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INTERVIEW | A Conversation With Mohawk Choreographer Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo

By Paula Citron on May 20, 2022

Images from 'Skydancers' (Photos courtesy of Harbourfront Toronto)
‘Sky Dancers’, A’nówara Dance Theatre (Images courtesy of Harbourfront Centre)

The Quebec Bridge is the furthest downstream crossing of the St. Lawrence River, running between Sainte-Foy (a suburb of Quebec City) and Lévis on the south shore. Its centre section is the longest cantilever bridge span in the world.

In 1907, four years into construction, the bridge collapsed, killing 76 workers, 33 of whom were Mohawk from the Kahnawake reserve. Only three Mohawk ironworkers survived the disaster.

Acclaimed Mohawk choreographer Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo’s 2021 multidisciplinary work Sky Dancers explores what that enormous loss of life meant to the people of Kahnawake. Kaneratonni Diabo’s great-grandfather Louis D’Aillebous was one of those 33 ironworkers who died. The bridge took just 15 seconds to crumble.

Sky Dancers debuted in Montreal in September 2021 to great acclaim, hailed by one reviewer as “an epic film, dance and theatre show”.

Kaneratonni Diabo’s choreography embraces a wide range of dance forms including contemporary, breakdancing and Indigenous hoop dancing, along with stunning video projections, an elaborate set design, and an evocative original score by the choreographer’s brother, Michael Tekaronhianeken Diabo.

As a side note, and as impossible as it may seem, the bridge collapsed a second time in 1916, killing 13 workers, none of whom were Mohawk.

The Quebec Bridge was completed in 1919, and was designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1987 by the Canadian and American Society of Civil Engineers. It was declared a National Historic Site by the Canadian government in 1996.

Sky Dancers, however, does not celebrate the feat of bridge building. Rather, Kaneratonni Diabo wanted to give a human face to the tragedy, particularly to the women and children left behind. And memories are long. In 2007, the 100thanniversary of the tragedy, a memorial with the victims’ names was dedicated on the Lévis side of the Quebec Bridge, while a steel replica of the bridge itself was unveiled in Kahnawake.

Kaneratonni Diabo, who is 52, and a seasoned, award-winning dancemaker, was connected by Zoom for this interview.

I’d like to start with your background, Barbara.

I was born on Kahnawake, but after my parents split, I grew up on a farm in Nova Scotia when my mother remarried.

I started to study classical ballet when I was 4, so I do have a dance background, but when I was 18, I moved to Montreal to study theatre at Concordia. Because I still felt the need to dance, I started to study at different dance schools, and I became interested in all forms of dance, like hip hop and waacking, and various traditional Indigenous dances. I still train whenever I can.

How did you rediscover your Native roots?

I had a messy past. My dad was Mohawk, and my mother was French and Irish, yet I still had the label of Mohawk. But, just what did that mean? I started teaching theatre on the reserve to get closer to my roots. Because I was also a dancer, I discovered traditional music and traditional forms of dance like powwow.

When I was 19 and 20, I attended the summer program at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre where I was surrounded by young people who looked like me. We lived in the bush and rehearsed in a barn. The program also integrated Indigenous rituals like sweat lodges and powwow. CIT introduced me to traditions from my culture, which is why I mix cultures in my dance pieces.

It’s part of Canadian folklore that Indigenous peoples have the ability to cope with great heights, like working on the Empire State Building in New York. Do you know how this fact was discovered?

Apparently, we were new to the iron culture in the 1800s, but when a bridge was built south from Montreal, it was noticed that the Indigenous people were fearless about jumping and climbing on the bridge, so the company thought we would make good ironworkers. That’s how a lot of Mohawk men were sent to work on various projects.

The official report on the bridge failure cited errors of judgment on the part of the chief engineers as the cause of the collapse.

That’s true. All the things that went wrong were caused by mistakes or poor choices. For example, the trusses were curved to look more aesthetic, and that became a major flaw. As a result of the collapse, in the 1920s, the various societies of professional engineers were formed, with their motto stressing their obligation to remember their duty to society.

How did the piece ‘Sky Dancers’ come about?

It was a suggestion by my brother, probably because of the bridge memorial in Kahnawake. I didn’t know about the bridge collapse until I returned to the reserve as a teenager. That’s when I became personally invested because my great-grandfather was one of the dead, and my own father was an ironworker. I envisioned a piece about real people, and not just a historical event.

I created a short work-in-progress and presented it at the Prismatic Arts Festival in Halifax and everything snowballed from there. People, including engineering students, were telling me to bring the piece to a greater audience.

Apparently you did a great deal of research for this project. What are some of the interesting facts that you discovered?

When I talked to families who lost someone, I began to realize how deep this story goes. It literally changed the community to lose so many men at the same time. Everyone on the reserve — it had about 1000 people then — had a connection to someone who died. Shockingly, the news about the bridge collapse came to the post office because it was the only phone on the reserve.

