As part of their Torque series, Harbourfront Centre presents Sky Dancers by A’nó:wara Dance Theatre. Choreographer Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo has crafted an intense, thoughtful and vivid tribute to a lesser known incident in Canadian history: the Quebec Bridge disaster of 1907. A key aspect of the tragedy, and a pivotal element of this work, is the fact that, of the 86 workers killed, 33 were Indigenous ironworkers.
The piece takes us through a chronology of the event and its consequences. A set of girders represent the bridge itself. This metal structure—stretching across and then up at each end—serves as frame for the acrobatic elements of the choreography.
Manipulating a set of hoops—arranging them into spheres, looping them along limbs—one dancer suggests the intricate physics of bridge construction and the human dexterity required to actualize them. It’s an awesome sight, this inclusion of traditional Indigenous hoop dance fusing the workers’ culture with their labour.
Early on, the dancers establish an atmosphere of youthful celebration amongst the Kahnawake community—a joyful display of roughhousing and flirtations. From there, we see the men working on the bridge, wielding fancifully large wrench props, their enthusiasm palpable. Here, the dancers convey the thrilling beauty of human bodies at work, absorbed in communal activity.
The disaster itself comes as a jarring intrusion into their shared dream of vitalizing productivity. A strobe effect gives us short, terrible glimpses into figures grasping desperately for purchase, all the while we hear the awful metallic screech and roar of collapse. We are left to witness the dangling bodies, photos of the actual aftermath projected behind them.
What follows is a poetic and haunting interpretation of a community’s grief and mourning. It is here that the essential literalness of the piece gives way to a more metaphysical, abstract representation of human sorrow and resilience. Particularly resonant is a processional sequence where the women solemnly advance forward with their burden—the memory of lost loves; the men arduously follow, pushing themselves along the stage with just their legs, their feet slipping.
In a misguided attempt to alleviate the burden on their widows, the children of these dead men were taken and placed in a residential school. Passages from official government letters are projected on the back screen and read aloud as tiny children’s clothes are tucked sadly into a suitcase. The fate of those children is never addressed directly here, but the awful knowledge looms heavy.
Michael Tekaronhianeken Diabo’s music evokes the strong emotions and specific energies of each segment. Andy Moro’s supportive design elements—set, video projections and lighting—are intuitive and fully integrated.
The horror and sadness of the past informs the ongoing lives of the descendants, but the finale offers the hope of a community’s healing. We are given a reprise of the celebratory vibe from the beginning—part memory, part rejuvenation.
Sky Dancers negotiates the amorphous terrain between historical fact and a larger human truth that exists alongside it. We sense the individual people impacted by the disaster, its tangible reality, but also the spiritual experience of it.