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Santee Smith on tour with Transmigration, 2015. Photo: Amie Roussel, Carousel Studios

Music and dance are celebrations of Life, the body is a vessel for the spirit and the artist is a culture bearer.

MUSKRAT had the opportunity to speak with Mohawk choreographer and Artistic Director, Santee Tekaronhiáhkhwa Smith about Kaha:wi Dance Theatre and her vision on Indigenous arts education: 

MM: What inspired you to establish Kaha:wi Dance Theatre and what is the significance of the word Kaha:wi in your language?

SS: For the most part, dance has always been a part of my life—a child lost in a dream world of movement—and maintaining connection to the Onkwehon:we ceremonial cycle in which song and dance are fundamental. After my formal dance training at Canada’s National Ballet School, abandoning classical ballet, completing university degrees and theatre training, I began my professional choreographic career in 1996 when I was commissioned to create two dances inspired by the Onkwehon:we cultural stories of Sky Woman and the Three Sisters. Back in the studio, embodying stories that reflected and represented my identity, reignited my passion. I worked as an independent choreographer from 1996-2004. Throughout this time I had the opportunity to work with many Indigenous dancers and choreographers at places like the Banff Centre’s Aboriginal Dance Project. I dedicated six years of research and creation to produce my first major production Kaha:wi—a family creation story—in 2004. The following year with the support of the founding Board of Directors, I was able to shift from an independent artist to become the full-time Artistic Director of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre.

Kaha:wi is an Onkwehon:we, Kenien’kehá:ka (Mohawk Nation) word meaning “to carry”. Kaha:wi is a traditional family name from my maternal ancestral line that had been passed on over generations in the Kenien’kehá:ka, o’tarahson’a (Turtle Clan). It was the name of my grandmother, Rita Vyse, and in a naming context means “she carries”. At the time of her death the name Kaha:wi was passed on through ceremony to my daughter, Semiah Kaha:wi Smith. Onkwehon: we recycle family names following maternal blood lines to honour the continuous cycle of life and women who are inextricably linked to the womb of creation.

The Honouring. Photo: David Hou.

MM: What are the tensions that exist between traditional and contemporary Indigenous dance? Where does Kaha:wi Dance Theatre fit?

SS: I try not to delineate a categorical distinction between traditional and contemporary Indigenous dance. Creating the dichotomy of traditional and contemporary can be limiting on creativity and how we can interact and access both. From my perspective, dance, song, oration, performance, and art travel along a continuum that is flexible. Kaha:wi Dance Theatre is a part of the continuum. My work as an artist and human being is a part of the continuum. We hold space within the continuum for a time, as did our ancestors, as will the generations to come. Indigenous artists’ role in the community has not changed much over the years; we are still storytellers bending time; shape shifters interpreting dream and symbol. As an artist, I am aware of the stored ancestral coding in my body, the memories of my ancestors, and strive to access this through my dance in the present. From this perspective tradition is not static but is living.

MM: Are there common themes in your productions, and how does being an Indigenous woman inform your dance?

SS: The embodiment of story and symbol is a recurring theme throughout my work. There are immense cultural teachings embedded in the metaphors and symbolism held within our First Nation stories. I am also compelled to explore the human experience—transformation and transcendence—Indigenous understanding and experience in life—spirituality navigating the seen and unseen. The Onkwehon:we Creation Story has been a central inspiration and thematic narrative in my work.

As a konkwehon:we, creator, life-sustainer—a woman—my role as artist is really about acknowledging and celebrating that gift of harnessing creation within my body. I come from a long line of grandmothers who supported their families through their arts and crafts. Even through their creativity in how to survive they maintained life in the [most] beautiful way possible. Each time I come to dance, I ask that the creative life force that is seeded in my womb speak, move, and radiate inward and outward.

I enjoy the visioning process of each production from initial seed of creation to final manifestation performing for audiences. Each work holds a world, environment, life and language of its own. Throughout my investigation and experimentation with movement, I have been able to craft a choreographic style seamlessly embodies both Indigenous movement aesthetic, and new movement and performance.

NeoindigenA. Photo: David Hou

MM: In what ways does Kaha:wi Dance Theatre engage and promote arts education, and how do you hope it will impact both dancers and audiences?

Kaha:wi Dance Theatre supports process. For me, process is investing in the state of becoming. From this perspective, Kaha:wi Dance Theatre (KDT) is committed to nurturing and invigorating creativity inside the company and out. We are especially driven to create opportunities, access, awareness and education for the arts. As a part of our legacy building, since 2009 KDT has launched several of our education/training programs fostering creativity, health and cultural consciousness.

Our training and outreach programs include: KDT Summer Intensive (SI), a month-long training intensive that offers contemporary technique, Indigenous creativity, artistic dialogue and creative training systems for new dance performance; March Break Performance Camps for youth; workshops for all levels and ages and master classes.

