SKY DANCERS AT TORONTO'S HARBOURFRONT CENTRE - Fleck Dance Theatre

A 'NÓ:WARA DANCE THEATRE | KAHNAWAKE

Brian Medina

Joe Szekeres

A tragic element from our Canadian historical past about which I ashamedly admit I knew nothing.

But within this tragic event and after math of the 1907 Québec Bridge Disaster, eight extraordinary dancers/artists of the A’nó:wara Dance Theatre tell the story with much grace, dignity, poignancy, sadness, and respect. Under Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo’s (this theatre’s Artistic Director and choreographer) riveting work and concept, I chose not to make any notes in my book about the production. Instead, I allowed an original theatrical dance to beckon me to the early 1900s and a time of which I was unfamiliar and needed a refresher.

Part historical lesson with exciting choreography and striking dance movement, ‘Sky Dancers’ accomplishes two tasks majestically. Not only does it explore the devastating human impact of the disaster mentioned above which killed 33 Mohawk ironworkers from the Kahnawake community, but also choreographer Diabo will always hold a personal vested interest in this moment. She is a direct descendant as her great grandfather, Louis D’Ailleboust died in the tragedy.

There is a closed curtain upon entering the Fleck Dance Theatre. About five minutes before the production begins, a guitarist enters and sits stage left on the floor.

Once the curtain was opened, I was completely absorbed in this 65-minute production as there is a great deal to see, to experience and to appreciate with open eyes, open ears, and open hearts.

At first, we are introduced to a brief but extremely important historical information about the bridge between Québec City and Lévis, and the eventual collapse. We see visual projections of the workers on the bridge with wrenches and other materials to ensure nails and screws are placed correctly. However, there were miscalculations about the bridge that were never rectified which ultimately resulted in the collapse.

So many key individuals ‘behind the scenes’ who truly made this production remarkable.

Andy Moro, Aurora Torok and Samuel Boucher’s respective video, lighting and video design and direction hooked and conquered my sense of sight and sound immediately. Moro and Torok’s eye-catching visual projections of the bridge being built and seeing the workers on the bridge became quite poignant to me in now knowing what occurred. It made me sad to think these workers had no idea what was about to happen to them. Boucher’s sound design resonated emphatically when required. And then to see and hear the remains of the collapsed bridge that I had never seen before – truly unbelievable and deeply moving.

I really liked the suggestion of the bridge on the Fleck stage especially when the audience witnesses the eventual collapse. What remains in my mind as I write this review the next day is the one artist who positioned himself exactly as the projection of the worker with the wrench.

MC Snow and Jeff Chief’s work in makeup and costume designs become beautifully highlighted in the array of bright and earth tone colours mixed. From my seat in the house, Snow’s make up delineated the facial features of the eight individual dancers.

The historical events in ‘Sky Dancers’ are organized chronologically into four sections. We see what life was like in Kahnawake before the tragedy occurred; we see the pride within the community in their iron work creation of the bridge; we see the tragedy of the bridge collapse; and we see the aftermath of the community where the women must clean up the debris and learn to live their lives without members of their community.

What struck even harder for me was the question in how the Catholic Church came to pressure the mothers to send the remaining children away to Residential schools as it was felt the women would be unable to provide what their children required. This moment in the visual representation hit a deep emotional nerve level within my very being as a practicing Catholic.

Although I hold no specific training in the art of dance and movement of any kind, I believe theatre audiences inherently know when dance and movement work in story telling. These eight artists are a marvel to watch in their individual and synchronous movements with each other and in time to the music whether from the guitarist or the pre-recorded music with perfectly timed motions.

Through some conversation and in emails with others who saw the show, Barbara Diabo performed the Hoop Dance at the beginning of the presentation. I wanted to make this correction immediately to acknowledge her work here as it is spectacular and marvelous to watch. I am ever appreciative and grateful that I had the opportunity simply to behold in reverence this important dance. And Diabo's work in using hoops to create orbs and spheres of shapes and sizes. Absolutely breathtaking.

I am hoping to see more of Diabo’s work in the future. I had the chance to profile her several weeks ago and asked what she hoped audiences would take away upon seeing ‘Sky Dancers’. She hopes audiences do not see the Mohawk community as victims of tragedy, but rather as a community of resilience and strength who survive and who are still here.

She succeeded in what she set out to do. Excellently, I will also add.

Final Comments: I attended this opening night production with an actor friend who was deeply moved by what he had seen. He didn’t hesitate at all to give these skilled masters of Indigenous dance what they truly earned – the standing O. Many around me were also on their feet for this wonderful company who gave three curtain calls.

Later, my friend and I on the way back to Union Station both agreed that stage and film actors can continue to learn A LOT about the way dance artists use their bodies to tell stories. My actor friend spoke of something he remembered from his training years ago – theatre students used to make fun of movement classes and the pretend world in which students had to envelop themselves. Upon seeing this production, my actor friend reluctantly admitted he wished he hadn’t partaken in that same ribbing years ago.

Why?

My actor friend just saw dance artists who, through their rigorous training, are comfortable in their bodies and what their bodies can do in telling stories. Dance artists are not afraid to get into that intimate connection of the spirit within themselves, and dancers are not afraid to connect intimately with other bodies in telling a story.

Take note, stage and film actors. Yes, Intimacy Coaches are important in the industry, but watch what dancers can do with their training to tell a story.

Approximate running time: 65 minutes with no intermission

Masks worn in the theatre.

‘Sky Dancers’ runs to May 22 at the Fleck Dance Theatre at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. For tickets, please visit www.harbourfrontcentre.com.

SKY DANCERS
Concept and Choreography by Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo
Creative Producer: Gregg Parks
Set, Video, Lighting Design: Andy Moro
Composer: Michael Tekaronhianeken Diabo
Costume Design: Jeff Chief
Make Up Design: MC Snow
Hoop Coach: Arik Pipestem
Parkour Coach: Téodor Tanase
Outside Eye: Mary Francis Moore
Performers: Olivier Arsenault, Daniela Carmona Sánchez, Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo, Sebastian “Bash” Hirtenstein, Lauren Ashley Liles, Keenan Simik Komaksiutiksak, Oliver Koomsatira, Sabrina Pipestem

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