Founding Artistic Director of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre
“Tekaronhiáhkhwa Santee Smith iónkia’ts, konkwehón:we, Kenien’kehá:ka. Wakeniáhton tánon Ohawé:ken nitewaké:nòn. Ka’nisténhsera í:ken tánon tekeninniáhkhwa. Tekhenonhwerá:tons Tsi nahò:ten ká:ien ne ohwentsia’kéhshin tánon karonhia’kéhson.
My name is Tekaronhiáhkhwa Santee Smith and I’m an Onkwehon:we woman from the Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan from Six Nations of the Grand River. I am a mother and artist and thankful for all of creation and the strength of my ancestors. As often experienced by artists, work and life are inseparable both being perpetually in a state of becoming, a process of transformation. As an artist I hold performance in a sacred space, as all life is sacred. Throughout my creative process I maintain a fundamental Onkwehon:we understanding of performance, body and role of artist. Music and dance are celebrations of life; the body is a vessel to house our spirit during this earthly existence and the artist’s role is storyteller, interpreter of symbol and medicine people. From this perspective my work speaks about identity and humanity in relationship to the universe.
I began creating dance when I was 2 years old. Whenever I heard music, I would respond viscerally losing myself to the real world, falling, floating and spinning into a dream realm. But I didn’t realize I was a creator, my preferred language being movement until later. As an artist and performer I am trying to return to the freedom of expression I lived and breathed as a child lost in a world of vision and dream.”
After recovering from two broken legs, committing to six years of formal dance training at Canada’s National Ballet School, completing Physical Education and Psychology degrees from McMaster University and theatre training, Santee returned to dance as a creator: a choreographer. She was an integral dance artist at the Aboriginal Dance Project at The Banff Centre from 1997 to 2001. In 1996 the opportunity to choreograph ignited her creative spirit, she continued to develop as an independent choreographer producing her first major work, Kaha:wi – a family creation story. Inspired by the birth of her daughter, Santee dedicated six years from initial spark of idea to the premiere production of Kaha:wi during which she also completed a MA in Dance at York University. As a result of this work and her desire to pursue and define a career in contemporary dance, Santee founded Kaha:wi Dance Theatre (KDT), a vehicle for her artistic voice in 2005.
Building KDT since 2005, the company has grown into a major artistic force in the Canadian dance landscape and internationally. Santee has performed in numerous venues from major theatres, festivals to community gatherings throughout Canada, the United States and in Mexico, Japan, France and Australia. Santee’s repertoire of works includes: Kaha:wi (2004, self-production); Midwinter Dreaming (Dancers Dancing, 2004); Here On Earth (2005); The Threshing Floor (co-choreography with Michael Greyeyes, 2006); Sacred Spring (2006); A Constellation of Bones (2007); A Story Before Time (co-produced by the Banff Centre, 2007); A Soldier’s Tale (produced by Theatre Aquarius, 2008), Tripped Up Blues (Canada Dance Festival, 2008); Fragmented Heart – Mixed Program (Canada Dance Festival, 2008); Susuriwka – willow bridge (co-produced by Yokohama Noh Theatre, Planet IndigenUS, 2012); The Creator’s Game (2011); Star Dreamer (Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre, 2011); Medicine Bear (co-produced by Woodland Cultural Centre, 2012); TransMigration (co-produced by Planet IndigenUS, 2012), Electric Inter-tribal (Sharing Dance, Canada’s National Ballet School, 2012); The Honouring (2013) and solo NeoIndigenA (2014).
Santee has been awarded Ontario Arts Council’s K.M. Hunter Award for Dance; Canada Council for the Art’s Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award for most outstanding mid-career artist in the field of dance; the first John Hobday Award for outstanding achievement in the field of arts management and a Hamilton Music Award for Kaha:wi the soundtrack. Santee received a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Choreography in the Dance Division for Susuriwka – willow bridge (2013).
Her artistic excellence has been recognized by the Toronto performing arts community with KDT production nominations including: Dora Mavor Moore award for Outstanding Female Performance, Outstanding Lighting Design, Outstanding Sound Design/Composition for NeoIndigenA (2014); Dora Mavor Moore Awards for Outstanding Production in the Dance Division and Outstanding Performance (Ensemble) in the Dance Division for A Story Before Time (2008); Dora Mavor Moore Awards for Outstanding Production in the Dance Division and Outstanding Sound Design/Composition in the Dance Division for TransMigration (2012); Gemini Awards, Best Performance in a Performing Arts Program or Series for Here On Earth in “Dancing with Spirit”; Canadian Aboriginal Music Award for Best Producer and Best Song for her Kaha:wi CD.
Santee curates and teaches KDT’s month long Summer Intensive (SI) program, one-of-a-kind Indigenous dance/performance training combining western-based dance techniques, traditional and contemporary Indigenous dance styles and alternative physical training designed for emerging and professional performance artists. Guest instructors have included renowned artists such as Ko Murobushi (JP), Frances Rings (AU) and Iratxe Ansa (SP). Committed to sharing arts and culture, Santee spearheads KDT’s annual March Break Performance Camp for youth, Master Class series, community workshops and Powwow Boot Camp series. Santee is a sought after teacher and guest speaker on contemporary dance, performance, and Indigenous arts and culture such as at: York University, University of Toronto, George Washington University, University of New Mexico, Waseda University (Japan), and Benemeritus & Autonomous University of Puebla (Mexico) among others.
Santee’s performances have been featured on screen for: Buffalo Tracks (Aboriginal People’s Television Network, APTN); Suite Indian and Rechargin by Mohawk filmmaker Shelley Niro (Turtle Night Productions) and the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards (CBC). Her life and work has been the topic of documentaries: Freedom Series (Acme Productions) hosted by Robert Desrosier; Dancing with Spirit Series (Soaring Heart Pictures); See and Hear the World (Amerimage Productions); For the Generations: Native Story and Performance (Painted Sky and Oregon Public Broadcasting); All Our Relations featured guest (Waterfront Productions, APTN); “The Sharing Circle featured choreographer (APTN); First Story (CTV Vancouver); Moccasins and Concrete: An Urban Native Story produced by Jennifer Podemski and filmmaker Bobby Singh Brown and major dance documentary Kaha:wi – Cycle of Life directed Shane Belcourt (APTN).
Aside from her role at Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, Santee is a pottery designer at family owned business Talking Earth Pottery located on Six Nations, freelance actor, writer, producer and independently commissioned choreographer.
Photo By Nadya Kwandibens