I learned really sad things, like it was the women who had to go and bring home the bodies. Even more tragic is that not all the men were found — only those who were working on the land side. About half fell in the river and were never recovered because the rescuers couldn’t get to them before the tide came in. The wreckage of the bridge is still in the water.

The women also made the decision then and there that the Kahnawake men would never again all be sent on the same job, so that’s what started them looking for projects in the States like the Empire State Building. Mohawk women have a reputation for taking charge. It’s a matrilineal society.

Reading a record of the company letters about compensation is infuriating. The discussion was to give the widows just a little bit of money that was enough to keep them happy. To compound the tragedy, the church and the government stepped in to send the kids to residential school because there was no breadwinner.

'Sky Dancers', A’nówara Dance Theatre (Images courtesy of Harbourfront Centre)
‘Sky Dancers’, A’nówara Dance Theatre (Images courtesy of Harbourfront Centre)

It’s such a big concept — the collapse of a bridge. Where did you even start?

I have always said that my focus was to put a human face on the story. I wanted the audience to understand who these people were and what they went through. It is the most narrative piece I have ever done. I also wanted to integrate community and aspects of Mohawk culture — to see Indigenous dances and songs being integrated into the story. The eight dancers play characters and we get to know them.

A big part of the piece was to see the men and the ironwork — to showcase their spirit as fearless daredevils. We even brought in a parkour coach to train us how to jump around on the truss structures.

And then the bridge collapses, and we see what happens to the women after — searching for bodies, how some of them lost children, seeing their memories from before the collapse, but always keeping the human touch in the forefront. The takeaway is that these Mohawk women survived. They were resilient.

I should also point out that the news stories about residential schools and the unmarked graves of the children gave a whole new weight to the piece. We had to stop rehearsals and smudge everyone. You have responsibilities in pieces like this — talking about a tragedy in our culture. I was so affected that I actually had to call the residential school hotline and speak to someone.

‘Sky Dancers’ seems to have quite elaborate production values.

I wanted to create a world, and invite the audience to come into our world. I wanted them to feel they are there when the bridge collapses. I call it a 4D show. That’s why we have such an elaborate set, video projections, and live music. Emotionally, it is the largest scale show I’ve ever attempted. I usually work on my own, but for Sky Dancers, I needed a team. The scope of the show was a big learning curve for me.

Can you give me more details about the actual stagecraft?

The set is made of movable trusses, and can be many things such as a long house or a bridge. There is even some water representing the river. The projections are behind on the cyclorama wall and showcase images such as the bridge, before and after, and the Kahnawake reserve, as well as atmospheric stuff. We also include a film showing me dancing outside. As for the costumes, we were very particular to be accurate about the period.

What about the cast?

There are eight dancers and a live guitarist. The four men are the ironworkers and the three women represent the community. I am the storyteller who is the spirit of the story as told through dance, although I do relate the story briefly in the Mohawk language with subtitles. All the performers are professional dancers, about half of whom are Indigenous.

Talk about the music by your brother.

Michael has done the music for all my dance pieces. He is also the live guitarist on stage. The other instruments are on the computer. Like me, he likes to mix styles, but his major influence is surf music. I tell him what I need and he sends me stuff so it’s a very back and forth relationship. He has also incorporated traditional and cultural songs as well.

What was the impact of COVID on the show? It was supposed to premiere in Toronto in May, 2020.

COVID made it longer. The extra time also allowed the dancers to reveal their characters more and deepen the stories.

Have you performed the show in Kahnawake?

Unfortunately, there is no venue on the reserve where the show could be performed. Place des Arts did find a grant and offered free tickets to Indigenous people to come to the show in Montreal. The most important reaction for me was what my Indigenous peers thought, especially the elders.

For example, some women told us that the shawls we have as costumes were the very ones that were worn whenever a women left the house. Another elder told us how moved he was to see our Mohawk dances on stage. One elder related the fact that nobody thought about the women after the bridge collapse, so the focus of Sky Dancers was a revelation for him. Apparently people cried.

The best remark by someone was that the fearless ironworker in me allowed me to tackle the huge job of creating the show.

‘Sky Dancers’ seems to have a deep significance for you.

It does. In my culture, dance is medicine, and has an important place in our lives. We are not just giving a show. Sky Dancers honours the men who died. It is for the Mohawk community. It is also educational.

I’d love to tour the show everywhere. Our goal is to have a scalable show so it can fit any size venue.

I am in a place in my life where I want this show to build bridges with the audience. I envision a global society. The pendulum has to swing to where it has never been allowed to go.

Harbourfront Torque/Sky Dancers, A’nó:wara Dance Theatre, choreographed by Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo, Fleck Dance Theatre, May 20 to 22. Tickets are available here.


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Paula Citron
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