Review: Backbone (Red Sky/Canadian Stage)

A breathtaking look at Indigenous dance, Backbone takes the stage in Toronto

Backbone, playing until November 12, 2017 at Berkeley Street Theatre, is a dance performance for eight dancers who could just as well be a single organism, like those stands of aspen trees that look separate and discrete but are really one very brilliant and beautiful thing with many limbs. It is vigorous, aerobic, living and breathing, shifting, rising and falling and faster than you expect.

Lit from the sides, Backbone is a study in muscle and shadow. Muscles are clear, and cast in relief. To the sound of cracking bones, Backbone begins with the dancers as a spinal column unfolding, twisting, stretching. Their ability to move as a single organism is remarkable, their timing impeccable and the effect intense.

Many settlers assume that Indigenous dance is dance that Indigenous people engaged in pre-contact. Red Sky Productions and director Sandra Laronde have no time for such racist or limiting assumptions. Indigenous dance is dance created by Indigenous people, alive now, building on tradition, but living, changing, vibrant and vital. Indigenous dance is Indigenous people taking up space, telling their own stories, contemporary.

The dance asks us to see the mountains, the Rockies and the Andies as the backbone of the Americas, and that this backbone runs through all of us and holds all of us up. The screen at the back of the stage shows us what elevation we are at, and the clouds roll by and the mountains carve the sky in Andy Moro’s video projections (a name that always stirs my delight when I find it on a program).

Jera Wolfe, who is the choreographer as well as a dancer stands out in the company. He makes dance look like play, which is remarkable considering the intense physicality of this piece. He smiles throughout, as he lifts every one of the other dancers over and over, and over again. It’s as if the gravity has been turned down in his immediate vicinity and he is making the most of it. He also gives us a remarkably gender-fluid kind of work, particularly in the partnered dances — I cannot remember having seen any other not-explicitly-queer work in which the men lifted dancers of all genders so often and so tenderly.

Samantha Halas also deserves special recognition for her remarkable contortionist work. She and Wolfe perform a duet which is like watching lovers, and a kaleidoscope of bodies at the same time. She makes extraordinary angles of the body to itself appear comfortable, even pleasurable, and he lifts her and spins her around. There are many ways that the work is indeed like the mountains, but in this way it is like the water.

Nelson Tagoona, one of the two artists who contribute to the vocal track uses throat singing, beat boxing, and a crossover he calls “throat boxing”. He sounds are added to by the intentional panting of the artists on stage, their slaps and stamps and sighs, all laid down over the clever lines and threads of Rick Sacks, the musician in the corner mixing this piece, and his music is the heartbeat that drives the dance.

Even if dance is not your thing, you need to see Backbone.


  • Backbone plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre until November 12th, 2017
  • Shows are Tuesday to Sunday at 8pm except Wednesday and Sunday at 1pm. On Friday 10 November there will be a special pre-performance talk at 5:30, with the show to follow at 7pm
  • Ticket prices range from $35 to $69
  • Tickets may be purchased online, in person at the box office, or by phone at 416.368.3110

Photo of dancers by David Hou