It was the end of the work day, a warm late afternoon on Thursday Aug. 29 1907. Dozens of ironworkers were engaged in the construction of what promised to be an engineering marvel, the world’s biggest cantilever bridge. It was to span more than 1,000 meters of the mighty St. Lawrence River just upstream from its confluence with the Chaudière and only a few kilometers west of Quebec City. Many of the workers were on the outer arm of the diamond-shaped steel skeleton, some 45 meters above the river. Others on the south side of the supporting pier looked down on a muddy bank strewn with rocks exposed by the low tide.
At about 5:30 p.m., the outer arm began to tremble and shriek. Within seconds it buckled and collapsed into the water. The anchored land-side arm of the bridge quickly followed suit. The impact was such that in the nearby city, some feared it was an earthquake.
Of the 86 men on the bridge that day, only 11 survived. Many drowned. Others were crushed or trapped amidst the mangled steel of the inner arm as helpers struggled to free them before the tide turned. Of the 75 who died that day, 33 were Mohawk from the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal. Twenty-four of them were married, many with children. They were renowned for their skill and fearlessness working at great heights.
Louis D’Ailleboust, one of the dead, was the great-grandfather of Montreal-based dance artist Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo. Her new work, “Sky Dancers”, coming to Harbourfront Centre this week, recaptures the historic drama of an event that made headlines around the world. It also focuses on the continuing impact it has had on successive generations within Kahnawake.
Although the subject resonates powerfully for Diabo personally, she sees it as a multi-faceted story of broad interest. “The Disaster”, as it is still known in Kahnawake, was the result of incompetent engineering design and the prioritization of profit over worker safety.
It is also a story of Indigenous pride, resilience and courage.
“Everyone in Kahnawake had a son, father, uncle or cousin who perished,” Diabo explains. “After the tragedy the women of the community made their men promise never again all to work on the same project.”
It’s notable that no Mohawk ironworker was among the 13 recorded dead in a subsequent construction disaster on the Quebec Bridge in 1916. Instead, many took their skills to New York City where a Mohawk community of as many as 400 put down roots in Brooklyn’s now trendy Gowanus neighbourhood. They worked on such landmarks as the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center. Younger generations of Mohawk helped build the World Trade Center and were among the first in September 2001 to scramble over the twisted girders of its smoldering ruins in search of survivors. The following year then New York mayor Michael Bloomberg declared April 25 “Mohawk Ironworkers Day” to mark the arrival of the Smithsonian touring exhibition, “Booming Out: Mohawk Ironworkers Build New York”.
With substantial support from the National Arts Centre’s Creation Fund, Diabo was able to transform what began almost six years ago as a modest proposal into a full-fledged 70-minute production for eight performers, including herself, that combines traditional Indigenous and mainstream contemporary dance with video projections, spoken word and song, evocative costumes and an adaptable tubular metal set design by Andy Moro. The choreographer’s brother, Michael Tekaronianeken Diabo, serves as music director.
Harbourfront Centre played a key role in the work’s development by offering Diabo’s company, A’nó:wara Dance Theatre, a fall 2019 residency in the Fleck Dance Theatre.
“The show has a lot of technical aspects to it,” says Daibo. “It was great to be able to work these through in the theatre”.
The original plan was for “Sky Dancers” to premiere at Harbourfront Centre in May 2020 but COVID scuttled that. Diabo reflects that the dark days of the pandemic, which brought tragedy into so many Canadian homes, has given the work a deeper universal meaning.
Additionally, Diabo wants “Sky Dancers” to serve as a bridge between cultures. She is of mixed heritage. Although she began life on the reserve, her ironworker father’s job took the family to Halifax when she was just six, and then in her late teens to Montreal where she studied theatre at Concordia University.
Diabo says she cannot remember a time when she did not dance, exploring an eclectic range of styles from ballet and jazz to African dance and hip hop. It was only as an adult and after attending the Native Theatre School that she began to focus on reconnecting with her Mohawk roots and to explore Indigenous dance forms.
“I had grown up Mohawk but without a real connection to the community. When I began to understand the ritual aspect of Indigenous dance, all my dancing became something bigger.”
Several of Diabo’s cast are not Indigenous. She has taken care to ensure they understand the work’s meaning.
“I try to bring then into our world to understand our culture,” says Diabo. “At each rehearsal we do the smudging. We have visited the memorial in Kahnawake.”
In a private ritual of her own, Diabo walked across the Quebec Bridge, which was finally completed a decade after the first collapse.
“I didn’t expect it to shake so much or be so high.” Or, so haunted by memories of lives lost.
“Sky Dancers”, Fleck Dance Theatre, 207 Queens Quay W.; May 20 — 22, harbourfrontcentre.com.
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