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Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo

Looking Ahead

Sylvie Ann Paré

Joe Szekeres

After an extremely frustrating start in getting my computer running and then Zooming in late with choreographer/director Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo, I had quite an informative conversation with this award-winning Mohawk and mixed heritage artist.

I was pleased she wasn’t annoyed as Barbara said she experienced the same issues with her computer the other day in trying to connect on another Zoom call. She was smiling and I was most thankful she put me at ease immediately.

Our discussion led me into a moment from our Canadian history of which I was not aware at all. Diabo examines this historical time in her upcoming production at Toronto Harbourfront’s Fleck Dance Theatre. To be honest I felt ashamed of my ignorance in not knowing or remembering this issue many years ago when I was a student. She told me I wasn’t the only one who felt like this.

More about this Canadian historical event shortly.

A press release I received announced Diabo’s: “long-awaited Ontario premiere of A’nó:wara Dance Theatre’s vital and potent work, Sky Dancers. The Montreal-based company was part of a production residency at Harbourfront Centre in 2019 and scheduled to make its world premiere with Sky Dancers in May 2020 when the pandemic hit.”

Just like the other artists whom I’ve interviewed, Barbara reiterated these last three years have been an adjustment personally for her as well. Although she was able to work the whole time through Zoom and other digital platforms, she felt she had to adjust to being alone more as much of her social life is tied in with her work as a performing artist.

But being isolated with her husband and child allowed her to do some private ‘looking in’ and tap into her Indigenous perspective and just simply be with and commune through nature. Her husband is considered an essential worker, so she and her child spent a lot of time together and her husband was able to join them when his work permitted him to do so.

Artistically, Barbara says she is more grateful in being able to create with others once again albeit wearing masks, and she’s fine with that. There is an adjustment in learning how to be with others once again in a creative sense, yet every so often the realities of the pandemic creep back in for her. Nevertheless, she has learned to take things casually and deal with them when they occur.

‘Sky Dancers’ explores the impact of the Quebec Bridge disaster of 1907 which killed 33 ironworkers from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake. The community was well known for iron work which just hearing about this makes the story even more poignant. When the bridge collapsed while under construction, the fallout was felt around the world and the aftermath still echoes across generations today. Diabo’s great grandfather, Louis D’Ailleboust, died in the tragedy.

And therefore I felt my ignorance that I did not remember this event.

It's one thing to be able to narrate the tragedy of the bridge disaster. During our conversation, Barbara made an interesting comment about storytelling. Narration or telling in words focuses on an imposition of thoughts and ideas; dance, however, allows for an immediate visual interpretation for an audience to see.
For Barbara, ‘Sky Dancers’ becomes a big scale in scope. The production was five years in the making. There is a large set needed with focused and specific lighting techniques required for effects.

Barbara wants the audience to feel as if they are right in the action of the story as there is no separation between them and the performers on the stage. There are four parts to ‘Sky Dancers’ that tell a story: a) Before the tragedy we witness the Mohawk community life. b) We see the pride of the community in their iron work creation of the bridge. c) We will witness the tragedy of the bridge d) We will see the aftermath of the community where the women must clean up and learn to live without members of the community.
What made this story even harder for me? The Catholic Church came in at this time to pressure the mothers to send the remaining children away to the Residential schools as it was felt the women would be unable to provide what their children required.

For those who have no background in dance or movement, these specific art forms become universal at that moment in performance through the multi-faceted expressions of the artists. According to Barbara, it’s possible that if there are 250 people in the audience, each of them may walk away from ‘Sky Dancers’ with 250 different views of that story.

That’s the magic of the allure of dance and movement. Although she was trained in classical ballet, Barbara felt she didn’t fit in with certain techniques of ballet and returned to the spiritual nourishment in her community to find her voice which fulfilled her personal need to dance. However, she assuredly pointed out that First Nations’ dance was discouraged for the longest time and ‘Sky Dancers’ will allow us to share the Indigenous culture with other communities.

Given the last three years and the round table discussions of all performing artists here in Canada, it’s now time to share and see as many stories as we possibly can, and this includes all members of the First Nations and Indigenous communities.

What are some key messages for audiences to leave with after seeing ‘Sky Dancers’ or about any First Nations and Indigenous stories?

If anything, Diabo wants audiences not to see members of the Mohawk community as victims of this tragedy but the fact they survived it through their resilience and their strength as a community. ‘Sky Dancers’ honours those who died in the tragedy, their families, their descendants, and the community.

I look forward as a caring Canadian to see this story of strength within the Mohawk community.

‘Sky Dancers’ will perform at Toronto Harbourfront’s Fleck Dance Theatre May 20-21 at 7:30pm and May 21-23, 2022, at 2pm in Queen’s Quay Terminal, Third Floor, 207 Queens Quay West. For further information and/or ticket prices, please visit

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