “I really have the artist become more acutely aware of their senses. They need to invoke their senses of taste and smell so this also creates a space of memory and there’s a nice visualisation that comes with it. I’m always looking at heightening the senses, it anchors the body.”

Native Girl Syndrome uses this focus on the body to push past performance and enter into the realm of realism and puts the experiences of those burdened by poverty and addiction – the ones we are told to ignore or look away from – centre stage. The jerking movements of the performers on stage seems to externalise an internal pain or struggle, showing the interconnectedness of mental and physical wellbeing.

Speaking of the piece, she details how she rejected some of the elitism we might associate with professional dance to deliver a work that tells the story of her grandmother’s struggles in a fundamentally racist and classist society. “There’s no beautiful lines in the work; it’s really about how these bodies are conveying an experience. There’s this realism in the sense of seeing bodies that are dealing with trauma, addiction or loss and how is that conveyed in the body. I think the more I pushed the realism of this work, the more it felt recognisable and accessible. You would see these bodies on a street, potentially, or you would see these bodies if you were doing documentary film-making.”

Yet Kramer’s state of body practice doesn't just facilitate realism, but also resistance. Alongside inherited trauma, Indigenous peoples must undergo the continued impacts of systemic racism in a world which only wants to make room for whiteness. Through Miijin Ki, Kramer explores alternate forms of bodily articulation, viewing the project through the lens of pleasure. "We were looking at ways of approaching [the] material as a site of pleasure and that was a really exciting task. It was this process of asking ‘what is pleasure?’and thinking about what acts of pleasure we don’t normally see onstage, particularly when it comes to Indigenous bodies.”

The work serves as a creative exchange of sorts between Kramer and other participating Indigenous artists, exploring ways in which the colonial trauma they carry co-exists with feelings of pleasure or joy. “There are sometimes moments when we are approaching moments of pleasure but inside of that we’re never fully rid of that historical and even present trauma. I wanted to say that in this act of pleasure there’s still a link to trauma as well, you can’t separate the colonised body from the pleasure — there’s an interconnectedness to it.” With Miijin Ki meaning “eating land” in Anishnaabemowin, the work is also a space to examine colonial land ownership values. As Kramer explains: “There are moments when we’re in discussion as a group about having been displaced from territory. We’re dealing with this sort of urban reality of watching land being consumed and over-consumed but what is that experience of being anchored on territory, Indigenous territory?”

The space for creative exchange that is fostered by Miijin Ki is also a defining feature of This Time Will be Different, a work that involves performers of three different generations, including Kramer’s own daughter, to explore the impact of various Canadian government inquiries into the treatment of Indigenous peoples and the failure of the government to take concrete change to try to end the cycle of intergenerational trauma. “In Canada you see this practice of the government putting out a lot of effort into enquiries. These are periods of heightened hope, like; ‘OK, we’re going to be in a space of transformation and growth.’ But when you speak to the people who are at the core action of these, that’s clearly not the case. I spoke to a women involved in the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and she said; ‘Well, the mandate isn’t to find any justice. The mandate is really to educate the population.’"

The different generations who collaborate in the piece have — and likely will witness further — multiple inquiries into the Canadian government’s mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. Yet when even the way these investigations are carried out — with little respect for the peoples being consulted — seems to suggest a colonial complacency towards Indigenous peoples, it is clear that they do not come from a place of wanting to unroot racist and colonial attitudes. As Kramer puts it, “I feel that there was a reigniting of trauma with [inquiries like] the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [to examine the impact of the residential school system]. Hearing what the survivors went through in that period is horrific, but the commission had nothing in place for how they were going to support the people who were having to revisit childhood trauma. There’s not much in terms of care.”

Yet there’s hope too — and it comes from an Indigenous, rather than settler, experience. While Kramer’s work as part of ICS will no doubt educate British and European visitors about the situation in Canada, the works also present themselves as spaces for remapping the meaning of the colonial body and freeing it from the reductive gaze of the white settler. As Kramer concludes: “We’re talking about a subject matter of colonial trauma, yet there’s this element of taking back the narrative.”

Native Girl Syndrome, Summerhall (Bruford), 2-11 Aug (not 5, 6), 4.20pm, £8-10
This Time Will be Different, Summerhall (Bruford), 13-18 Aug, 4pm, £8-10
Miijin Ki, Summerhall (Bruford), 20-24 Aug, 4pm, £8-10