Indigenous Artist Spotlight: Cris Derksen

Ontario Presents and its member presenting organizations recognize the importance of presenting Indigenous artists, stories and culture as part of their presenting practice. As we continue to encourage the respectful presentation of Indigenous art, we will be featuring an Indigenous artist each month in our e-newsletter and blog. Our sincere thanks to Denise Bolduc for conceiving of and continuing to support this Spotlight Series. 

Started in 2018, the Indigenous Artist Spotlight series is intended to foster greater awareness and understanding of the strength and diversity of Indigenous art available in Ontario and beyond. As Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists face an incredibly difficult time, we will continue to spotlight inspiring Indigenous artists. 

Find all of our past Spotlight interviews here.

This month we spoke with Cris Derksen!

Cris Dersen Headshot

Hello! My name is Chris Derksen, and I am half Cree and half Mennonite, originally from Treaty 8, or Alberta; North Tall Cree Reserve on my dad’s side and Buffalo Head Hills on my mom’s side. I like to call myself a “Creemennite” and I currently live in Tkoronto or Toronto, the Dish with One Spoon territory in Parkdale. I’m a cellist and a composer, and I am super lucky to work in all sorts of different artistic formats from theatre to dance to film to classical composition.

What projects do you have coming up this year?

I’m doing a cute three-minute piece for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra that will come out in April. That one I wrote based on Parkdale, my neighborhood. I am also working on a choral piece, a 15-minute chamber piece. I’m also doing a Spotify podcast and one more thing that I’m working on is, Indigenous Fashion Week by Arts Alliance in Toronto. I am composing for their runway and their videos. That comes out in June.

I am working on an upcoming album that’s going to be called The Visit, and it’s my fourth studio album. It’s a little bit of a neoclassical meets regular electronic, indigenous kind of sound. We’re hoping to have it out in August. It’s already been pushed back a little bit because of Covid, but we’ll see if it actually makes it to August, but it will drop sometime this year.

How has the experience been composing for the Indigenous Fashion Week?

It’s a super fun project. It’s indigenous Fashion Week for Toronto and I get to choose four artists to work with. I have to create Sonic soundscapes that align with what the designers have created. It’s all about different seasons and this year, as well as our relationships with each other, our families, chosen families and to our communities. It’s a fun way to bring folks together.

Where do you find your inspiration for these soundscapes? 

I don’t know. There is one that I’m doing that is specifically about relationships, family and gathering in the roles and responsibilities and accountabilities of folks. One of the runway shows is about Seven Meat Sharks- it’s more traditional and more indigenous leaning. But then we also have one called A Letter From Home that’s going to be way more commercial so I’m going to use a lot of beats. It is a modern adaptation of the old. I pulled up some things from traditional but also kept things fresh and contemporary. I drew my inspiration from the famous Tick Tock dances for that one.

And then there’s another one that’s called Eternal Imagining that is more futuristic, it has a lot of beats in it but it’s also a bit dark, a bit hilariously observed with ominous undertones.  

I like the fact that you’re crossing sectors. You have projects in the fashion industry, within the music industry and you talk about dance, theatre and film as well. I imagine that you even cross different musical genres but I’m wondering, if you could change or challenge one thing about the arts industry, what would that be?

One thing, Hey?

A lot of the work I do now is based in and around the classical sector of music, and I’m working super hard to help Canadian orchestras create programs and events that look more Canadian. For example, the orchestra is pretty whitewashed, and a little bit old. I’m working hard from within to change the orchestra so they start to look and sound multicultural. Since I began this work, it is a lot more colored and, in my opinion, a little bit more exciting. 

I’ve been working hard to determine how the orchestra can change itself or help itself to look more like Canada and to represent Canada a little bit better.

What does trying to reflect what Canada actually looks like practically entail?

It’s a lot of personal/ one-on-one work and conversations. I sit on a couple of boards and I work with the Calgary Philharmonic. There are those one-on-ones and relationship-building settings where I can lend my knowledge and perspective. I think that there are lots of artists that deserve a chance to be heard on those large stages, and we need to keep those doors open. It’s not fast work but I do see a shift happening within these organizations.

Have you been doing anything interesting besides your work to keep yourself positive and happy during the winter?

The best thing I did was I got a dog. I’ve had her for a year and a half, she’s two years old now. And she’s the thing that gets me out of the house. Definitely, the best thing I’ve done for my health.

She’s a Mexican rescue, a Xolo. They’re often hairless and she’s about 35 pounds. She’s got a long neck and she’s very athletic ; super into the ball. She makes sure that I leave the house even when it’s icy. She’s pretty good at her job. 

Find Cris on: Facebook | Instagram

Thank you to Cris for sharing with us!
Photo Credits: tanja Tiziana