Tla’amin ballet star brings cultural stories to the stage

As the first artist-in-residence in Ballet Kelowna’s 20-year history, Cameron Fraser-Monroe is producing performances rooted in his identity and teachings
Cameron Fraser-Monroe of Tla’amin First Nation, the artist-in-residence at Ballet Kelowna for the 2022-23 season, strikes a pose at the Ballet Kelowna studio in syilx homelands on Nov. 30. Photo by Aaron Hemens

A Tla’amin ballet performer who has taken on an artist residency in syilx homelands is seizing the opportunity as a way to express and share the beauty of his culture through dance.

Earlier this year, Cameron Fraser-Monroe became the first artist-in-residence in Ballet Kelowna’s 20-year-history. 

Since being announced to the role in August, the 24-year-old has been working on crafting several performances grounded in Tla’amin Nation’s history, protocols and stories. 

Fraser-Monroe said he’s made it a personal mission to respectfully incorporate the teachings and values of his community into his work. 

“It’s not something I’ve been assigned to do, but something as an artist that I want to do,” he said.

“Everytime I’m creating, I’m trying to lift up everyone I can with me.”

Weaving dance styles together

Growing up in “Vernon” in syilx homelands, Fraser-Monroe — who is also of Ukrainian and Scottish descent — first learned Ukrainian dance at the age of three, before picking up grass dance and hoop dance shortly after. 

He studied grass dance with Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB) Elder Mollie Bono, and he trained and performed hoop dance with three-time world champion hoop dancer Dallas Arcand of Alexander (Kipohtakaw) Plains Cree Nation.

By the time he was 15-years-old, Fraser-Monroe auditioned and joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, spending five years training there before launching into a career in ballet. It was the form, structure and consistency of the art that attracted Fraser-Monroe to pursue a career as a professional ballet dancer.

“On a personal level, ballet really pushes me physically and mentally to focus and get better,” he said.

Since then, Fraser-Monroe has gone on to perform across the continent with various dance companies, including the Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada and Dancers of Damelahamid. He’s also choreographed work for the Artists Climate Collective, and was recently the artistic director of the Winnipeg Summer Dance Collective.

At Ballet Kelowna, while the role does include dancing, the bulk of his work as artist-in-residence is creating. This consists of selecting stories, themes, music, developing and choreographing movement, and then rehearsing it with other dancers. 

At the heart of his work is blending his knowledge of First Nations dance, contemporary dance and ballet all together into one style.

Cameron Fraser-Monroe of Tla’amin First Nation, the artist-in-residence at Ballet Kelowna for the 2022-23 season, pictured at the Ballet Kelowna studio in syilx homelands on Nov. 30. Photo by Aaron Hemens

In the process, he’s made sure to collaborate with other Indigenous creatives — including utilizing music from composer Jeremy Dutcher of Tobique First Nation, and making it a priority to work with Indigenous lighting designers, set designers and costume designers. 

Fraser-Monroe also enlisted Ballet Kelowna’s McKeely Borger of the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan to fill the lead role of p̓oho (raven) in his production titled taqəš (to return), which had its live premiere this past November.

An oral history brought to life

Based off of Tla’amin Nation’s “Raven Returns the Water” story, Fraser-Monroe said that it was important to not only share that story in taqəš, but to share its teachings and the ʔayʔaǰuθəm (Ayajuthem) language with a broader audience. 

“The first time I saw taqəš on stage, I was shaking,” he said. “It’s so amazing to see something that might only have been known through oral history, now to see it transformed and presented on a stage.”

In order to work respectfully and with integrity in sharing the stories and teachings of his community, Fraser-Monroe said that he goes through a process of self examination and cultural reflection. 

“It’s about walking that line to be able to present the work that’s going to benefit the community, the culture, and to not appropriate it or be disrespectful,” he said.

His next project, ʔɛmaxʷiygə (until we meet again), is scheduled to premiere in February. He said that project examines how Tla’amin Nation deals with the passing of a loved one, noting that the community doesn’t have a word for “goodbye.” 

“It’s about optimism and interconnectedness, and how important it is that we recognize that we’re all connected. We’re all going to see each other again,” he said.

His third and final project, which is currently in development and untitled at the moment, “flips the script” on the notion of “cowboys and Indians,” as well as examining aspects of the Indian Act.

“Just seeing what happens when you flip the script on those, and how the cowboys react to some of their systems imposed on them,” he said.

He noted that he’s not trying to be an educational expert through his work, and just wants to share his worldview and what he’s been taught.

“Like all artists, I bring that to my work,” he said. “I think it’s incumbent upon, particularly IBPOC artists or creatives, to share your culture, to educate the people you’re working with.”

Finding a unique voice

Ballet Kelowna offers three different viewing programs throughout their seasonal tour, which began in August 2022 and end in June 2023. Across the three programs, each features one of Fraser-Monroe’s three projects. The group has already toured northern “Ontario” and will conclude with a long tour of “Newfoundland” at the end of May.

While recognizing that the artist in residence role can be stressful at times, he described it as a rewarding learning experience.

“It’s been a big part of me finding my voice. In ballet school, you had to be complacent, listening and absorbing,” he said. 

“So it’s been interesting to be able to pull that together and recognize who I am, what I have to say and have the confidence to say it.”

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