Spotlight on: The Unboxed, Unlabelled, and Unafraid Aiza Ntibarikure and Dayane Ntibarikure

By Caleigh Crow

“She was born dancing, my dad says,” Aiza says with a sly look at Dayane, “It’s true! He’s always said that.” It’s clearly an old family yarn, the kind that might elicit a preteen’s eye roll, but Dayane returns a graceful smile. It’s a learn-to-love-it story passed down from parents, grandparents, aunties; the kind of story that eventually everyone in the family knows by rote, and as people get older, they cease to be the subjects and start becoming the tellers. These little familiarities rang clear as a bell as I was talking with Aiza and Dayane; sisters in every way – blood, art, and soul.

“What I want to say about Dayane is that every single thing she said she wanted to accomplish, she’s just done it,” Aiza says firmly, recounting her sister’s previous work. Dayane and Aiza both landed roles in Hairspray shortly after Dayane made the decision to act full time. “Boom! Hairspray,” Aiza says.

Then Dayane decided she wanted a lead role. “Boom! Sister Act. She played the lead role in the Just for Laughs musical of the summer, the biggest one in Quebec,” continues Aiza proudly. “And now she’s directing! When she puts her mind to something she just does it.”

“If we’re going to do this we’re going to be here all day,” Dayane interjects, slightly sheepish, “I could talk about how my sister inspires me! You know, you want to be an artist but you think you need a plan B, plan C, and my sister was just doing her thing. I looked at her and thought, I want to do that.”

Dayane and Aiza were both first introduced to theatre through musicals in grade school in Montreal, but as they continued their studies and later joined the artist workforce, neither of them were interested in relegating themselves to one kind of performance or another. Perhaps it was musical theatre’s marriage of the big three performance elements, theatre, dance, and music, that informed their holistic approach to the arts.

“I’m so interested in song as dance, or chant, or voice. I can’t see them being apart,” says Dayane. “That’s how we’ve been telling stories since the dawn of time. As a director that’s what I’m interested in. I want to see how we can make that natural, because it is natural. Even in speech, there is a song in speech. There is a chant in speech and there’s a specific way people move. How can we make that into something more?” As Dayane speaks, Aiza nods in agreement, “The fact that I studied dance helps me overall, as a performer,” says Dayane, who advises everyone to take a dance class, especially if you’re a classic emphatic wallflower.

“Anything that you like, that you find interesting. It loosens you up, it gets you out of your head and inside the rest of your body.” She concludes, “It’s such an important part of any piece. We can’t underestimate the power of it. It’s a whole package. It’s why I love performing arts.” It’s difficult to find one career so varied at such an early stage, never mind two, and yet here are Aiza and Dayane, who tell me several times during our interview that they don’t believe in labelling themselves as anything – as actors, musicians, directors – and they credit this approach for their continuing success, ongoing work, and most importantly, peace of mind. “I always try to remember that at the end of the day, I’m an artist and I can do it all” says Aiza. “I realise now that it’s good to have a sense of what I want but then I just release it as much as possible and I allow life to bring it to me, and I realise the bounty that is available to me when I surrender to what’s happening.”

“That’s one part of the equation, and another part is, and this is something else I learned from Aiza, is don’t be afraid to say no,” Dayane remarks. “When there’s a project that comes to you and it’s not good for you, it’s good for somebody else. Sometimes you go see a show, especially with my director’s eye, you look at an actor and you can see they’re a good performer but you can tell they don’t want to be in this show.”

“Doing something that you enjoy is such an important part of what we do. Being human. Not just as artists, but every human in the world should do something they enjoy,” Aiza advises.

“We’re human beings,” Dayane says, “Not human doings.”

Aiza Ntibarikure & Dayane Ntibarikure

Left: Aiza Ntibarikure. Photo by Sabrina Reeves Right: Dayane Ntibarikure. Photo by Andreanne Gauthier

Dayane studied dance and music in CEGEP, all while honing her acting practice by taking workshops, auditioning and acting in plays, which continued all the way up until as recently as last year, when Dayane was accepted into Black Theatre Workshop’s Artist Mentorship Program, opting to participate as a director, what she calls her “new tip” as she hadn’t yet made a professional foray into that field. She reflects positively on the experience, saying, “I owe a lot to Black Theatre Workshop because they invest so much in the artists in the program. Ever since I did the program I’m directing all the time.” The transition to move from centre stage to the director’s chair doesn’t feel sudden to Dayane, on the contrary she describes the change as “completely natural”. She says, “It got to a point where I was always looking at what people were doing in shows I was acting in and asking myself ‘why are we doing things this way’?” Without missing a beat, Aiza steps in.

“Or she’d be calling things out before the director himself or herself would fix it. Dayane would say: ‘that doesn’t work’ and then weeks later the director would say ‘oh that doesn’t work.’”

A moment passes before Dayane and Aiza say, in unison, “Called it!”

They present a united front without any hint of mimicry. Rather than one sister parrot the other out of sibling devotion, when musing on a theme they tread different paths, expand on each other’s ideas; when one sister steps into the tangential, the other is happy to explore whichever new direction the conversation takes. They can finish each other’s sentences perfectly, then seamlessly returning to their own perspectives and reflections.

