The whole stories

Elling Lien chats with local dance artist Louise Moyes. (Photos by Ryan Davis.)

Louise Moyes takes on the characters of the people around her.

The St. John’s performance artist has, over the years, developed a style she calls “docu-dance.” Studying interviews she has recorded, she learns the rhythm and regional dialect of the speaker, and pieces together collections of spoken and musical vignettes with movement. The resulting speech seems as much musical score as story, and the choreography grows out of that strange, familiar music.

She has used this technique to look at several stories, from the collapse of the fishery, to quitting smoking on the south coast, to life during the 1998 ice storm in Quebec.

When I sit down to meet with Moyes at her home, she greets me at the door holding her son Gabriel in her arms (you saw him on the cover already.) He will be turning one on the day before the Festival of New Dance­—May 21.

One day later, on the 22nd, Moyes will perform a segment of her docu-dance Florence. It’s a work-in-progress three years in the making, and she is passionate about its subject: her friend Florence Leprieur, aged 93, from Black Duck Brook (l’Anse à Canard), Newfoundland.

EL: Who is Florence Leprieur?

LM: Florence Leprieur is a woman on the Port-Au-Port peninsula, French Newfoundland. I met her three years ago when I was doing a project with her grandsons, her musical grandsons, for the 400th (or 500th, depending on who you ask) anniversary of Acadia. And she was part of a show that we did, but there was a lot of live music in it and storytelling, and it was about the culture of the Port-Au-Port.

She’s the musical matriarch of the family, and in meeting her, I felt she was definitely a person I had to work with more.

In shows I’ve done before I’ve played twenty different characters and I already knew that I’d like to focus on one. And I felt like this was a woman whose stories could carry a show. And there was a lot of empathy between us.

She’s 93, she’s a musician, she sings jigs, I think she played accordion too, and she was a mother of eleven kids. She had thirteen but two died shortly after birth. And she still speaks French

Florence had a stroke in the past two weeks, so I’m very worried about her. I had called her three or four weeks ago and she was in great health. But when I heard about the stroke, it struck me again that she’s 93.

But she always seems like she’s a much younger person, in some ways, because she not stuck in the past. She’s very present and interested in what’s happening in everybody’s lives. In a good way.

She’s one of those people who is very ‘in the moment.’

I like her for that, and she’s very smart, and very funny too. Her generation saw more change in their lifetime than any other generation in human history.

We laugh a lot together.

If we were the same age, we’d be friends. …

When did you first meet her?

The first time I met her was at a house party while we were rehearsing for our other show out there. We were sitting on a couch and it was a long room, but very narrow. Christina Smith, the fiddler from St. John’s, happened to be in Stephenville with Jill Keilly and Robert Chafe … She used to work with Émile Benoit and she wanted to meet more French Newfoundlanders so she could collect more tunes. So she came to the house party.

She was at one end of the room playing with Dougie’s family and Florence (everyone calls her Grammy) was there.

I was sitting at this long couch with this old lady who I was meeting for the first time. She was sitting there listening to Christina, suddenly she says to me in French…

“Elle joue comme Émile! (She plays like Émile!) … Elle joue exactement comme Émile! Est-ce qu’elle sait qu’Émile était mon boyfriend?”

And I said to myself, “no, she doesn’t know that Emile was your boyfriend but she’s gonna know pretty soon. …As soon as this tune is over!”

She and Emile were going out when they were 16, so she was probably with him when he wrote some of the tunes Christina was playing that night.

Why only a boyfriend?

Emile wanted to marry Grammy, but she thought his stories were foolish!

She loved his music, but she wasn’t into the storytelling…

“Der not true?” she’d say.

[laugh]

And that’s why she didn’t marry him? Because the stories he told were made up?

[laugh] That’s what she says. The stories were too foolish! They were lies!

The first time we heard one of her stories was the next day I think. We went to visit her. She told the a story about flour coming ashore. It was the story of a schooner that got stuck in a bank of sand. It was loaded down, so they threw the flour overboard to get unstuck.

