20 Aug

This week’s Dancer/Choreographer shout out goes to Santee Smith. Santee is from the Mohawk Nation and calls Six Nations, Ontario her home. She is the founding Artistic Director/Choreographer for Kaha:wi Dance Theatre. One of Canada’s most exciting choreographers Santee has propelled her company to international acclaim.  An innovative creator and avid collaborator her dance work resonates deeply with audiences.

Smith’s formal training occurred at Canada’s National Ballet School. She holds Kinesiology and Psychology degrees from McMaster University and a Master’s Degree in Dance from York University. Her first choreographic commission was for The Gift, a National Film Board documentary in 1996. Santee’s choreographic works include: Kaha:wi, Midwinter Dreaming (Dancer’s Dancing commission), Here On Earth, The Threshing Floor (co-choreography), Sacred Spring, A Constellation of Bones, A Story Before Time, A Soldier’s Tale (produced by Theatre Aquarius), Tripped Up Blues (Canada Dance Festival commission), Susuriwka – willow bridge, The Creator’s Game, Star Dreamer (Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre commission), Medicine Bear and TransMigration.

Smith has been awarded Ontario Arts Council’s K.M. Hunter Award for Dance, Canada Council’s Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award for most outstanding mid-career artist in the field of dance as well as receiving the first John Hobday Award for outstanding achievement in the field of arts management.

A sought after teacher/lecturer Santee taught at: York University, George Washington University, University of New Mexico, Waseda University (Japan), and Benemeritus & Autonomous University of Puebla (Mexico) among others. In 2009, Santee launched KDT’s Aboriginal Dance Training program, a one-of-a-kind curriculum combining western-based, traditional and contemporary indigenous dance forms and alternative physical training techniques.

Bio provided by Santee

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Find out what Santee had to say in this week’s feature…

Nikki: Do you remember the first time you started dancing?

Santee:  Actually, I don’t remember the first time I started dancing, I was too young.  My parents say that as soon as I heard music, I’d fall into a kind of trance.  I’d be lost in dance so much so that I’d get angry when they turned off the music.  I think I really started out as a choreographer!  Mostly I was entertaining my ill grandmother and her friends.  My official dance training in R.A.D. Ballet started at the age of three after two accidents equalled a broken femur and ankle.  The doctors recommended I do something to strengthen my legs and so my parents put me in Ballet.  I don’t remember my first class but I probably loved it because I continued Ballet for fifteen years. Six of those years were spent at Canada’s National Ballet School.

Nikki: Do you remember the first song you choreographed to? (Or your earliest memory)

Santee: Earliest memory…wow that’s a hard one.  I think it was “Hi Ho Hi Ho” from Disney’s “Cinderella” soundtrack but I don’t remember the steps…I believe I was marching!  At the National Ballet School we would hang around in the studio in the evenings dancing and putting on skits.  I fondly recall creating to “Stray Cat Strut” by the Stray Cats…I still love that tune.

Nikki: Your personal advice for dancers when it comes to free styling?

Santee:  Free styling to me means improvising, so basically it is being open to new movement language and becoming instinctive, non-judgmental of your moves, and of course, playful.  I enjoy guided improv as well which involves working with marker points such as images, context or theme or character. 

Nikki: Getting in the zone to choreograph, what does it take for you?

Santee:  Well, I wish I could get into the zone to choreograph exactly when it says so in my schedule.  Sometimes this does not work out so well.  Inspiration does at times seem fleeting and it is great when you are totally “on” and the work flows.  I am very visual and content driven so what helps me most is collecting as much stimuli: images, music, video, stories, words to feed myself and dance artists during the creation process.

I work best in shorter choreographic workshop phases since the workshops are intensive. This allows for time between each phase for contemplation, review and growth.  For me, allowing this time for development leads to a fully envisioned work.

Nikki: Who are some of your biggest influences in the Dance industry?

Santee:  In my early years I admired three main ballerinas Karen Kain, Vanessa Harwood and Maria Tallchief.  At age 9 I sat front row centre watching Vanessa Harwood dance Swan Lake and was mesmerized, the next year I was on the same stage dancing in the Nutcracker with the National Ballet Company.

Today, I am inspired by the work of Artistic Directors and choreographic leaders: the late Pina Bausch (Tanztheater Wuppertal), Ushio Amagatsu (Sankai Juku), Ko Murobushi, Stephen Page (Bangarra Dance Theatre) and Lin Hwai-min (Cloud Gate Dance Company).  What draws me to these creators is their masterfully conceived and manifested vision for the work which is also reflected in the overall direction of their respective companies. 

