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Review: Kaha:wi

Ravishing mix of styles and spirits
By Paula Citron, Saturday, Jun 5, 2004

Santee Smith at Premiere Dance Theatre In Toronto on Thursday

The aboriginal community continues to be a font of interesting dance experiences, and Santee Smith is the latest to join that worthy company. Her ambitious, full-length Kaha:wi was awarded a standing ovation by an enthusiastic audience, while focusing on a dance artist who can mount classy productions with substance.

Smith, a member of the Mohawk Nation, is multitalented.
As well as producing and choreographing Kaha:wi, she performs the role of the Earth spirit/grandmother. She also, along with Bob Doidge, produced the fabulous musical soundtrack for the show -- a brilliant, pastiche of mostly traditional Iroquois songs and hymns that is tinged with gospel, folk and Celtic influences. Kudos to the very talented musical arranger Donald Quan, who, with Brian Nevin, provided the wonderful parade of solo voice, choral and spoken text set against evocative orchestration.

The premise of Kaha:wi, whose subtitle is A Celebration of Contemporary Iroquoian Song and Dance, is to portray humanity's mystical connection to the Earth, and the sacredness of the cycle of life and death. The heart of the work focuses on three women -- the grandmother (Smith), the mother (Tatiana Ramos), and the granddaughter (Ceinwen Gobert). One dies, one gives birth, and one is born to carry on the traditions of her ancestors.

Raoul Trujillo plays the ancestor spirit who oversees this eternal passage, while Kalani Queypo is the lover/husband/father.
April Doxtator and Tamara Podemski are joined by three members of Toronto Dance Theatre -- Johanna Bergfeldt, Sean Ling and Louis Laberge-Côté -- as the people of the community.

The good-looking cast is a mix of aboriginal and non-aboriginal dancers, and the intermingling of training styles provides an interesting dynamic, with the modern dance smoothing out the Earth-rooted native movements to form a lyrical hybrid with echoes of both. Smith's choreography is a perfect fusion. There are the stamping, rhythmic feet, low-body crouches, spiral turns and arched, angel-winged arms of her Iroquois heritage. And there are also the graceful upper body work, deep contractions, split jumps and partner lifts of her modern-dance training.

Smith is still defining her choreographic language, and too frequently resorts to repetitive gestures and footwork from her traditional Iroquois vocabulary to create images, which is the work's weakness.

More to the point, however, she is also growing in her craft to utilize her fusion signature as a tool to create strong stage pictures. Her depiction of pregnancy and birth, for example, is very dramatic, as is her erotic partnering for the lovers. The group tribal dances are downright thrilling.

Cheryl Lalonde's gorgeous set consists of beautiful, see-through panels embossed with stylized trees and woodland symbols, while her fetching, earth-tone costumes cunningly fuses native and modern-dance dress elements. Ron Snippe has provided the striking lighting effects.

In short, Kaha:wi succeeds because it walks the fine line between a genuine spiritual experience that is also ravishing in its visual components.

© Globe and Mail