A simple story but the way she tells it is just so beautiful.

How did she tell it?

I’ve recorded her three different times telling it, and each one is the same way, almost.

We all have our defining stories, and that was one of her defining stories. And when I heard her tell that story I felt right away this was someone I wanted to do something with.

To hear her!

Her voice is so melodic. I love to work with the tune of voices. Florence uses very much her own expressions, and listening to it the first time I could feel myself wanting to move to it right away.

Her voice made me want to dance.

What about it?

…Well, we all sing when we talk, but she really sings. She’ll emphasize.

That time at her house she was telling the story in English because her grandsons don’t speak French. The first story she’s telling us, about the flour…

[Port-au-Port accent] “Oh God!”

I asked her if she was working at the time.

And she said “no, I wasn’t workin! I was goin to the barn for to milk my cow! And dis man came along the road, and I seen him coming along down the road, and he says: did you go down on the bank?

“I said noo!”

[laugh]

Her “no” goes on forever.

“…He said go down along the bank and you’ll see the flour comin ashore in waaaves. Like a white sheeeet on the waaaaterrr.”

I love the poetry of the way people speak. And hearing her say that the first time—“white sheeeet on the waaaaterrr”—it sounded like a tune to me.

She repeated things too: “I trew away the bucket, me! I forgot about de cow.”

[laugh]

She’s definitely a character. Grammy is a character.

When we started filming her, I say “Grammy, can you tell the story of la farine (the flour.)”

[deep breath]

“Oh god!” she says.

And then she starts telling it…

…And the kids roll their eyes?

[laugh] And the kids roll their eyes, yes.

It’s true. I was just teaching at a school in Mount Pearl, telling Grammy’s stories. I said Grammy has three or four stories that she really tells about her life. And I said to the kids “I’m sure you all have grandparents or parents that tell a story and you groan and roll your eyes, [thumping table] “we’ve heard that one before!”

But, you know, there are reasons why people tell particular stories about themselves. They define themselves. And Grammy’s stories are really about how hard a worker and how resourceful she is.

How did the filming go?

When we started filming her the first time, two years ago, she starts telling the flour story. The two video people were just there to film it, they didn’t speak French. So when I asked Grammy to tell the story in French, she was worried they wouldn’t understand.

I told her, “No, they’re just here to film it.”

The video shot is a very traditional, documentary-style angle, and she goes on telling the story in French.

Suddenly she stops and looks right into the lens of the camera and says, “Yer gettin all dat, are ye?? Yer gettin all dat??”

[laugh]

When we play that tape for school classes—when you show it to little kids especially—it’s really hilarious because the kids will answer:

“Yes!”

[laugh]

They think she’s talking directly to them. Their response is really great.

•••
…It’s interesting how things connect.

Her stories tend to be about motherhood and children and performing music, and in the three years of knowing her, I have been through three pregnancies, only one successful one. One was quite long, I was six months pregnant and lost a baby. So I often seemed to be working with her grandsons around the time the miscarriage and the stillbirth happened.

I had my stillbirth two years ago, and her grandson Dougie, who lives in Port-Au-Port is a fiddler I work with. His wife was having pregnancy problems at the same time as I was. They were flown into St. John’s and stayed with my parents.

I lost my baby and she had her baby two days later—six or seven weeks early—because she was so upset about what happened with me. So it was all happening at the same time.

Then I went to see Grammy.

She has also lost two children, a month after birth, and she spoke to me. So many people were very good to me when it happened, but she was so direct:

“T’as perdu ton bebe! (You lost your baby!)”

“…T’en auras un autre. (You’ll have another one.)”

Then she started speaking in English, “but what do you want a baby for, you? You can’t go flicking around the world, singin and dancin? With a baby?? They take up too much time, them!”

[laugh]

A woman with eleven kids tells me this.

•••

So all this happened, but then in the rehearsal process, working on this performance, it got very interesting.

