A new online production combining drama and music is bringing a traditional Blackfoot story to life. Napi and the Rock, a collaboration between Making Treaty 7 Cultural Society and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, celebrates local Indigenous culture through an engaging musical performance for families. The concert was pre-recorded in the Jack Singer Concert Hall and will be available to the public for free at calgaryphil.com starting Saturday, November 20.
Making Treaty 7 Artistic Director Michelle Thrush says there are many lessons to be learned from the story of Napi and the Rock as well as the collaboration with the Calgary Philharmonic. “Making Treaty 7 has always been an Indigenous-led and settler-supported group of artists that builds relationships through storytelling. It was great to see the Calgary Phil team take on that supporting role and help us bring this traditional Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) story to life in such a beautiful way,” she says. “We all learned from each other through this process, which wasn’t always easy.”
Calgary Phil Associate Conductor Karl Hirzer adds that the efforts resulted in more than a beautiful performance. “This collaboration gave us insight on how to work together to make something that everybody wants to celebrate,” he says. “Making Treaty 7 taught us how to do this.”
For Hirzer and Alysha Bulmer, Calgary Phil’s Education + Outreach Manager, an important part of the process involved spending time with Elders who talked about the significance of stories and the environment. “We wanted to learn about the culture and history and perspective,” says Hirzer. “It was really interesting and enlightening. After talking to the Elders, we were captivated by the role storytelling plays in their culture, and the respect they have for nature.”
Those conversations ultimately led to Napi and the Rock and a plan to tell the story through music and drama — not to mention a giant onstage boulder. Caleigh Crow, who came on board as director, says Napi is a key figure in Blackfoot culture whose stories have been told to children for generations. She describes Napi as a mischievous trickster whose stories hold wide appeal. “Antics follow him everywhere he goes.”
This Napi story is about the Big Rock, a glacial erratic near Okotoks — a Blackfoot word for ‘rock.’ Napi gifts a beautiful robe to the rock, but then changes his mind and takes it back — and the chase begins. The story has strong ties to nature, painting a picture of the Blackfoot territories. As the Rock makes its way through Drumheller and Calgary to Okotoks, it encounters the animals who live there and changes their lives forever. For example, the beavers in the story have beautiful thick tails that are the envy of the animal world, but when they band together to help Napi, the rock rolls over and flattens their tails. The misadventure continues until it reaches a big, thrilling conclusion that sees the rock come to a stop at its current location.
Crow is a Métis actor, director, playwright, and producer who runs her own theatre company, Thumbs Up Good Work Theatre. She is also a fan of the Orchestra and has been attending concerts for years. Her experience came in handy as she worked to bring all the different elements together. Crow says this was unlike any project she’s worked on before, but she was fortunate to work with conductor Karl Hirzer, who had the music side down, and set designer Neil Fleming, costume designer Elizabeth Ferguson-Breaker, stage manager Meredith Johnson, and actors Marshall Vielle, who plays Napi, and Cory Beaver, who plays Napi’s friend Kit Fox.
“It was a real blast. We had an excellent team,” she says. “Marshall is a highly respected performer in the Calgary and area community, and I was really lucky to be able to share the space with them. Cory has a dance background, and I was amazed by his ability to express something with a simple gesture or movement. The two of them together have great chemistry – and a lot of humorous moments. I enjoyed experiencing the magic unfold.”
The music also plays a key role, helping to convey the mood and the characters. Juno-nominated cellist and composer Cris Derksen, who combines her classical background and Indigenous ancestry to create new music, helped adapt the story and create the score. The music also features an overture by Sonny-Ray Day Rider, an Indigenous composer and pianist studying music at the University of Lethbridge.
The original plans for the projects were delayed due to COVID-19, but Making Treaty 7’s current executive director, Neil Fleming, and artistic director, Michelle Thrush, steered the project to its current form, and brought the Orchestra and artists together under the direction of Crow. To give as many people as possible from Treaty 7 territories and beyond a chance to experience the performance, Napi and the Rock will remain available for viewing online for up to two years.
Crow says Napi’s story is a reminder of how our actions have consequences, whether they’re intended or not. “Every action you take reverberates across the land and has a tremendous impact,” she says. “Indigenous people have relied on this land and all of Turtle Island to sustain themselves for time immemorial. It’s the source of inspiration for every part of the culture.”
She hopes this performance will encourage people to engage in more Blackfoot culture and Indigenous culture. “It’s all around us and it’s inextricably tied to this land we live and work on,” she adds. “I want to inspire people to get out and see how connected we are to the land and all the people on it.”
Napi and the Rock premieres online at calgaryphil.com on Saturday, November 20 at 2:30PM. This production is sponsored by the Government of Alberta and the streaming sponsor is InterPipeline.
By Maureen McNamee, November 2021