Sky Dancers Brings the Past to Life

Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo’s personal reflection on the Quebec Bridge disaster of 1907 is reimagined with a massive crew, many of whom have family histories connected with the tragedy

Sky Dancers at Harbourfront Centre is a stunning dance-theatre piece that examines the Quebec Bridge disaster of 1907; a bridge collapsed during construction, killing 76 iron workers, 33 of whom were from the Mohawk community. Choreographer and performer Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo’s great grandfather was one of those lost that day. She created Sky Dancers in part to prevent his story, and those of his colleagues, from being lost to history.

Because of Kaneratonni Diabo’s connection to the tragedy, sharing this piece with audiences is deeply significant to her.

Sky Dancers in 2019 performance / Photo by Brian Medina

“You can feel the personal connection she has to the story; it’s palpable,” said Nathalie Bonjour, Harbourfront Centre’s director of performing arts and Torque program director. 

Kaneratonni Diabo has been working on Sky Dancers for more than five years; it’s her most ambitious and involved project to date. This extended process has been particularly useful for the piece because of its personal nature. “[It’s] allowed for a lot more reflection and time for things to evolve inside of me,” she said.

The result of this evolution is a deeply resonant, multidisciplinary presentation involving a massive team, many of whom have ancestors involved in the disaster in some way. Kaneratonni Diabo’s training in hip hop, powwow, Iroquois social and other dance styles has come together to form a one-of-a-kind style that she hopes will make the piece accessible to people from all backgrounds in dance, including current iron workers in her community. The set, projections, live musician and use of both Indigenous and English languages add additional layers to a creation that Bonjour describes as “quite spectacular.” 

Sky Dancers in 2019 performance / Photo by Brian Medina

For Kaneratonni Diabo, art is a way to connect with people on a deeper level, a sentiment that informs her creations. 

“When you see an art piece bringing something to life, it allows you to connect with it on an emotional and spiritual level.” She aims to harness this power with Sky Dancers because she hopes “to put a human face on the tragedy.” 

“These are real people, real families.” While she uses the word tragedy, Kaneratonni Diabo stresses that she also wants audiences to witness and feel the resilience of the Mohawk people. She hopes people will learn more about their contributions to the skylines of North America as iron workers, a rich legacy that is seldom highlighted.

Sky Dancers in 2019 performance / Photo by Brian Medina

When audiences in Tkaronto/Toronto have the opportunity to see Sky Dancers from May 20 to 22 at Harbourfront Centre’s Fleck Dance Theatre as part of Torque, Kaneratonni Diabo hopes it encourages people to support Indigenous arts. She is passionate about telling the stories of her community and inspiring other Indigenous people to tell their stories, helping to instill pride in their histories. 

You can get tickets for Sky Dancers through the Harbourfront Centre website. There will be a short Q & A after the 7:30 p.m. performance on May 21.