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Native-inspired performances at Fort York mostly hit the mark with melancholy subject matter

What the audience takes away from these performances is, perhaps, an understanding of the Idle No More protest, whose roots go back 200 years.

Indigenous Arts Festival

The Honouring

  • Choreographed by Santee Smith

The Road

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  • Written and directed by Herbie Barnes

At Fort York National Historic Site in Toronto on Saturday

What could be more surreal than a tomahawk-wielding Iroquois war party in full regalia with Toronto skyscrapers as a backdrop? Such was Kaha:wi Dance Theatre's stirring new site-specific work, The Honouring, choreographed by Santee Smith.

The Honouring was part of the Indigenous Arts Festival @ Fort York, a celebration of the First Nations' contributions to the War of 1812 presented by the City of Toronto. Also receiving its world premiere was the ambitious play The Road, written and directed by Herbie Barnes. While the dance piece took place outdoors, the play was presented in the Blue Barracks.

On the zeitgeist level, one came away from the performances with a sense of melancholy. The Honouring touches on the fact that 10,000 Haudenosaunee warriors died for the British cause against the Americans. (Haudenosaunee is the Aboriginal name for Iroquois.) The Road deals with the aftermath of the war and the trail of broken promises.

As Smith points out in her program notes, the native warriors took part in the war as "sovereign nation allies," in other words, on equal footing with the British. But, as The Road depicts, what followed was an attempt at a systematic destruction of First Nation culture. What the audience takes away from these performances is, perhaps, an understanding of the Idle No More protest, whose roots go back 200 years.

The Honouring took place on a large open field between a blockhouse and the battlements. A continuous video was projected on the blockhouse wall, images flipping between the Haudenosaunee people at their daily tasks, and battle scenes of armies clashing. There were also flashes of animal totems and pictures of children, the future generations who would have to live with the legacy of the war.

The dance was performed by three women (Emily Law, Cheri Maracle and Smith), and five men (Michael Demski, Nimkii Osawamick, Alex Twin, Garret Smith and Jacob Pratt). They were all body-beautiful and gorgeous to watch. The action unfolded through a series of 17 scenes with names like Caught in the Whirlwind, Women's Protection Prayer, and Those Who Died . Several of the performers wore microphones to recite text or to add live singing to the recorded score.

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In choreographic terms, Smith did not go far beyond traditional First Nations dance. The many scenes, performed around two campfires, as well as in the larger field and on the battlements, were ritualistic in nature. Interspersed with the traditional dance were scenes of heaving contractions of the body, stately gestures of the arms and commanding postures of the walk.

As always with Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, the evocative musical score touched the soul with its mix of native chanting and beautiful instrumental passages composed by Lou Pomanti and Adrian Harjo. Elaine Redding's colourful costumes were authentic recreations of native dress.

In short, The Honouring took the audience on a heartfelt journey through war, death and grief, but always with dignified ceremony.

In his play The Road, Barnes presents two opposing views and an attempt to reconcile the differences. He was inspired by a photograph taken in 1882 of three old men, the last surviving Six Nations warriors who fought in the War of 1812.

John Smoke (Billy Merasty) converts to Christianity, becomes a farmer and completely trusts the "white man" and the words of the bible – a "tame Indian," as it were. Younger (Craig Lauzon) resists all influences of the white man's world, clinging to his native culture. In the middle sits Thomas Hill (Anthony Gladue) who tries to straddle both ways of life.

The play can't help but be preachy as Barnes establishes all the conflicting points of view. Once that is in place, however, there are some intense scenes involving residential schools and starvation, for example. Barnes' ending, with Thomas Hill announcing that the First Nations should live peacefully in the land together with the white man, seems a bit contrived.

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The pacing of the show was marred by some stumbling of lines, but the actors were firmly committed to their roles, which drew in the audience. Glenn Davidson's clever set was a series of platforms surrounded by clusters of bushes and thickets. Gabriella Caruso's costumes were a judicious mix of 19th century white-man accoutrements overlying native dress.

In the end, what Barnes does manage to do is effectively portray the native struggle to retain culture in the face of overwhelming odds. His play has moments of great power.

Kaha:wi Dance Theatre's The Honouring tours to Brantford's Woodland Cultural Centre, Jun. 25 and 26, and Old Fort Erie, Jun. 29 and 30.

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