(Courtesy Sylvie-Ann Paré)
Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo’s work bringing Indigenous traditions to the dance world in Montreal has been recognized with a prestigious award.
At an awards ceremony on December 3, Diabo was named laureate of the Prix interprète de la danse de Montréal, an award highlighting the contributions of a local dancer presented by the Regroupement québécois de la danse and Desjardins’ Caisse de la Culture.
“I’m really excited because I know I’m the first Kanien’kehá:ka person to receive this award, but I think I’m also the first Indigenous person to receive the award,” said Diabo.
“For me, it’s not only recognition of me, but it’s a win for the whole community.”
In her acceptance speech, she paid tribute to the community.
“My culture has taught me that dance is also for healing, for spirituality, for honouring, for our ancestors, for the future generations, for communication, and for community,” she said at the awards ceremony. “And I would not be here without my community.”
She also spoke of the significance for her to be recognized with this award when Indigenous dancing was discouraged and even made illegal throughout much of Canada for years. She said that through winning this award, she felt seen when Indigenous Peoples were historically made to feel invisible by the outlawing of their cultures.
“It was a bit surreal,” she said of the awards ceremony. “When I arrived there, there was really the who’s who of the dance community there, some people I know, but a lot of people I don’t know. And of course, you feel a little shy around that, if you’re going to say the right thing.”
She made a special ribbon skirt just for the occasion and said that everyone at the event was in a joyous mood.
“People really spoke authentically and from the heart,” she said. “I was on cloud nine all day.”
Diabo’s work is firmly rooted in tradition but still situated in modern dance. The piece that the award’s jurors considered in naming her laureate for this award exemplifies this blending of these practices.
“Smudge” is a video production directed by Pepper O’Bomsawin and co-produced by the Festival Quartier Danses.
The piece shows two dancers, one in the past and one in the future, who are linked through the generations. “The strength of tradition, the isolation of the contemporary world,” reads the video’s description. “Joined by blood, joined by Earth. Can this connection overcome the emptiness?”
Diabo explained that the movements in the piece were inspired by the Ohén:ton Karihwatéhkwen as well as smudging.
“I was really happy that a film that brought our culture to the stage, the dance stage, so to say, was valued as it was,” she said.
“She attracted a lot of attention with her choreographic work in the movie Smudge, which will be featured in Festival Quartiers Danse, the McCord Museum, and on National Indigenous Peoples Day,” reads the jury’s note on their decision to recognize Diabo with the award. “Her maturity enables her to
become the voice of her ancestors.”
“This great artist embodies a bridge between her people and society as a whole: she builds up sensibilities and opens up new possibilities,” the note ends by saying.
Along with the title, the award comes with a $10,000 prize. Some of that money will go towards free studio time for Indigenous dancers.
“We’re always dreaming about having our own Indigenous art space where we can create and dance and share,” she said. “I’m going to be offering some young Indigenous dancers free studio time so they can go in and just not worry about having to pay for the studio and just create.
“Hopefully, that’ll be one step towards having our own space one day.”
When asked what the rest of the money will allow her to do, she said with a laugh that she is “still trying to wrap my head around it.”
“I started a dance company just recently called A’nó:wara Dance Theatre. I think it will just allow me
to have the freedom or to see what direction I’d like to go with it.”
A’nó:wara Dance Theatre’s production Sky Dancers was put on in September and told the
story of the tragic bridge collapse in 1907 that killed 33 Kahnawa’kehró:non ironworkers. Diabo hopes to continue bringing the community’s stories and culture to light through dance.
“I’m really excited to share this news with everybody,” she said.
Savannah Stewart is a writer, editor and translator from Montreal currently reporting with The Eastern Door. She is the contributing editor for the arts for Cult MTL and her work has also appeared in Briarpatch Magazine, Ricochet, Maisonneuve Magazine and The Rover. She tweets at @SavannahMTL.