M:ST News

Cheryl L’Hirondelle’s êkâya-pâhkaci (Don’t Freeze Up)

Storytelling is a metaphorical expression that bridges language and cultural barriers. In her performanceêkâya-pâhkaci (don’t freeze up), Cheryl L’Hirondelle develops a lexicon using her body, linguistic rhythm, and evocative visual imagery to transmit intrinsic understandings of hospitality, narrative and sexuality.


The performance began with an offering of bread and tea as an invitation for the audience to join L’Hirondelle on the woven blankets in front of her temporary residence, a large white tent located in the Epcor Centre. As spectators gathered on the blankets, she began to engage viewers in conversation but because L’Hirondelle was speaking in Cree, a language in which very few Calgarians are fluent, she was greeted with a wavering ‘yes’ or an unsure nod. So she began to teach us Cree by pointing at the bread then saying the word in Cree. After that, she went around the circle gesturing towards the Cree syllabics that were neatly written on her hands, wrists, and upper thighs , using them as a means to investigate similar marks on the spectators bodies. When someone would show her their tattoo, L’Hirondelle would write the Cree word for the image on their body with a make-up crayon. Then she entered her tent and stitched the opening shut.

The tent lit up and the raucous but vaguely melodic sound of a car horn bellowed through the PA system. As the shadows showed L’Hirondelle removing her clothing, recorded voices of Cree Elder storytellers were heard over the horns. L’Hirondelle began to chant to the tempo of the story. The silhouette of her gyrating hips danced across the illuminated tent in perfect cadence to the rhythmic chanting that resonated through the black speakers. At moments, the shadow would sharpen, revealing a belt of jingling keys or long tubular shapes that emitted a haunting whir when spun through the air. She looped the sound with an effects pedal, layering the Cree chanting with various sounds derived from instruments and plastic toys. Far from cacophony, the harmonious congregation of sound filled the circular balcony near The One Yellow Rabbit Theatre box office, attracting Motel theatre patrons as well as spectators in passing.

As the elaborate sound collage developed into a solid rhythmic repetition,L’Hirondelle began to push coils of ribbon through several slits that were cut into the front of the tent at head level. Starting from the viewers right side, the dark colored ribbon slipped through the slits then flowed to the ground. After all the ribbon had unfurled L’Hirondelle’s voice belted out over the echoing chant in melodic undulation. The orange of her skin glowed against the surface as her palms pushed against the face of the tent, causing the surface to vibrate and pulse.

She opened the tent, unveiling a plethora of brightly colored plastic toys, wires, microphones, and other sound equipment. Dressed in a revealing nude colored leotard with protruding plastic red nipples and a little red leaf shape in the pubic area, L’Hirondelle poked her leg out of the tent and gave it a flirtatious twist. Microphone in hand, she engaged the audience with an interactive chant (“I say ‘Shagga’ you say ‘Nappi’”) followed with more flirtatious and sexually charged gestures towards members of the audience.

Cheryl L’Hirondelle’s practice and lifestyle incorporates the Cree worldview (nêhiyawin). As a musician and an artist, her way of life is nomadic. Having explored the tent motif with performance in the 90s, L’Hirondelle is revisiting it with further travels and an increased knowledge. “Performance has always been a means to articulate something that does not have a language,” said L’Hirondelle. Aesthetic and harmony became the elliptic metaphor that bridged the cultural and language barriers in new media story-telling.

Posted by Jasmine Valentina

Photo credit: Erica Brisson