Santee Smith, the beguiling and charismatic dancer-choreographer and Artistic Director of Toronto's Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, premiered her newest work, NeoIndigenA, last night at The Cultch's Historic Theatre. The piece is the second presentation, after Mouthpiece, in what Cultch Executive Director Heather Redfern is billing as Femme February, a special showcase of new works by Canadian women artists. (The series continues next week with the opening of Amber Funk Barton and Mindy Parfitt's am a.)
NeoIndigenA continues Smith's explorations of the intersections between traditional Indigenous ceremony and contemporary performance. A ritual excavation of what it means to occupy ancestral territories in the here and now, and also how one embodies one's connection to the land, the piece is structured around Smith's traversing of, dwelling in, and transformation by the sacred realms of Skyworld, Earthworld, and Underworld. She does so with the aid of an elaborate set by Tim Hill, an equally busy lighting design by Arun Srinivasan, and a terrific musical score composed and arranged by Jesse Zubot (who also plays the viola) that also features the throat singing of Tanya Tagak.
Smith was clearly inspired by the score, and the choreography showcases her well-honed musicality. At times, however, I wished for less of a literal interpretation of what we were hearing and more pushing against some of the tropes of indigeneity that Smith was invoking. For presumably the "neo" in the piece's title refers not simply to the "survivance" and revivification of Indigenous culture in the twenty-first century, but also to the ways in which (including through performance) that culture is often appropriated, packaged, and commodified.