Santee Smith opens Alberta’s eighth annual Rubaboo Arts Festival this week with her dance piece NeoIndigenA. Her art speaks to the visceral relationship that ties together living beings and the elements surrounding them, fluctuating between the “skyworld, earthworld and underworld.”
Smith originates from the Turtle Clan, Six Nations of the Grand River, and she uses her body as a vessel to evoke ceremonial connections between humanity and the universe.
Since the age of two, Smith had the innate ability for dance and rhythmic movement. After breaking both her legs and collarbone as young girl, doctors tasked her to find a routine to restrengthen her body. That was when she fell in love with ballet.
Smith later enrolled in Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto for six years of intensive training. After formal ballet schooling, she entered studies in kinesiology and psychology at McMaster University. There, she found herself gravitating back towards theatre and her eventual return into the realm of performing arts: choreography.
Her passion for choreography revealed her interest in not only being a dancer, but a creator. This artistic gift is omnipresent in the performance and production of NeoIndigenA.
“There’s so much going on and that’s the type of work that I like to do,” Smith explains of the solo show. “There’s so much meaning behind everything. There’s not one moment where there isn’t multi-layered meanings coming through.”
Smith stands as the sole stage performer of this highly physical, 70-minute routine while also acting as lead artistic director, choreographer and designer. NeoIndigenA was developed in 2011 by her company Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, but it took another few years to complete the research and funding for the project.
Inspiration for NeoIndigenA was found in the mountains of Upstate New York, the traditional territory of her Onkwehon:we/Mohawk heritage.
With her laptop, Smith documented her relationship with nature, rocks and trees to harness the influence of being outside on sacred land. This trek shaped NeoIndigenA’s choreography, allowing her to organize herself as a dancer.
“Going there is like a pilgrimage,” she says. “It’s like going back to our original territory, and there’s something about being there that has a feeling of home. I went mostly by waters and lakes and found secluded areas where there wasn’t anybody else.”
Preparing for NeoIndigenA is a physically taxing experience. It requires six-hour rehearsals, intense cardio focus, and nursing nagging injuries. Smith admits she couldn’t have done it alone, having assembled a knowledgeable team of mentors and designers to bring NeoIndigenA to life. Renowned international solo artist Margie Gillis and three subsequent mentors provided guidance to her and the design team.
“They have to know the show as well as I do because they’re calling and taking care of all the technical needs,” Smith says.
NeoIndigenA is composed of ceremonial aspects, completely original music, and no linear narrative. The elemental aspects of the performance tie together in the aural and physical presentation.
“There’s a section where I finish and I’m kind of swaying my hips with my hands in front of me,” Smith explains. “You kind of hear a glimmer of water in the soundtrack, and for me, that’s my imagining—or sensing or feeling—my birth waters or the water in my womb.”
Audience members will have a participatory role in the performance. Smith will ask attendees to write a comment about what they would like to say or tell one of their ancestors on a piece of fabric. Following her performance, the audience will tie the fabric onto her “portal tie.”
“That’s also meaningful for the work,” she says. “It’s another layer of calling to ancestors.”
Smith will continue to perform NeoIndigenA in the United States this year and received the honour of choreographing the North American Indigenous Games’ opening ceremonies.
Mon., Jan. 30 & Tues., Jan. 31 (8 pm)
La Cité Francophone, $20 at the door