That process of Kaha:wi set the foundation for how I create work now. I started to discover how it is that I could blend traditional and contemporary dance, the physicality and the language of it, and it evolved. It was a natural progression of working with the steps, almost in improvisation, and sensing where does my body want to go? and finding the essence of that movement again, the traditional steps' connection to the ground, and how that translated and moved through the body. I did a lot of investigating, in the studio by myself, and then with dancers. The movement does become a fusion. There's something different about it in its contemporary form; it is an intersection of contemporary and traditional maybe the footwork is different than you would have done traditionally. It's an evolution, again, always guided by that overall vision of the piece.

Kaha:wi Dance Theatre is very much about acknowledging the aboriginal dance aspect; Kaha:wi is an outlet, a vehicle to promote contemporary aboriginal dance, and spread awareness about culture. As an artist, that's what I enjoy doing.

Kaha:wi was organic in that it was created naturally. Because it was so very much Iroquoian based, and I was working with dancers who didn't have a background in Iroquoian dance, I had to teach everybody how to move in that way. Being trained dancers, they discovered their own movement, and were able to ingest the choreography and develop it more.


Another piece, The Threshing Floor, was co-created with Michael Greyeyes. We consciously managed that idea of traditional and contemporary innovation by going against it. We wanted to go against everything that was perceived to be “aboriginal dance”. The only reason that The Threshing Floor became an aboriginal dance is because Michael and I co-created it. It came from us, two aboriginal people, as the key conceivers, working in collaboration with Shelley Niro, a Mohawk multi-media artist who did some film for us. For The Threshing Floor, we chose not to follow any pre-conceived notions of aboriginal-ness; we consciously chose not to have any traditional clothing, costuming or music. We chose very old-school, blues-inspired jazz, and there was no traditional legend or story. We chose to create a new work just by deciding on what we wanted to do. What was it that we wanted to say with this piece? We brainstormed about a couple, a contemporary couple. They could be any nationality, but our idea also rang true for us as aboriginal people in our communities. You don't see that in mainstream media a love relationship between aboriginal people. We wanted to highlight that. The choreography as well did not harken back to any traditional steps, it was all conceived in the studio, with Michael and I working back and forth and co-creating. It became very much a theatrical piece, guided by the vision and the content, and was completely new. It's part of the Kaha:wi Dance Theatre repertoire now.

I enjoy creating a language for each piece. For Here on Earth I created a special language, which comes from the vision of that work. At this stage we have a lot of different works that have very specific goals and visions; I don't really want to reproduce the same kind of choreography or movement. I think if you look across a big span of things you'll see commonalities in my works, coming from that indigenous perspective of being grounded, and very conscious of the energy that you put into the ground and how it travels through the body. Also, there's an element of individual dance versus community dance or group dance. I really like doing ensemble work, but at the same time I do really like individual expression. It's the same with our social dances, since they're all community dances. Within each group dance, everybody has their own version of what they're doing, so it's open for individual expression. It is not too regimented, and the use of breath is important.

I work with dancers from different styles. Some are Limón trained, most of them are Graham-based; I never studied formal western modern technique. I've taken a few classes, that's it. I think I've taken five classes from David Earle and I have never taken a Limón dance class. But a lot of my movement, because of working with the expansive core, evokes Graham. People say, “Oh that's so Graham!” I don't know it's the natural way that my body likes to work. It's my natural evolution. Ballet was my background and then traditional dance. I went to the Banff Centre for the Arts and learned from a lot of traditional teachers, everything from Inuit dancing to powwow dancing to Mayan dancing. I enjoyed that. I really liked investigating theatre and discovering commonalities among indigenous dance forms. I think this obviously filters through my work, and so does the ballet, with the lines and turns and jumps, elements that are not seen in traditional dance in the same way.

There is a term in use, “contemporary aboriginal dance”. For me, contemporary just means new. It doesn't reference any modern dance technique or form and aboriginal just means that it is created by an aboriginal person. So it's new aboriginal dance. My work falls into that category it is an evolving field of dance. There are a few common things I like to highlight when I'm speaking about the work I call them the four “Cs”.

Continuity is the big one because I'm conscious of continuing culture, not keeping it static. In the aboriginal community, people are wary about things being kept in museums. A lot of our culture is still locked away in museums in Europe. So for me, continuation of culture is important. That includes acknowledging that our culture is alive and thriving and evolving and as artists we are pushing that forward. People ask, “Well what does your community think about your doing contemporary work?” I think there are roles in our community for everybody. Traditionalists will keep and maintain the traditions; they have that role. There are also roles for the artists who are free to create and express the limitless potential for creativity. I take on the work of continuing to move the culture forward.

Then Complexity. I can create The Threshing Floor, which is contemporary and abstract, and I can also create A Story Before Time, which is very much based on the Iroquois creation story. It's very literal and has some specific Iroquoian dances, Stomp Dance and a women's shuffle dance. I'm working on a new piece now called Transmigration, and that will be another fusion, working with an orchestra. I've commissioned a classical composer and she's going to be bridging the gap between contemporary western-based and traditional music as well. I think that complexity within our world is very important to celebrate and acknowledge. Across Canada there are many different nations and specific dances for each nation dance is dynamic and very diverse within our own aboriginal community.

Creativity is the third “C”, being open to the limitless potential of movement. There are no limits that is true of any artist, and I acknowledge that within. Creativity also comes from culture; part of my belief, from the Iroquois perspective, is that we live in a creative universe, a spiritual universe. Acknowledging the creator spirit, and living with the idea of a spiritual universe is tapping into this bigger awareness I'm just doing my part.

Finally, Communication. I create work for people to watch. More and more, my company's work is meant for proscenium stages, to be viewed as concert dance. That in itself is contemporary because traditionally we never danced in a theatre. Our dances were in the community, little gatherings. It is very important to me to communicate various kinds of relationships, with the audience, with the natural world, as well as with the spirit world symbolized in our dances.

Communicating the couple's lives in The Threshing Floor was one kind of relationship. Kaha:wi was very much about three generations of women, and mother-daughter relationships. Also it is about showing the humanity that exists within our culture. All the themes that I work on are universal but the work is also very culture-specific. For instance, Kaha:wi communicates “This is how we look at a naming ceremony. This is how we pass down the name, and this is the song we sing.”

That is a little bit about how I work. Does anybody have questions?


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Santee Smith
McLean Performance Studio, York University,
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