I hope that through our performances, teaching, and connecting with communities we can help to promote understanding and affirmation of Indigenous existence, culture and worldviews; the sacredness of our performance and Onkwehon:we understanding of music/dance, body, and the role of an artist. Music and dance are celebrations of Life, the body is a vessel for the spirit and the artist is a culture bearer.

As an artist, I am aware of the stored ancestral coding in my body, the memories of my ancestors, and strive to access this through my dance in the present. From this perspective tradition is not static but is living.

MM: Do you have advice for youth considering a career in dance, and who should apply for the Kaha:wi Dance Theatre summer intensive?

SS: To youth considering dance as a career, I would first ask them: Is dance your passion?

To have a career in dance requires working with your body as an instrument, like an athlete this takes dedication, practice, never-ending training, and sacrifice. I would suggest gaining as much experience as possible from different forms and styles of dance and performance, finding the best teachers/mentors, and to work hard. Invest in training styles that maximize body awareness and support one in discovering how to dance with the body you have been gifted. Body awareness is key but so is performance ability. Performance training and understanding is hugely important. For me it’s less about being a dance technician and more about being an articulate and generous artist.

Talent is not everything and opportunities just don’t magically appear, so much of the work as a dancer is pro-active. You have to believe in your dream and make decisions everyday to get closer to where you want to be… to send out your desire to the universe, ask for guidance, seek out positivity and “do” the actions to see your dreams fulfilled. Finding one’s dancing body is a life long journey.

Transmigration tour, 2015. Photo: Amie Roussel , Carousel Studios.
Transmigration tour, 2015. Photo: Amie Roussel, Carousel Studios.

MM: What are you working on now?

SS: Kaha:wi Dance Theatre is coming up to the end of our 10th Anniversary National Tour of TransMigration*.

We are looking forward to a very busy summer with a premiere of our TO2015 Panamania commission Tkaronto Bounce sport/dance mash-up, Medicine Bear work for families and youth tour, KDT Summer Intensive August 3-28, 2015 in Toronto, and our 10th Anniversary celebration event.

[We’re also working on a new] creation in development, Re-Quickening is a multidisciplinary performance ritual examining International Indigenous women’s issues and process of rejuvenating the seeds of feminine power. Re-Quickening will premiere in spring 2016 at Harbourfront Centre and has an amazing list of collaborators including Monique Mojica, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, among others.

Kaha:wi Dance Theatre is a contemporary Indigenous dance company founded in 2001 by Mohawk choreographer and Artistic Director, Santee Tekaronhiáhkhwa Smith. From Six Nations—where she still maintains an office, as well as one in Toronto—Santee had a vision to create a dance company that would be a centre for creativity, innovation, artistry, and expression that reflects, honours and celebrates Indigenous culture.

The reception of Kaha:wi’s performances has been grand, and the success of these productions has helped to propel Indigenous artistry even further into the mainstream. Kaha:wi Dance Theatre has been reviewed by the Globe and Mail, and has received many prominent dance awards over the years including the National Museum of the American Indian Expressive Arts Award for TransMigration—a production that just recently toured across Canada in celebration of its 10th Anniversary.

Some of the Transmigration Cast. Photo: Amie Roussel, Carousel Studios

*TransMigration is a visually raw and engaging story inspired by the life and paintings of iconic Ojibwe shaman-artist Norval Morrisseau. TransMigration is a dialogue, a response to Morrisseau’s vision, struggles and brilliance as an artist. TransMigration celebrates Morrisseau’s visual language through dance, music and design. Vibrating with colour, energy, and sensuality, TransMigration is a reflection of humanity and the power of spirit to transform and transcend.

PUB_headshotSantee Smith is a member of the Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan, from Six Nations of the Grand, Ontario. Santee works as a choreographer and dancer committed to sharing traditional and contemporary stories of her Indigenous culture. She holds a masters degree in dance from York University, attended the National Ballet School of Canada from 1982 to 1988, and expanded her knowledge of human movement by completing a degree in kinesiology at McMaster University.

In 1996, Santee choreographed SkyWoman and Three Sisters for a National Film Board documentary called The Gift. She was part of the Aboriginal Arts Chinook Winds dance project at The Banff Centre and has been a dancer, choreographer, and guest artist since then. She also performed in BONES: An Aboriginal Dance Opera, another Aboriginal Arts dance project at Banff. She is actively involved in aboriginal contemporary dance in Canada and the United States. She has performed for documentary film and television.

Her choreography has been showcased at numerous festivals in Canada, the United States, and abroad. Her work has been showcased on the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN), Seventh Generation, and First Nations Arts and Music. In 2003 and 2005, she was a featured dancer and choreographer for the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards show. Santee successfully self-presented the world premiere production of Kaha:wi at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto in 2004 and at The Banff Centre in 2007.

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