Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Dancing Earth's Desert Journey to Planet IndigenUs 4 International Arts Festival

Story by Frances Madeson. All images by Kerri Cottle Photography taken at Dancing Earth's open rehearsal of Re-Generation on July 28, 2015 at the Railyard Performance Center in Santa Fe, NM
Rulan Tangen, Dancing Earth Director, dancing the role of the Ancient Seed Carrier
Corn, beans, squash, water...

Dance is its own language of movement, rhythm, gesture, breath. But in Re-Generation, Dancing Earth's newest eco-cultural work in progress, these few words are spoken aloud in the native languages of the four dancers who are co-creating it: Rulan Tangen, company director, her former student Anne Pesata, break dancer Shane Montoya, and teacher and choreographer Trey Pickett. In every utterance these fundamental wordscorn, beans, squash, waterare given new life, extending the idea of regeneration to the Native languages themselves.

They're dancing for their lives,” is how Tangen expresses it. “These dancers are visionaries. Cultural ambassadors. They're showing humility and gratitude in the dance and also in the making of the dance, car-pooling to get to rehearsals, sharing food; they're giving so much to be here.” The message to the viewers in Canada, where 60 per cent of croplands and 80 per cent of rangelands are in dry-land areas, is urgent and cautionary: “If you don't live in gratitude and in balance, your own land could soon become desert too.”

The only dance company from the United States to be invited to this year's Planet IndigenUs, New Mexico's premiere indigenous contemporary dance ensemble Dancing Earth will be among 300 participants in the 10-day multi-disciplinary arts festival. Other dance artists include the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Penny Couchie, Sarain Carson-Fox and Santee Smith of Canada, Frances Rings from Australia, and Bulareyaung Pagarlava from Taiwan.  

It is not unusual for Tangen, who had a professional dance career in New York City and Canada, touring to Norway and Paris and dancing for HRH Prince Charles, to receive such prestigious invitations. Accepting them is another matter. “We have so many invitations – we could go around the world – to the dusty corners and to the spotlit centers. But we have been challenged to get financial support to subsidize these prestigious invitations. I hear tales of other countries who support their dance artists—with studios, multi-year rehearsal periods, governmental travel funds for festival invitationsthose are amazing and lavish resources, comparatively.”

By contrast, Dancing Earth often rehearses outside. “We're not
portraying a struggle, we're in it,” Tangen said, explaining the day-to-day material realities of keeping the troupe viable. Her own personal teaching pay is largely dedicated to Dancing Earth's budget. Without a trace of self-pity but perhaps a little perplexity at society's priorities she admitted: “It's hard rolling on cactus. Dancing in snow. We are the underground and the underdogs. Our few props are baskets, sticks and rocks gathered from nature. Our costumes (designed by Cheryl Odom and Connie Windwalker) are made from recycled fabrics. We've rehearsed this piece less than five days, the dancers contributing their hours away from work and family. We have pared back to essentials. In the end all the dancers really have is their intention and each other.” 
Shane Montoya (center), of Dine/Hispanic heritage - wonderful break dancer and dance teacher in NM
Their intention is to represent the stories of the people of Abaachi, Dine, Tewa, and relocated Tsalagi, Papanga, Kainai, Metis, and many others who have contributed to the bowl of lived cultural knowledge in this inter-tribal collaboration. Dancing Earth has spent the last three to four years in cultural development. Guided by Native elders they're invited to create dances around a theme. In the past these have centered around stories of environmental degradation, especially of water sources. “We're deeply storied," says Rulan, "we're embedded in our communities and we have pledged to our people that we will tell the important stories of right now. We will survive climate change. We've been beaten down by fracking, but we offer the vision of hope, renewal, healthy bodies, empowered women. We are the ones who have chosen the desert, to live a life of gratitude, of vision, of patience, prayer and perseverance. We are desert people with desert knowledge. We carry it all on our backs.
Anne Pesata bearing the weight

We do not show the sacred dances," Rulan assured, "but in various permutations we are remaking undeniable Native dances that are sourced from ancient yet relevant philosophies that we revitalize through embodiment as contemporary artists. PowWow dancing contains some of the most vital contemporary forms you will ever see, also based in long held traditions. So much dance training offers a limited vision of beauty. But a dance can be made more beautiful not despite but because the dancers are bigger. In some traditional dances the women dancers wrap their legs to make them thicker, to make them appear more like tree trunks.

In response to these very different and powerful worldviews, I created the company I wanted to be in. I couldn't find 'it' in the urban landscape. We practice Land Dance techniques, Bio-mimicry, the land and botanical growth patterns inform our movements and rhythms; we experience a heightened awareness of energies.”

Re-Generation opens with the original ancestor character, danced by Rulan, open-mouthed, her head and face sheathed behind a diaphanous veil. “I am still discovering what this costume symbol is
a cocoon, the layered skins of seed that become successively more transparent...,” Rulan confessed. “I know a call through a veil was a motif I wanted. How much life force do our ancestors have to deploy to be heard?” The ancient seed carrier crosses the desert. She moves slowly depicting the ancients' sense of time—observation, calmness, breath. When she walks backwards she passes the younger being (danced by Anne), passing along her knowledge. “The younger girl doesn't see me, but feels me holding space at her back. She's running as you would to the ocean, knees high. She places the seed rocks on the ground making a deliberate pattern, a marking for the next generation. She becomes the ground, creating the soil; she makes vine-like movements. She is resilience, falls, gets up. She makes foraging movements. A Native chef and forager had taught us these purposeful gestures, to collect mushrooms, singing as she harvests them.”

