Erica Tremblay on FANCY DANCE – Leslie Combemale interviews

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When Fancy Dance was released in 2023 at Sundance, it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and lauded by critics. The film went on to great acclaim on the festival circuit, including a special mention at Outfest and a win for Best Narrative Feature at the New York’s LGBT film festival, NewFest.

Fancy Dance follows Jax (Lily Gladstone) and Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson), an indigenous aunt and her niece who are navigating the disappearance of their respective sister and daughter, Tawi. Although they hope to find her sooner, Roki believes she’ll see Tawi at a regional powwow in which they’ve won awards as a mother/daughter team in the fancy dance category.

The film’s co-writer, director and producer Erica Tremblay had been working on the screenplay with writing partner Miciana Alise for years. They’ve crafted, re-crafted, and tightened the story as they processed it through several writer’s labs, including one at Sundance. The attention to detail and story shows. It has garnered at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, and its release through theaters on June 21st and streaming on June 28th via Apple TV+ is much anticipated. AWFJ lead contributor Leslie Combemale discussed the project with Tremblay in this exclusive interview:

LESLIE COMBEMALE: Fancy Dance deals with a number of topics that are a part of indigenous life, both good and bad, and that includes the subject of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, which has reached epidemic proportions in reservations across the US and in Canada.

ERICA TREMBLAY: One of the reasons it was important for my co-writer MicianaAlise and I to talk about the MMIW topic is that as Indigenous women, we can’t go on social media without seeing the missing posters. It’s something that’s a part of everyday life that people are going missing. There are people who experience violence, and there’s no justice. We wanted to have a discussion around that, but find a way that wouldn’t really traumatize or in any way trigger our communities. That’s how we came to a story about this woman who has a missing sister, and is left as the unlikely caretaker to her young niece. The two of them are grappling with this very traumatic loss of this woman, but Fancy Dance is grounded in their connection and their love for each other, their perseverance, and their ability to hold on to each other and to their culture in order to survive.

Still from FANCY DANCE

LC: A moving aspect of Fancy Dance is that Tawi is an imperfect person, as so many women who disappear in the world are. That doesn’t make her any less important to the world and to those she loves and who love her. It’s very much like real life in that respect.

ET: The missing sister Tawi is a sex worker, but she’s also a mother and a sister. She’s a human being who laughs and loves and had a great vibrant life. Part of having Tawi be a sex worker, dancer at a strip club, and a drug dealer on the side was we wanted to show the humanity of people who come from all walks of life, and may not necessarily be making what some might say are good decisions, but regardless of what decisions a person makes in this world, they deserve life and justice. They deserve to live and breathe and be safe. Creating characters that only make decisions that larger society deems appropriate, how realistic is that? To us, it was really important to showcase women in all their beautiful intricacies in this film, and really say everyone, including women like Tawi, deserve justice and so do their families.

LC: As a multi-hyphenate, why do you feel it is so important for you to not only direct and write projects, but produce them?

ET: As a filmmaker, you want to be the one making the decisions on how your film gets made, especially if your film is about a lived experience or a community that only you on that producing panel have access to. You have to be able to hire people with the same vision, and a voice and experiences that comes out of that shared experience. They have their own perspective within that to bring to the table, but they have that understanding. It’s so important.

LC: The score for Fancy Dance is written by indigenous musician Samantha Crain, and it’s her first score. How did you come to collaborate with her?

ET: When we were thinking about score, I immediately thought of Samantha Crain. Having worked on Reservation Dogs, I had heard some of her work on the show, and I’m also just a big fan of her as a recording artist. We reached out to her, and it was such a wonderful collaboration. I had said to her, “I’m really interested in bringing in vocal percussive elements, and thinking of seed songs and ceremonial songs that women sing, and bringing in that style of music.” Samantha took that as a starting point and just ran with it. And it’s beautiful. There are moments when you are on the edge of your seat and you’re hearing the percussive elements of the female voice, and then in the softer, more intimate moments, you’re hearing the lullaby, and there just wasn’t the need to do a lot of back and forth, because we were both so on the same page.

