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Frigid waterfalls. Fog rising in the grey of morning. Dense forest yielding to expansive lakes. These are some of the landscapes in Santee Smith's latest production “Homelands” for Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, which premiered at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre. Smith is Kahnyen’kehàka/Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan, from Six Nations of the Grand River territory in southern Canada and since 2005, she has built her company on a repertoire of innovative multimedia and contemporary dance productions that bring Indigenous experiences and Onkwehón:we worldviews to the stage.

Performance

Kaha:wi Dance Theatre: “Homelands”

Place

Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, Ontario, April 14-15, 2023

Words

Josephine Minhinnett

Feryn King of Kaha-wi Dance Theatre performs in Tekaronhiáhkhwa Santee Smith’s “Homelands.” Photograph by Ian R. Maracle Photos

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“Homelands” is a dazzling synergy of dance, original music, and immersive video that delivers a wondrous homage to the natural world and the life-sustaining connection between Indigenous womxn, the land, and waterways. In the cinematic space of the performance, Smith draws a proximity between two homes—the reserve lands of the Ohswé:ken/Six Nations of the Grand River in Canada where she lives today, and the foothills of the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York near Albany, which prior to colonial intervention, was the original territory of the Kahnyen’kehàka/Mohawk Nation. Left with only a postage-stamp of land on the Grand River, Smith explains, “In a sense, we are displaced from the beauty of our original territory.” But rather than dwell on the loss, Smith reclaims that beauty in “Homelands.”

Artists of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre in Tekaronhiáhkhwa Santee Smith’s “Homelands.” Photo courtesy of Kaha-wi Dance Theatre

Stunning scenic views from both Six Nations territory and upstate New York, filmed over the course of three years, are projected in high-resolution onto a scrim at the front of the stage. The piece begins with a blue grey landscape of water and distant hills. As smoke fills the auditorium, there is a surprisingly realistic illusion of mist rising from the water at dawn. Once the image fades, stage lights reveal three dancers in behind in a triangular formation (Katie Couchie, Feryn King, Santee Smith). Each cradles a round clay vessel and the trio advances in slow swaying steps from side-to-side to the booming sound of a heartbeat. Self-possessed and in a trance state, it is as if an invisible energy tugs on their vessels to compel them forward.

In the video, ghostly apparitions of three dancing women appear in faint white outlines below the live dancers, perhaps representing a memory or beings from the spiritual world. They ascend the scrim in thin white flames and materialize into a spray of luminescent sparks. It's a power building sequence. Katie Couchie (Oji-Cree, Nipissing First Nation, Red Tail Hawk Clan) lifts her vessel towards the sky under a spotlight and drops it low to the earth in a wide second position, undulating her arms around the vessel like water rushing in. With similar twisting gestures at their wrists and elbows, the dancers seem to commune with the universe: reaching to the sky, then down towards the earth, then enacting the ritual of a circle. When the video transitions into images of flooding streams and wet forests with the comforting sound of rainfall, we see the dancers hold their vessels out as if to catch water. Later, with forceful exhales, they vigorously brush downward across their arms and torsos, perhaps washing themselves or attempting to dry their fur as an animal might. These are spring showers.

Santee Smith of Kaha-wi Dance Theatre performs in Tekaronhiáhkhwa Santee Smith’s “Homelands.” Photograph by Ian R. Maracle Photos

“Homelands” then is a kind of “Four Seasons,” progressing through spring, summer, autumn, and winter in short episodes. But rather than Vivaldi's violin concerto, it is set to an irresistible soundscape by Pura Fé (Tuscarora/Taino, New York) whose original composition blends Indigenous acoustics, world music, and nature sounds. Urged by these vital rhythms, on the scrim we see the tiniest seedlings sprout and multiply at the proscenium's edge, a collage of fall colours, a forest blanketed in snow. The footage also includes Smith and two performers (Feryn King, Julianne Blackbird) dancing and moving in gentle encounter with these wilderness places. Simultaneously hyper realistic and dream-like, the projection design (Shane Powless, Louise Potiki-Bryant) is not only visually breathtaking, but an effective device for world-building around Haudenosaunee belief systems: the interdependency between humans and all of Creation, as well as the aliveness of every aspect of the natural world from water to air, rocks, plants, and soil.

Through each seasonal cycle, the live performers embody the salient shapes and movements of insects, flora, and fauna. In imitation of a flower's head, the trio adopts a hand symbol, placed above their brow, of open palms with fingers fanned wide like a display of petals. In a powerful visualization of autumn, executed in canon, each dancer jumps up and fatefully collapses to the floor over and over again under harsh light, simulating a fluttering descent of leaves. And in passages enacted around and through their pear-shaped vessels, the dancers express a tender Indigenous-feminine relationship with the natural world— sowing seeds, collecting water, moving in ceremony with waterways, harvesting, friendship, giving birth. Even when the dancers' show physical exertion and intensity, their long white dresses marbled in purple-brown earth tones (Elaine Redding, Santee Smith) lend a degree of softness and effeminacy.

Artists of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre in Tekaronhiáhkhwa Santee Smith’s “Homelands.” Photograph by Ian R. Maracle Photos

Clay and earth are reoccurring themes throughout the piece. The pottery vessels, literally fashioned from rock and mud, are one symbol of an earth connection (Smith comes from many generations of potters and these pieces were designed by her father, Steve Smith). At one point, the dancers trace the rims of the water-filled containers to produce a shimmering triad of tones and it's as if the land was singing. In a particularly gorgeous film sequence, we see Smith covered in green clay, moving almost imperceptibly through the moss and soil of a forest floor like a low creature. Her slow progress suddenly transfigures into a spectacular Rorschach pattern of forest greens, blacks, and browns, and on stage, Smith places herself at the spine of this great psychedelic ripple. Through the shifting symmetry, I perceive the multiplying edges of shelf fungi. My friend sees the back of a turtle shell.

Summer is the most jubilant act. In the stamping footwork of Haudenosaunee social dances, celebratory calls, and curving travelling steps, the three dancers seem to trace the same loose pattern of spiral symbols found in their dresses. Smith is radiant in this section, with a natural groove and an elated presence to match Pura Fé's high-energy, electro house mix. Feryn King (Mohawk, Akwesasne First Nation, Wolf Clan) gives a stand-out performance, weaving a basketry of footwork that sends her low and high again in competition with the tempo, giving us just a glimpse of the hoop dancer's virtuosity. Alongside her, Katie Couchie is a whirlwind, flying across the stage in a stream of steps; she often seems to exit her own center of gravity. Sunflowers in dappled light lean their heavy heads on the scrim’s surface.

In turns, the dancers are framed by nature or seen in partial transparency, as if interacting with each projected landscape and its performers. By superimposing the two, Smith seems to hold past and present together to convey ancestral ties. Against a serene image of large rocks bordering a lake, a doubling effect occurs as the three live dancers repeat the movements of the three performers on film, as though remembering and carrying the gestures of the ones who came before them. Mesmerizing and visceral in every regard, it is moments like these that transform the performance into reunion—three women meeting the water, sensations, and landscapes of their original home.

Josephine Minhinnett


Jo is an artsworker and writer from Toronto. She graduated with an M.A. in Photographic Preservation from Ryerson University and has worked in museums and archives across Canada and the U.S. In the field of dance, she is interested in creative practices that challenge traditional ideas of performance. Jo trained at Canada’s National Ballet School and the École Supérieure de Danse de Cannes Rosella Hightower.

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