The Studio Hydro Québec at Montreal’s Monument National is already an intimate space where, tonight, the seating has been rearranged to draw the viewers even closer into the performance. Lara Kramer’s Native Girl Syndrome is based on her grandmother’s experience as an aboriginal woman living on the streets in Winnipeg, and matching this very personal story is an equally personal viewer’s experience. Tonight, the audience invades the performers' personal space as Lara Kramer asks us to peek inside the daily lives of an oppressed people.

Angie Cheng © Sandra Lynn Bélanger
Angie Cheng
© Sandra Lynn Bélanger

Karina Iraola and Angie Cheng play two native women. As the audience files in, they are already on stage setting the mood. Both dressed in mismatched layers of drab clothing and pushing carts that hold the contents of their lives, they jerk and twitch on the far left corner of a brightly lit room. The influence of David Pressault, mentor to the piece, is already obvious in the choice of music, which is more soundscape than song. We are set in a typical day in any large Canadian city, watching two homeless women struggle with societal pressures.

The dancers make only subtle movements. Their general trajectory is taking them to the opposite side of the room, but the journey there is no easy feat. They stumble along drunkenly, propping themselves up on their carts and stopping now and again as they lose their way or forget where they’re supposed to be going. A quarter of an hour goes by in a flash as our eyes dart from the costumes to the props to the dancers and back again, discovering something new everywhere we look. This is a dance filled with symbolism that is up to the audience to discover and interpret.

Both women seem undeniably connected as they play with their centers of gravity, stretching out, covering up and twisting, in a slow, tormenting narrative with their carts as their only life-support. Themes of alcoholism and drug abuse become more evident as Angie marks her face and arms in red lipstick, before shouting obscenities at someone only she can see, and Karina drifts into another world where a thin plastic sheet passes for clothing and sucking-in the plastic bag replaces the need for air.

You don’t realize that these women never actually interact until, fed up with Angie’s screaming, Karina starts yelling back. The dreamy, hazy mood, that until now covered the performance like a soapy film on grimy bath water, is broken as the two women finally break into full bodied movements, dripping with rage. The audience, previously content to observe, is now put on the spot as feelings of guilt run through the room and most people squirm in their seats, uncomfortable at how familiar Angie’s anger is, and at how they can’t just turn and walk away as they usually would from a street dweller’s accusations.

The yelling reaches a peak and both women collapse, exhausted. We are transported to the side of a highway, the sound of cars zooming past in the background mixing with urban clinking and clanging. The two women have direct interaction for the very first time as Angie waddles up to Karina and asks to share her beer. It’s a sweet moment as the two women whisper and giggle, and it completely breaks the tension in the room. We remember that they too are people just like you and I, with hearts and aspirations.

The moment ends as quickly as it began, and the women part ways, falling back into their self-destructive habits. Karina seems to want to make a change for herself, but, after being shot down by an old friend in a theatrical conversation up on the gallery, she finds solace in her old ways. Angie seems too far removed from reality for us to hope for her to ever have a functioning role in society, but we cross our fingers for Karina. Having made some sort of decision, she picks up her life’s belongings in her cart and moves away from Angie, who lies in a daze in a pile of stuff.

Native Girl Syndrome is performance art that uses dancers as actors. It feels out of place to watch this story unfold on a dance-floor, instead of in a museum or cultural center, which likely accounts in part for the smaller than usual turnout. Karina, clearly the main character, is not as captivating as Angie, simply because she is too beautiful. This is a grim story that loses some of its authenticity by the fact that Karina is a gorgeous, talented young woman no matter how hard she tries to grunge it up. Yet, at the end of the show the heavy silence proves that the message was effective at spurring a reflection in all of us.