A Story Before Time is a Theatrical Dance Experience

By Brian Wright-McLeod
News From Indian Country

Where do we come from? How did we get here? Who are we? Those are some of the fundamental questions that the human race has often quandered throughout time.

As the indigenous peoples of this continent, some academics cite the Bering Strait Land Bridge Theory as the originating point for all aboriginal cultures of the Western Hemisphere, though they never really thought to ask the original people about our version of how we came into this world. As with many creation stories, it seems that indigenous people descended from the stars and did not, however, pass through the airport terminal of Euro-political propaganda of convenience.

 In October, Toronto’s highly acclaimed Young Peoples Theatre presented the Dora-nominated A Story Before Time, an Onkwehonwe (Iroquois) creation story written by Drew Hayden Taylor (Ojibway) and produced by the Kaha:wi Dance Theatre. Therein, is a plausible explanation of origins of Native people expressed through arts, culture and legend - believe it or not, and that is the opening of a much larger discussion.

In a nutshell, the Iroquois creation story, as it is told in this production, goes basically something like this: in a place called Sky World, Sky Woman becomes pregnant and descends to Earth through a hole, she lands on turtle’s back and various animals attempt to bring mud from the bottom of the water and only the muskrat is successful. From there, Sky Woman creates Turtle Island, she has her baby girl who grows into a young woman and is impregnated by the West Wind - she gives life to twins who represent good and evil – she dies in child-birth and returns as the three sisters (corn, beans and squash).

The twins grow, one creates as the other destroys – they fight, become embroiled in an epic conflict and eventually find a balance, all of which in turn, creates the things of the world and the people in it.

Although the legend itself is an ancient tale of creation that contains some hard core accounts about life, death and the coming of good and evil into the world, award-winning playwright Hayden Taylor has tailored the legend to child-friendly audiences and is recommended for Grades 1 to 5 and intended for ages six years old and up.

Co-produced by The Banff Centre for the Arts and created by artistic director/choreographer/performer Santee Smith (Six Nations Mohawk), the production originally premiered at the Banff Centre in 2007 and has since toured North America including Alaska, New York, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Calgary, as well as many other cities and First Nations communities to wide acclaim and praise.

As the tale unfolds, the narrator sets the tone for the story through a monologue that echoes through the choreography and traditionally inspired contemporary music that flows brightly and emotionally throughout.

The fifty-minute one-act performance works as both an interpretive art piece as well as a new way of telling legends within modern times for children and the young at heart. Following the performance, a lively question and answer period with the cast members renders the production to be a truly interactive experience for the young audience.

The original music that was composed by Donald Quan adds a surreal texture with an immediate sense of time and place that transports the audience to newer places of understanding. Along with musicians Bob Doidge, Rick Shadrach Lazar, contemporary Mohawk singer/songwriter ElizaBeth Hill, with Faron Johns, and traditional artists David R. Maracle, Santee Smith, Amos Key Jr., Semiah Smith, and the Ol’Mush Singers (all Mohawk) deliver an exquisite musical score that blends traditional songs with contemporary music.

By incorporating both Mohawk and Cayuga languages that weave together a sublime tapestry of modern and traditional dance, A Story Before Time carries the metaphors, symbols, dreams and beliefs of a people to weave a rich and powerful cultural narrative. The minimalist texture conveyed by the work of set/costume designer Linda Leon and lighting designer Harry Frehner captures both imagination and respect for such a culturally significant production.

Utilizing the varied and exhilarating talents of a truly international ensemble, Kaha:wi Dance Theatre is one of Canada’s leading contemporary dance companies, recognized for its seamless fusing of indigenous and contemporary dance into a compelling signature choreographic vision. Internationally renowned for artistic excellence, innovation and collaboration, KDT electrifies audiences from Canada and around the globe.