Still from FANCY DANCE

LC: Folks who watch the film are going to be so moved by Theresa Bear Fox’s song Sky World, sung by Teio Swathe, which is played during the end credits. What’s the story of you finding and using that song?

ET: There was this viral YouTube video that went around of Teio Swathe doing this cover of a really moving song. She recorded it in a kitchen or a living room, and her voice is so beautiful. It’s an a cappella version of the song that’s filmed with a phone, and you can hear a child playing in the background. I said, “This is the song I want at the end.” They asked if I wanted to use the original version or rerecord, and I said, “No, I want to use the version that this young woman filmed on her phone.” It feels real. It’s the version that you see being shared in indigenous spaces when someone passes on, and it’s so beautiful, so we just reached out to Theresa Bear Fox and to Teio Swathe and the version you hear at the end of the film is literally just stripped from the viral YouTube video of her cover of that song, sitting in her kitchen.

LC: You created a story in which Jax and Roki switch back and forth between English and their language, Cayuga, but there are only a few fluent speakers left in your community. You spent three years in a language immersion program to learn Cayuga yourself, then included it as part of their story. What drew you to learning the Cayuga language?

ET: As a person who walks through the world as a woman, I recognized that something was off at a very young age. Something has always felt off or just wrong. I was the smart, nerdy kid, and just to have people recognize my talent or what was special about me was always a fight. It’s been a fight to get to every point in my career. It’s like we live in some sort of wacky dystopia. The fact that women, queer folks, and trans folks are not held In equal regard in this world has always felt to me to be just completely unnatural. We can all feel that it’s not right, and so my whole life I’ve just been searching for what would that answer be, and in some of the stories from my culture, I could see little glimmers. At the same time, there’s been a few hundred years of influence on my culture and community by white supremacy and by the patriarchy, and things are steeped in misogyny in the same way that the entire world is steeped in misogyny, and anti-transness, and anti-Blackness, and all of these things we live with every day.

LC: Absolutely. How did learning the language impact your ways of seeing life and your work, especially as it relates to patriarchy?

ET: When I started the my language immersion program, the language itself hasn’t been in daily use by my people for decades and decades. In many ways, when a language isn’t being used, it’s stunted or it stands still. Because of that, I think Cayuga still holds this nearly pristine view into what that culture looked like. Based on how the language itself is set up, you can see the value systems. You can see the things that are important to a culture by how they express themselves. Cayuga is a verb-based language, which means everything is in motion with each other. Everything is interconnected. Plants and things out in the world aren’t objects, they’re verbs. They’re interacting with the world. They’re interacting with you. When you look at that, and you recognize how interconnected all of those things are, you can see how the culture itself treated the world and thought of their own interconnectedness with other things, including objects and animals and plants and everything else. That beauty is definitely there when it comes to how people are viewed, and how important women are. For example, if you don’t know the gender of a person, it’s automatically a she. If it’s a mixed gender group, they’re all she. One of the words that we have for Chief is “She Holds Him by the Horns”. You can see how just in the power structure of what a chief was, how intrinsic the women’s opinion and the women’s relationship to those things were in the language and in the words.

LC: Learning and being steeped in that had to represent a sort of a seismic shift for you.

ET: It really was. I didn’t grow up speaking Cayuga. We lost the last speaker in my community around 1989, so I didn’t grow up with the language. Doing the language immersion program, it was just this beautiful A-ha! moment, where I was able to see inside, and see a world that feels so different than the traumatic layers of shit that we have to walk through day to day. It allowed me to see my own intrinsic value, which can be sometimes so hard to recognize and to believe in in this world. It was this beautiful breath of fresh air, and a much needed point of inspiration for me, not just to make Fancy Dance, but for me to aspire to live that way, and to imagine the possibility that we will potentially return to that kind of life someday.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website, CinemaSiren.com, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's TheCredits.org, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at AWFJ.org. Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.