Moe Clark and Émilie Monnet – Bird Messengers

Moe Clark and Émilie Monnet, Bird Messengers, photo by Melanie Elliott.

Bird Messengers is an ambitious live theatrical performance by two young female performers, Métis spoken word artist Moe Clark and Algonquin theatre artist Émilie Monnet. Conceived as a vehicle to fuse their own experience as urban Aboriginal artists with the mythologies, prophecies, legends and traditional stories of their heritage, Bird Messengers evolved over a two year period of intense collaborative effort that included a year-long residency at the MAI in Montreal, and shorter-term residencies with the Aboriginal Arts Program at the Banff Centre, at Engrenage Noir / Levier and Oboro Gallery in Montreal, and with the Alliance Française in Joao Pessoa, Brazil.

 

According to the Bird Messengers website, the structure of the performance was drawn from “elder Mary Lee's teachings of the tipi, the traditional home of many Aboriginal peoples of Turtle Island (including the Blackfoot people of the West). Each pole of the tipi represents a specific value on how to live harmoniously as a community. From the Cree perspective there are fifteen teachings in total, of which we draw from seven.” The first three teachings – obedience, humility and respect – act as a tripod which forms the base, upon which all the other teachings find their foundation.

 

The character at the center of Bird Messengers – a young urban Aboriginal woman – goes through a journey of transformation marked by the values of the seven teachings of the tipi poles. But Bird Messengers doesn’t present a traditional theatrical exposition of this young woman’s life. In fact the two performers, Clark and Monnet, represent different aspects of the same personality. Clark and Monnet stick to their respective skills for the most part – Clark performs poems and creates soundscapes reflecting the character’s inner turmoil, while Monnet plays out the role, occasionally adopting striking poses that resonate with images of ancient indigenous culture. The audience is drawn into this interior world, a mythic space that hinges upon a great circular shape at center stage, inspired by the hand drum. Part of the set design created by Ojibwe artist Glenna Matoush, it calls to mind both the sun and the moon, and the circular, cyclical nature of time. The performers are occasionally silhouetted behind the skin of this drum, and then the play becomes a shadow play. The dreamlike, timeless quality of the performance is enhanced by the costumes, created by Innu fashion designer Kim Picard, and the intricate yet subtle interplay of the lighting and sound design.

 

Similar to the traditional stories of the Aboriginal communities of North and South America, Bird Messengers has no real start or ending, but there is a moral to be found. The central, unnamed character hosts a radio show called ‘Dreamspeaker’, where she uses her innate divinatory powers to analyse dreams and prescribe poetic rituals to break negative patterns. Despite this gift of insight, she succumbs to the pitfalls of urban life, finding herself cut off from the rhythms and cycles of life itself. She is in danger of losing herself to the darkness of self-destruction. Partly inspired by the Mohawk legend of the two serpents who bring calamity to the community, Bird Messengers travels full-circle over the course of its seven chapters, bringing a renewed sense of self-care and self-responsibility to the protagonist, a sense rooted in the ancient teachings.

 

Bird Messengers is certainly an experience to be savoured. It holds out many possible avenues for future Aboriginal theatrical and spoken word shows to explore. Indeed, it has contributed much to the performance arts in general.

Bird Messengers premiered in Montreal at the M.A.I from May 4-8, 2011.