Founded by artistic director Santee Smith, who is a very respected Canadian choreographer, was described by The Globe & Mail as “highly charged, traditional/contemporary/ballet fusion that eats up the stage.” Their vision is to be a dynamic force in contemporary dance in Canada, a centre for creativity, innovation, artistry and aboriginal expression that reflects, honours and celebrates indigenous culture. Dancers include both Native and non-Native members Sarain Carson-Fox, Zhenya Cerneacov (Moldova), Michael Demski, Louis Laberge-Cote, Emily Law, Santee Smith and her teenage daughter Semiah Smith.

Santee Smith describes her method with sensitivity to her culture and to the non-Native audiences as well, “Because we were doing this creation story geared toward families and young audiences, I wanted to be able to translate it to people who had no reference to our stories and to understand it, so in the process, we started just with the dance,” she says. “We did some show cases and tested it and got feedback on whether it was clear to them or not and readjusted the telling accordingly. We then decided to add the narration to deliver the main points of the story and so audiences could see and hear the story much more clearly with a basic understanding of the legend. That’s how that evolved.”

Regarding the writing process to create the script, Smith adds, “I gave Drew the basic outline of the Mohawk creation story and he reworked the wording and he added his little comedic things here and there – I had a specific vision for the story and everyone added things here and there but sticking to my particular intentions.

The legend varies a bit from various story tellers within the community. I consulted with some of the traditional people in our community of Six Nations and Akwesasne as well. My aunt is a clan mother so I asked her a lot of questions as well.  All of the collaborators from my community as well like the Old Mush Singers and we talked about the traditional story and what I wanted to achieve – there was always a very positive response during the creation process – it’s also a very educational process form non-Native audiences who have no reference points for the things within the play such as Turtle Island and they leave with a better knowledge of the culture. The story has a very positive message about how we live with and view the world.”

The choreography ranges from delicate patterns complimented by the staging and lighting to the strength of the message of the story itself that inspires the fullness of the musical assemble.

Semiah Kaha:wi Smith, who is the production’s narrator as well as Sky Woman’s youthful daughter (Exploding Flower), reveals her knowledge of the legend, “I grew up hearing that story and I also had a book about Sky Woman that went into a lot of detail, but the main points of the story haven’t changed at all. The stage production is much broader and geared more towards children and with a lot fewer details that are found in the original story.”

With the fast changes taking place in the world – how do Native and non-Native youth respond to traditional stories? Semiah continues, “It’s important to keep our stories alive and the youth have a big responsibility to do that – the more people who know this story, the longer it will live. It’s also good to educate non-Native people so that their perceptions aren’t just based on stereotypes and then maybe they can understand a bit more about our perceptions of the world and our place in it.” She concludes with enthusiasm, “For Native audiences, it’s interesting to see how they react to a story they know well and to watch it in a theater.”

Santee Smith adds, “We performed and toured the show across Canada and Alaska and into the southern States – we did a show in Hamilton, Ontario and there was a large group of kids from Six Nations who came to see the show and they were really responsive even during the performance as they reacted to some of the narration like: “Would you believe that we are all on a turtle’s back right now?” and they would yell out positive responses. So I think that in telling these stories, they see themselves, their stories and their identity represented on the stage and reflected back in a positive way. It’s empowering to them. People felt proud to see our stories presented on a big stage – it’s not very often that we see ourselves represented like that.”

Whether it is derived from the oral stories or a book translated into a performance piece, the culture becomes more interactive for audiences of all ages, as Santee observes, “So many of our artists including painters and sculptors take inspiration from that story and now with social media, video, animation and other forms of creativity is very positive as it gives voice to identity and issues on a world stage.  The post- show Q&A with the ensemble and the audience is always lively as one young audience member asks: “Well, who created Sky World?”

Smith concludes, “The version we tell is very basic, but in our community there’s many deeper interpretations and it becomes very complex including different versions of how and why Sky Woman fell through the hole down to the Earth. The discussion can get very philosophical while ethical raising many ethical points.”

A Story Before Time is perhaps one of Smith’s most ambitious, if not successful projects to date that showcases a deeply moving performance that should not be missed. For more information on the work of Santee Smith and the Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, please visit their site at kahawidance.org/wordpress/?page_id=71.