I was working with this woman Jo Leslie from Montreal who knows me very well… She really pushed me toward something I had done before, but not to this extent at all: weaving my stories and Grammy’s stories together. Weaving our relationship together, not just telling our different stories.

Usually I take peoples’ stories and I listen to them and play their voice and dance to their voice. I learn their story and tell it more theatrically. I make it a performance. But this time, I was weaving my experience with Grammy’s experience. It’s a little different in this piece.

Like when I tell one of Grammy’s birth stories…

Once she went to Émile’s father’s store three miles down the road, and on the way back her birth pains took. She thought she was going to have her baby on the road. So she had to stop.

“I thought I was going to have de baby on de road, but I never.”

And she had to stop with her packages until the birth pains passed.

And then I start talking about my birth pains, [pumps her knee up and down] going over every bump in the road in St. John’s. It was excruciating.

And I wonder how did she do it? How did she do it?

Is it any easier or harder to tell the story of someone you feel such a connection to?

It’s easier in some ways and harder in others. [laugh] I’m always conscious of respecting people’s stories, and because I know her so well, it’s also very moving for me to tell her stories. Even more moving than someone else.

When we went to New York, I had done this show at a First Look, a studio series with Neighbourhood Dance Works, and it was well-received, got great feedback. I was past the phase for an actor or musician where you’re it’s all ‘in your head,’ where you still have to think as you’re performing and you’re not just able to let yourself go with it.

But in New York, it was like becoming a vessel, and the story was coming through me. Grammy was close.

I find it very moving to do this piece, because I know Grammy so well. After the First Look, after the first show, the next day I had to call her. I just had to call her and talk to her.

And then she had a stroke the next week, after I came back.

It’s hard to think about when she won’t be there.

Hm.

So you must be thinking about that in the piece as well.

Yes. Yes, yes.

There’s a moment where, for me—I don’t know if it comes through to the audience, but I’m doing a jig, and then the jig breaks down into a heartbeat and then it stops.

And that’s a moment for me. When the music’s gone.

•••

How did you go about putting this together?

Working in the studio with Jo I would tell a story and then she would say “get up and do the dance of the day. Close your eyes and just start moving.”

And it was really great. The movement that came out was often unexpected. Something in the movement would trigger something in the story would trigger something in the movement…

How far away is the full show from being finished?

I’m still in the middle of it, still trying to understand what it all means.

But you’ve been working on this for a long time…

Really, this winter was the first time I did a big chunk of work on the actual show because I’ve been going through all the pregnancies.

This summer I will finish it and do the full show in the fall.

What is interesting too, is that as a mother I’m doing better work than I ever have. Partly because my free time is so limited, I have to be so efficient.

When you have the time to work, you work. You don’t lollygag around. And you’re so “in your heart” anyway, because of this connection with this little being.

That really helps.

•••

So Grammy has two other big stories she tells about her life. Three in total. One about moonshine, and one about some kids whose mother died and their father abandoned them. He was an alcoholic. There were about eight of them between the age of two and fourteen and they lived in the woods for a while. And Grammy’s dad built a shack next door to their house for them to live in. …But it’s so great, when she tells this story, it’s about the music they would play together. She would go over and they’d sing and play music on accordion.

Her moonshine story, she worked hard making moonshine to make money to send to her husband who was in the sanatorium in St. John’s so she could send him razors and cigarettes. He was in the sanatorium for TB.

But the cops caught her and took away her moonshine.

I asked her, “Grammy, were you scared at all?”

“No I wasn’t scared, me. …But then after the cop left I fell down behind the wood stove, my fingers turned blue and I passed out!”

[laugh]

She’s a bit dramatic sometimes.

Louise Moyes will be presenting Florence for the Festival of New Dance at the LSPU Hall, Tue, May 22 & Wed, May 23. For tickets, call 753-4531

On Mother’s Day, May 13, Louise will be performing excerpts from four different shows related to motherhood, include a traditional folk tale, and vignettes from women around Newfoundland and Labrador at The Rooms. Families welcome.

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