Anne is joined by the men, Shane and Trey, carrying sticks and staffs. They hunt as she forages conveying important history. “Before Indigenous farming practices, essentially what is now known as permaculture, we were foragers and hunters,” Rulan explained. “We lived a 'leave no trace' way of life. We lived life in a state of heightened awareness, and also in the security that anywhere you landed you could feed yourself. But we had to become planters in response to Colonization.”

The branches are placed upright between the rocks Anne has left on the ground. The ancestors are building on each other's foundations. The ancient ancestor drags a magnificent royal blue train behind her, upon which is piled a heap of trash. There are gestures of openness, endless giving. She is collecting the trash on the water, pulling their pain, all that society has done to beat them down. In response, the three young dancers join together foot to foot, climbing on each other, sharing burdens, offering gifts. Their step and stair formation is found on their peoples' beadworks, pottery, rugs, and is often symbolic of mountain slopes, clouds, direction and change. “The ancestors," Rulan explains, "are also the mountains and clouds, conjuring water through the people's collective intention.”

The dancers spread, shake, whip and ultimately gather under an olive green covering made from recycled parachute material, and their movements are meant to de-emphasize the distinction between humans and plants. They extend themselves to all four cardinal directions, reaching and writhing, filling the space with a vision of the vast and fertile earth. A diadem of sunflowers sits atop Rulan's head. As the other dancers' torsos poke through the fabric, they seem themselves to be sprouting.
 In the final scene the music (designed and played by DJ Kino Benally, and incorporating work by musician Ehren Natay and the recorded voices of many community members) picks up in tempo. The seeds turn toward the northeast. The music is urban Indigenous—house, cumbia. “They are also ours,” explained Rulan, “the rhythms and people; mixed-blood, urban, vital pulse.” In the final image the dancers appear to be plants reaching to the sky. The lights will go out, but the music will continue, as will the Native peoples.

“Survivance” is an amalgam of survival and resilience, a
ccording to Rulan, and it's a vital state. "Our people have experienced massacres and genocide. We deal with tragedy by working with healers. We help each other move through the suffering place. We use innate, instinctive touch, we hold talking circles, we're always feeding each other in community. There is a vital role for arts in movement building. Instead of focusing on the oppressor the focus is on creativity, imagination. We spend time envisioning transformation. A place where we're strong, as comfortable on our hands as on our feet, supported, uplifted, respected and acclaimed.”
Trey Pickett (center) of Tsalagi/African American heritage - multifaceted dancer, teacher and choreographer
 It should be said that Dancing Earth's dance-creation process is deliberately exploring concepts
of De-Colonization. “Our dances are created from an exchange of stories. We inhabit the stories, animate each other's stories. Our process is participatory and we honor the Indigenous modes. This is counter to some of the more hierarchical processes I experienced as a young dancer,
which taught a dancer the beautiful selflessness of becoming an instrument to another’s vision. In some ways it's much harder to create a cohesive collage or mosaic. Nothing is superimposed, there's no demand that a pointed foot be pointed merely for a preconceived notion of what a line should look like. A foot might be pointed if it were supposed to represent a leaf in a specific instance, but not overall. I teach in a state of inquiry, it's how we resist the oppression layered onto us."

n the first rehearsal I attended, much of the time was dedicated to practicing the movements with the enormous parachute covering while counting out 12 beats, getting the count right, getting in sync with each other in a rare instance of unison in a work that seeks a more organic expression of group dynamics. “We perform variations on unison,” Rulan prompted, "like wind on the grasses we saw outside earlier.” Her suggestions to the dancers accented the sensuousness of their creation: "You're peeling away a corn husk...emphasize the smoothness and silkiness...the texture is so interesting...use the flat palm instead of grabbing the material...give a breath as a sound cue."

Afterward Rulan asked the dancers, who were all holding hands in a circle for the debrief, “How do you feel?” “Sweaty!” was the answer, and everyone laughed. The sweetness of laughter had infused the creative problem-solving throughout the rehearsal; mutual respect was palpable even if someone was late by a beat, or early. “If I'm late,” Rulan advised, “go on with each other! I'll catch up to you.” Whatever the opposite of diva is, that is Rulan's directorial style and rehearsal demeanor.

After all the exacting practice Rulan gave the dancers the recognition that was their due. Smiling, she told them she could feel the energy from emanating along their spines up through the back of their heads. She told them they were all bringing it on an equal level, that she was stunned and thrilled, and that this rehearsal was the strongest yet. “There's been a change,” she said. “You've come such a long way, especially in making tangible your relationships with each other.” Later, she said to me, “The Seed is the lens of ecology, our dance is a functional ritual of reciprocity. We hope our company's own arc will be that of the seed—first small, then multiplied, then abundantly more." Beautiful words as prelude for a generous thought: "I would like to be able to pay the dancers a fair living wage, so they can do this full time.
Anne Pesata, of Jicarilla First Nation has a degree in Environmental Studies and works for her tribe as a community health representative

Dancing Earth's festival performance will be held on Thursday, August 6th from 7:30-8:30 pm, at the renowned McMichaels Art Gallery. In the company's Canadian debut they'll be creating a site-immersive ritual on a spiral mound. They plan to do a tobacco blessing as both a smudging and a swirling dance of smoke. They'll explore the space in movement, and then make a progression together to the gallery where they will dance Re-Generation. But first there will be a cultural welcoming by First Nations guest artists, Jerry Longboat and Christine Friday, of Mohawk and Anishinabe heritage, respectively, both longtime dance colleagues of Rulan's, along with Shelley Charlesa respected Anishinabe elder, who will serve as land stewards. Rulan, Anne, Shane and Trey will ask permission of the land stewards to present their dance.

When Rulan invoked this traditional but neglected practice in some territories, tears came to the eyes of one Lakota woman who said through her gentle weeping: “It has been so long since this was remembered, we thought it had been forgotten.”