Dayane continues, “When I finally made that shift, I realised that there’s many things that need to be put in place, and even though it doesn’t work right away, you have

to let it not work, and then fix it. But there are other things -”

“That need to be fixed right away,” Aiza finishes.

“Yeah for sure,” Dayane agrees, “It was super natural. In alignment with everything.”

The pair did a school tour with Black Theatre Workshop called Binti’s Journey, which resulted in the sisters themselves journeying to as far away as Nunavut. “Fellow actors know what a school tour is about, I didn’t know!” Aiza laughs, “That was a real school tour. The beauty is we got to fly to Iqaluit and besides being cold we went and had a really great time. We held a workshop with the teens there who are not very exposed to theatre, and I thought, I’m here with my sister in Nunavut! What is going on?”

“I am so grateful that we’ve been there but it was a place that was –“

“Not even on my radar!” say the pair simultaneously.

“It was lovely,” Dayane concludes.

Aiza, for her part, is still taking things as they come. Aside from playing new officer Roxanne Dionne in the fourth season of Bravo’s hit show 19-2 and landing a long list of TV roles and commercials this past year, she’s been busy working on a lot of music, having released her first single ‘Criminal’ this summer, and travelling to LA and Guadeloupe to participate in a variety of music festivals with other established artists. “Last year, I landed a role that changed my life forever and I’m so thankful for the experience. Playing Roxanne surrounded by such an amazing cast and production team helped set the bar higher for myself as an actress. As for my music career, I’d say it’s just the start of a nice little transition. I’ve been focused on my acting for a while but now it’s a nice blend of both,” she says. “I don’t need to box myself in.”

 Her unboxed undertaking has led to frequently working with youth, not something she went out of her way to do, but has reaped the benefits of her experiences nonetheless. “I love talking to young people because they’re so bright, and so raw. That’s another thing about performing for young audiences, is they give it to you straight,” she says, grinning, and Dayane laughs in agreement, “If they don’t believe you, you can hear them in the audience. I’ll admit that at times there’s something comforting about a nice polite adult audience who claps at the right time, and laughs at the right time, when you’ve been jabbed at by young audiences for a while,” she says fondly. Aiza recently had the opportunity to attend a conference called Women in the Arts, which brought a panel comprised of artists of all sorts – a DJ, a dancer, a singer songwriter and radio host – to a school on the West Island, when it occurred to her just how much working with youth has been an unexpected part of her career. “It’s been such a huge part of my path without me realising; I’ve done a lot of theatre for young audiences shows, a lot of talk backs.” Aiza considers, “When you’re given the chance to talk about what you do, you realise you’ve been doing it for longer than you think. I have a few tips to give! I want to use my skills and passion to create something that’s going to inspire and uplift people somehow. If we don’t do that with the arts, there’s something missing.”

Besides setting out to work with youth, Aiza is reaping and sowing simultaneously. She concludes, “Eventually you can take that art and turn it into an act of service.”

Alternatively, Aiza and Dayane tell me there’s a lot about working in the arts that they just don’t buy. They don’t buy into the “starving artist” mentality and they don’t really believe in “scarcity” of work. “I was given a gift, and I’ve learned to hone it. Because of my very introspective nature and the people I’ve had around me, I have a certain level of confidence that I’m proud of and that I work for every day. Because of that mindset, I think doors have been opening in a way that they may not for somebody else, not for lack of talent, or for lack of drive or vision, but because of limiting thoughts they may have about what’s possible. That’s what’s been helping me move forward. We learn to play small or say sorry for being good at something. But I think that the more we can learn to shake those fear-based thoughts and replace them with love, the more we show up, and the more we can accomplish and be happy,” Aiza muses.

Their statements catch me off guard – I consider myself very much a starving artist, though not by choice, but because in my experience, work is scarce. In the hours and days after our interview, I give their remarks some thought and concluded that the sisters have a point. Maybe work is scarce, maybe it isn’t. Maybe there’s one big reason for it or a thousand small reasons. Either way, why dwell on it when there’s life to be lived?

In keeping with this attitude, the pair have some guidance to offer workaholic artists: stop. Dayane advises, “Have something you do that’s just for fun. If it’s rollerblading or whatever, go have some fun. It will feed your process!”

“This false notion that you have to keep plowing through even though it hurts,” Aiza agrees, saying, “I took a step back, I focused on my music, I spent time with my family, I cried, I wrote, I slept, I ate, I went back to basics. I came back energized. Then I was showing up again, I was feeling like myself, so I started booking jobs like crazy. That’s another warped notion that we have: don’t you ever give up! Don’t you dare! Never give up!”

“But it’s not giving up! It’s letting a thing breathe,” Dayane points out, “It’s like that in the rehearsal room too. If it’s not working, leave that thing alone, move on to the next thing, or if you can’t move on, call it a day. Come back tomorrow and for some reason it all falls into place! You have to trust in the process. Ebb and flow. That’s just the way it goes.”