Mackay’s Visions & Voyages

My own little reconciliation journey continues.

Last year I saw the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Going Home Star, a ballet aiming to probe the history behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a powerful piece about the trauma associated with the residential schools.

A few weeks ago I saw and heard Toronto Consort’s utopian Kanatha/Canada: First Encounters, taking us back to a Montreal peace conference in 1701.  Imagine a time when our indigenous peoples were addressed truthfully as equals.  Is that even something you can imagine, with so many lies in the last century and a half?

Where Toronto Consort is led by and curated by David Fallis, Tafelmusik’s Visions & Voyages: Canada 1663 – 1763 is another multi-media piece conceived & created by his wife and Tafelmusik bass player Alison Mackay.  I knew I’d be seeing her show, and pondered their influence upon one another.  That led me to rush over to UC Art Centre to catch Kent Monkman’s “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience”.  I didn’t expect to be shaken to my core.  Just as Jesse Wente said that to make Canada’s 150th Anniversary meaningful, we must include the stories of indigenous peoples, so too Monkman, who demanded to know: where are the

“…history paintings that conveyed or authorized Indigenous experience into the canon of art history..? Where were the paintings from the nineteenth century that recounted, with passion and empathy, the dispossession, starvation, incarceration and genocide?”

Where Fallis presents us with something peaceful that I called “prelapsarian” in its evocation of  a perfect Canada before it fell from grace, in our later inability to keep faith with indigenous peoples, Mackay’s project is somewhat different.


Alison Mackay, Ryan Cunningham, Brian Solomon

Visions & Voyages is an epic presentation, communicating on multiple channels as we hear music and words, see photos & art projected, watching musicians and actors and dance.  The word “historiography” was in my head as I pondered the ways in which our history was not just being told, but explored, articulated, and re-imagined.  The first half places a focus on New France and the francophone culture and music, while the second half shifts to Rupert’s Land and the music that goes with the English side of our early history.  As with Fallis’s account, sticking to the earlier part of the story means we can mostly avoid hearing about genocide, epidemics and death.  Mackay does venture into the 19th century briefly to talk about the Indian Act & residential schools.  We do not focus on the things you usually get in history books, which is why I bring up historiography, as it could be argued that we largely went astray (Canadians and Americans too) by how he decided to frame our national narratives, including the story of the indigenous peoples.  I saw someone arguing on social media just a couple of days ago that Riel was a criminal who couldn’t be treated as a hero, a person trapped by their ultra-conservative view of history.  But that’s one tiny part of the bigger story.  Happily Mackay is not bothering  to tell the usual story. We are instead hearing of dignified encounters between peoples and the music that was part of those encounters, whether in the cultural encounter of aboriginal Canadians brought to England complete with baroque pomp & dignity, or the funeral of a Wendat Chief in Montreal.  When we notice that history and our assumptions have led us astray, it’s time to jettison the old story and find a new way to tell it.  I think that’s the impulse behind Mackay’s work, and it’s a very healthy one.


Dancer Brian Solomon, Tafelmusik “Visions and Voyages” (photo Jeremy Chan)


Where Fallis offers a concert from a time before we screwed it all up, Mackay dares something beyond that.  We are experiencing art with a narrator, Ryan Cunningham lending a certain authenticity to the story-telling.


Narrator Ryan Cunninham with Tafelmusik (photo: Jeremy Chan)

The events of the past 150 + years are hinted at only.  Mackay seems to presuppose that we know it, and the educated crowd gathered in Jeanne Lamon Hall would accuse me of being perversely difficult for suggesting anything different.

But I’m wary, at least because of identity politics.  Tales of such sensitivity can make people very upset, when treated without due sensitivity.  This is not our turf, these are not our wounds to heal.  Yes, as a guilty liberal, I want to make my pain go away.  And the indigenous participants in this concert are very generous.  I was moved past the ability to speak for awhile at the end, as we went from history to a kind of healing-catharsis dance, a celebration of sorts.  But while I was exultant at the end, almost delirious with joy listening to what Mackay created and what Brian Solomon danced to bring the concert to its conclusion,  I feel that I’m being let off the hook, absolved: and I am not sure I have the right to feel this way.

As I ponder what I feel, I’m tempted to ascribe the key difference between the Fallis and Mackay programs to gender (and hope that this doesn’t sound simplistic, reductive or worse), to a generous and loving sensibility that seeks to focus on life and relationships as reflected in music-making: rather than politics.  The redemptive and hopeful ending that Mackay spoke of in her introductory words before the concert began were fulfilled for me in Solomon’s dance.  In short order he took us from a kind of pained disability, staggering about with such aching pathos, blinded by a book literally stuck across his eyes, (not unlike so many people I see immersed in their electronic devices on the streets of this city), and then finding a vocabulary that seemed so genuinely Canadian in its invocation of the old folk dances.  It’s not for me to permit the celebration, welcome as it is.  But yes I am grateful for the way Solomon’s joyful movements were like a magic wand, blessing and absolving us of our guilt for the moment at least.

Mackay has been doing this for awhile, combining music and ideas and images, to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  I think this is her best yet, something truly redemptive and healing, even if lately I am overwhelmed with how much we have to answer for.  Chances are Tafelmusik will gather the talent and the music together into a DVD, one that I know I will buy and enjoy.

Visions & voyages: Canada 1663-1763 continues Saturday night at 8 pm and Sunday afternoon 3:30pm Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Jeanne Lamon Hall.

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2 Responses to Mackay’s Visions & Voyages

  1. Richard Rix says:

    I too attended Tafelmusik’s Visions & Voyages and relished how it combined Canadian history from both sides’ perspective with Baroque music. It was brilliant in both content and performance. The effect was to evoke the great soul of this country and encourage a more balanced view of cultures other than one’s own.
    As such, to append it with 19th and 20th-century updates was unnecessary, and one might say with justification, unwelcome. Of course the issues raised are vital ones, but this was not the forum for it and did not fulfill the program’s promise: Visions and Voyages: Canada 1663-1763.

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