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New Blood mixes Blackfoot history, culture and Peter Gabriel music

New Blood mixes Blackfoot history, culture and Peter Gabriel music

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Nine years ago, Deanne Bertsch managed to track down Peter Gabriel. It was a bit of a fluke.

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The Strathmore High School drama teacher wanted to ask permission to use his songs in a production he was putting together based on Blackfoot history. After trying and failing to find contact information through traditional channels, she simply guessed what his email address might be. Turns out she was right.

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So she asked if she could use the music found on his 2011 album, New Blood, for The New Blood Dance Show. The album featured orchestral re-recordings of some of Gabriel’s biggest songs from throughout his career. The bonus edition featured versions of the songs — including In Your Eyes, Red Rain, Don’t Give Up, San Jacinto and Wallflower — with both Gabriel’s vocals and without. Bertsch wanted to use the instrumental tracks and have the young performers sing the songs. The production is based on the memories of Vincent Yellow Old Woman, then chief of the Siksika Nation, about surviving the residential school system. Bertsch had been inspired by the history of the Blackfoot people after visiting Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. There were a number of Blackfoot students at the school and she thought this would be a meaningful way for Indigenous and non-Indigenous performers to work together. She thought Gabriel’s music was perfect for the project.

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“In the beginning, I had asked to pay for the rights to use it, because I didn’t want to get into trouble for using his music without,” says Bertsch. “I just guessed at his email because no one would get back to me. I actually got through to him and he actually responded. He said he had great respect for Indigenous people and their story and it would mean a lot to him if his music was used for this kind of work and he would not charge us anything to use it. He’s continued to respond throughout the years, just to say ‘Way to go. keep on.’ We invite him to show but he’s always so busy.”

During the pandemic, however, Gabriel sent a beautiful, videotaped message for Bertsch and the production. He talked about his own work with Archbishop Desmond Tutu who set up a Truth and Reconciliation Committee back in South Africa that allowed those who had suffered during apartheid to tell their stories.

“Just the act of being heard and listened to and just running through things In a different context started the process of freeing people from their suffering,” he says in the video. “If this can be part of that for you, that’s a wonderful thing and a wonderful thing to have achieved. So I’m delighted that my songs, especially San Jacinto, are being included and I hope to be able to see it one day. It’s great work you’re doing. Please carry on and I wish you all of you great success with this.”

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A scene from the New Blood Dance Show.
A scene from the New Blood Dance Show, with music performed by the Calgary Civic Symphony on June 15 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall. From left, Nikko Hunt, Skylar Running Rabbit and Destyn Wolf Child. Photo by Laren Hamm Photography Photo by Lauren Hamm /Lauren Hamm

In the video, Gabriel also makes references to the discovery of unmarked graves in 2021 and the remains of hundreds of children around the sites of former residential schools, something that had not come to light in 2014 when Bertsch first conceived the production. So, over the past nine years, New Blood has evolved to reflect revelations about the horrors of residential schools. One of her main ambitions for the show, other than to perform it one day with Gabriel, was to perform it with a live orchestra. On June 15, New Blood will be performed at the Jack Singer Concert Hall with The Calgary Civic Symphony. It’s the first time in the show’s nine-year history that it will be performed to live music.

The production, which mixes Gabriel’s songs with traditional Blackfoot music and dancing, always has an evocative score. The live music will add another element.

“In the choreography, we tried to juxtapose circles and squares, with the circles representing the traditional way of life for the Blackfoot and the squares representing the European influence,” says Bertsch. “The story was never intended to be a story about reconciliation but I knew that I wanted it to include non-Indigenous students and Indigenous students. My friend had given me a copy of the New Blood album several years before and said ‘You should create a show around this music’ but I didn’t have an idea for it at the time. After visiting Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park and wanting to do a show about Blackfoot history, I just found that music again and started listening to the words. They connect so specifically to the story we were telling, it was kind of divine that I found it again.”

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Bertsch collaborated with Blackfoot elders before opening in 2014. That includes Vincent Yellow Old Woman, who shared the poem written about his life, The Indian and the Child. Eulalia Running Rabbit visited Bertsch’s class to talk about some of the Blackfoot’s lost history, discussing the fur trade, residential schools and addictions and talking about the coming-of-age ritual called the vision question, where a young Blackfoot man goes into the wilderness for four days and nights to find his spirit animal.

Eulalia Running Rabbit is the aunt of Skylar Running Rabbit, who began participating in the show at the age of 15. The former Strathmore High School student has been with the show for six years now, performing the Warrior’s Dance for 170 shows. Running Rabbit’s father and grandparents on his father’s side went to residential schools but would never talk about their experiences.

“The impact of it left that mark on them so it wasn’t something they would talk about,” says Running Rabbit, who grew up in the Siksika Nation. “I knew bits and pieces of it, but not the full story until I had joined New Blood. I was able to learn and know a lot more about the story and the experiences of other residential school survivors.”

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Running Rabbit says the reason he has participated in the show for the past six years remains the same: to promote Blackfoot culture and an understanding of what modern life can involve for Indigenous people.

“Ever since I started, it’s always been about the understanding of one another,” he says. “It’s understanding why First Nations have the life that they do and why some of them choose to go to drugs and alcohol because of what happened to them. It’s that understanding within each other so there’s not a prejudice or pre-conceived bias of ‘they are just like that because that’s just how it is.’ We now know something has happened to them. It’s a very serious incident that happened in their past and it still affects young people today because of that generational trauma.”

The Calgary Civic Symphony Presents New Blood Dance Show will take place June 15 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall.

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