Thrilling climax for York dance student


Santee Smith is wrapping up her graduate work at York University with a flourish. From today to Sunday, June 3-6, Toronto’s Premiere Dance Theatre presents Smith’s choreographic work Kaha:wi at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto – a world premiere. Two weeks later, she will be crossing the stage at York’s Faculty of Fine Arts convocation ceremony to receive her Master’s degree in dance.

As the basis of her thesis, the documentation behind her profound performance piece forms the link between these two achievements.

Kaha:wi (pronounced “ga howie”) is an ancient Mohawk phrase, meaning “she carries”. The physically demanding 65-minute piece, involving 10 dancers, is a “contemporary work rooted in aboriginal dance tradition with influences from Smith’s years in ballet,” noted Toronto Star reporter Janice Mawhinney in her May 29 article titled “It’s both original and aboriginal”.

Home, tradition, work and strong communal spirit have always been touchstones of Mohawk culture, and the 16 scenes comprising Kaha:wi exemplify these tenets, “tapping primal emotions and reflecting universal human experiences such as birth, family relationships, community celebrations, falling in love and death,” wrote Mawhinney.

In the newspaper article, Smith talks about her Mohawk Turtle Clan upbringing on the Six Nations reserve near Brantford and her new work with the force and clarity of a seasoned choreographer/dancer.

Smith explained, “Kaha:wi honours the life cycle. It celebrates our existence and our connection to the spirit in the sky world. This name has been passed down through generations of my family. There’s no real gender assigned to it, and its meaning depends on the context.”

Kaha:wi will also showcase the talents of thirty-five Iroquois singers, songwriters, musicians and dancers from Six Nations. “Most of the songs, [which are] in the Mohawk, Cayuga and Tuscarora languages, are entirely new,” said Smith.

Right: A Santee production  (Photo credit: Cylla Von Tiedemann) 

“Some have roots in traditional songs, but not sacred ceremonial songs, which cannot be shared with the general public. I was really happy working with the artists on the music. We created something beautiful.”

Louis Laberge-Côté, a dancer from the Toronto Dance Theatre, echoed the spirit of Kaha:wi, “I feel that I’m really connected to the earth through Santee’s work. In our culture we don’t have the same veneration for the planet. We try to control it.”

“Santee Smith brought with her a wealth of the aboriginal dance knowledge into our MA dance program, and made significant contributions through her rigorous research and the many creative projects she facilitated,” remarked Darcey Callison, director of York’s Graduate Program in Dance. “It has been a real pleasure to work with such a gifted artist and scholar.”

Kaha:wi will tour Ontario next winter, followed by engagements in New York and Washington, DC. The Web site for the work can be found here.

Smith has performed extensively at major festivals in Canada and internationally, and has appeared in several dance and documentary films. She was the featured choreographer at the 2003 National Aboriginal Achievement Awards.

Although accomplishments are apt to offer great satisfaction, Smith said, “The most gratifying reward will be the sharing of my culture with others.”

Smith (left) was profiled in the February 2004 issue of YorkU magazine.

Details about Kaha:wi performances

Kaha:wi runs at 8pm, Thursday to Saturday, June 3-5, with a matinee at 2pm on Sunday, June 6, at the Premiere Dance Theatre at Harbourfront Centre, 207 Queens Quay West. Tickets are available through the box office at 416-973-4000.