Drive-in theatre: Chancellor Santee Smith ‘maps the darkness’ of Canada’s oldest residential school

Dora-Award-winning artist Santee Smith's new project explores the history of the Mohawk Institute, in partnership with the National Arts Centre. (Kaha:wi Dance Theatre; Photographer Ian R. Maracle)

McMaster Chancellor and Dora-Award-winning producer and dancer Santee Smith is presenting a new project that explores the history of Canada’s oldest residential school, in partnership with the National Arts Centre.

CONTINUANCE: Yonkwa’nikonhrakontáhkwen – Our Consciousness Continues Unchanged will be performed outdoors on Oct. 3 as drive-in theatre at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, the site of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School.

“It is my hope to offer community inspiration to regain a sense of balance and harmony in life, to promote pride, connect with spirituality through our symbols and bring awareness to our collective memory,” Smith says.

“Continuance is an opportunity to remove grief and restore the ability to see, hear, speak and ingest beauty and strength, traditional words and concepts.”

Smith, a multidisciplinary artist from the Kahnyen’kehàka Nation (Six Nations of the Grand River), created and directed The Mush Hole, which won five Dora Mavor Moore awards this spring. Her great-grandmother and grandfather attended the Mohawk Institute, Canada’s oldest residential school.

“Through my recent production The Mush Hole, we shared the truths of the Mohawk Institute survivors and there was little reprieve for audiences due to the devastating experiences, although resilience was an underlining theme. The vision of Continuance is to illuminate an antithetic experience from the intended purpose by the architects of the Residential School.”

The site is crucial in the conceptual design and embodied storytelling, Smith says.

“Our Grand Act rebukes the evil intent that the schools were designed to more easily remove Indigenous people from their lands and will communicate Indigenous bodies, knowledges and connection to land persist.”

The production is a mapping, illuminating Indigenous knowledges with new digital technologies that incorporate ancient-future imagery, Smith says.

“The 142-year history of the school did not destroy cultural perpetuity. Coded within our iconographies are meaningful ways to live in the world with balanced harmony to which society can looked to for guidance.”

Smith is director, creative producer and one of the performers and will be joined by intergenerational Haudenosaunee dancers and singers and songwriters from her ensemble Kaha:wi Dance Theatre.

The performance is part of Grand Acts of Theatre, the National Arts Centre’s initiative to bring Canadian art to audiences missing the theatre experience because of COVID-19.

Kaha:wi Dance Theatre is one of 11 theatre companies around the country that are creating and performing free large-scale works outdoors for live audiences, to be filmed and shared online.

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