Nikki: Name a Toronto Choreographer you enjoy working with and why?

Santee: I am the choreographer for my company so I do not often get a chance to work with other choreographers in Toronto.  I do enjoy the challenge of the collaboration process though.  Maybe there is a co-choreography coming up in the future?  I would be interested in a project that is compelling, imaginative and one that challenges me artistically.

Nikki: Name one of your favorite artists to work with and why?

Santee:  One of my favourite artists to work with is Raoul Trujillo.  He is a mentor, collaborator, performer and amazing human being.   As an artist he has worked with some of the greats in dance, theatre and film: Alwin Nikolais, Terrance Malick among others.  He has contributed to the work of contemporary dance expression in North America with American Indian Dance Theatre, The Aboriginal Dance Project at the Banff Centre for the Arts and through his own choreographic work. 

Nikki: Are you currently working on any projects?

Santee:  Right now I’m working on the North American Premiere of Susuriwka – willow bridge a co-produced with Yokohama Noh Theatre and Harbourfront Centre’s Planet IndigenUS Festival 2012.  It’s a total re-working of the production for the North American premiere on Aug 17 @7pm; Aug 18 @ 2pm and 7pm and Aug 19 @7pm.  Since 2009, Susuriwka – willow bridge has been an incredible journey of cultural exchange, discovery and creativity working with artists from Japan and Canada and within the Ainu and Onkwehonwe (Six Nations) communities.

Kaha:wi Dance Theatre is holding our 4th Aboriginal Dance Training (ADT) program August 7-31 @ 400 Jarvis Street.  We have an amazing faculty and classes this year including: Toronto-based dancer, choreographer and teacher Louis Laberge-Côté teaching Contemporary dance; Japanese native, Mami Hata, teaching Ballet classes.  Guest teachers include internationally acclaimed Charles Koroneho (New Zealand), a performer and visual artist who will offer Muscle & Bone classes and KDT’s inaugural Choreographic Lab; Tesha Emarthle (Six Nations of the Grand River) leading classes in Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Social Dance and Powwow Styles, as well as virtuosic Hoop dancer, performer and choreographer Arik Pipestem (Tsuu T’ina Nation) teaching X-H-T (Extraordinary Hoop Technique), New York-based dancer and teacher, Jye Hwei Lin leading Gaga workshops (Gaga People USA); master class with Alejandro Ronceria.  There are spots still available, for more information please visit our ADT

Upcoming for me in 2012/2013: Guest speaking at the “dancing fugitive futures: dialogues with artists and thinkers” symposium at the Barbara Barker Center for Dance, at the Dance Program of the University of Minnesota; Kaha:wi documentary produced by Wabunganung Film Company, a sister company of Coptor Film to be aired on APTN and the Festival circuit; choreographing for Canada’s National Ballet School’s “Sharing Dance” project; remounting and touring KDT’s work for young audiences Medicine Bear; creation process for new work Mixed Evening Works featuring major musical collaborations with Tanya Tagaq and Faron Johns; new work celebrating the Onkwehonwe (Six Nations/Iroquois) contribution and impact for the War of 1812 which will be premiered at Toronto’s Fort York.

Nikki: Qualities you think Toronto Dancers possess?

Santee:  There are so many amazing dancers working in Toronto.  I have had the pleasure of working with some super talented, generous and genuine artists.  I am amazed at the ability of independent dancers who can schedule and carve out their careers working with a number of companies and choreographers.  This requires a great deal of versatility and commitment as an artist.

Nikki: Any advice for emerging dancers and choreographers working/training in Toronto?

Santee:  My advice to dancers is to seriously invest in training to maximize your body awareness, but most importantly as a means to understanding and reaching a fully embodied and expressed performance.  To me,dancing is not just about getting the steps, it is an interaction, experience, ritual.

For upcoming choreographers, I think its important to explore and continually invest in your own voice, vision and process.  Strive to continually discover and open the gateways to your source of creativity and imagination.  Find what it is you want to say and express with your work and know that every work is a journey, that every work has a life that can keep on maturing and deepening.

I’m a huge fan of life long learning so for both dancer and choreographers, I suggest creating opportunities to learn skills, new perspectives, techniques, approaches/methodologies and cultures.








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