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Wahzhazhe, an Osage ballet a Work of Beauty and Cultural Significance

by Judith Fein
August 7, 2016
The Lensic Performing Arts Center
211 West San Francisco Street
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(505) 988-1234
Judith Fein is an award-winning author, travel writer, speaker, and director. Her website is www.GlobalAdventure.us She wrote the libretto for the much-acclaimed opera, THE HOTEL EDEN, with music by Henry Mollicone (for reviews, see http://henrymollicone.com/musiclist/operalist/hotel-eden.
Something very moving happened after the performance of Wahzhazhe, an Osage ballet, Saturday, August 6 at The Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe. Three young girls, who had just danced in the performance and looked darling in their faux-buckskin dresses by Kimberly “Wendy” Ponca, explained excitedly that they wanted to be professional dancers when they grow up. About two years ago, they said, a school for native dancers had opened in Oklahoma, and they studied ballet, modern, tap, and jazz.

The fact that these young Osage girls navigate in two worlds––one traditional and native, and the other contemporary and non-native– is not only the reality of Osage people today, but also the theme of the ballet, which was choreographed by Jenna Smith (Osage and Cherokee).

From the moment the opening crawl ended (a video projection which tells, briefly, the history of the Osage people pre-and-post conquest), and the lights came up on buckskin and ballet, feathers and fouettés, loincloths and leaps, ballet slippers and bare feet, it was apparent that the production was an ambitious attempt to fuse the best of two universes.

The dancers, both native and non-native, American-born and hailing from other countries like Japan, Cuba, and Kazakhstan, ranged in age from three to three score, and included professional principals like Miki Kawamura, Seth Bradley, Randy Crespo, and Zoe Marinello-Kohn. In a fresh, authentic presentation of tribal life and community, the pros happily shared the stage with kids, supernumeraries, and tribal elders, and pas de deux opened up into pas de twenty.

The ballet itself– divided into thematic segments– tells the story of the Osage people from the idealized, Edenesque pre-European-contact life, where men hunted, women tanned hides, and children played a kind of field-hockey-precursor game. Then the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, and despite the fact that the dancers were concerned with keeping their helmets on their heads and didn’t seem very menacing, the life of the Osage changed forever. In one horrific scene, the tribe members were presented with blankets that turned out to be deliberately infected with smallpox. One child is wrapped in a blanket, which soon turns into a shroud. In other segments, the Osage are driven from their land, and subjected to the evils of domination: murder, theft, broken promises, subjugation. They are forced to cut their hair, dress like white people, and have their culture wrenched from them in boarding schools. They are seduced by oil money and easy wealth, their lives are infused with greed and profligacy. At the end, there is a return to old values, and the marriage of Osage tradition and modern ways.

A several moments, the stage imagery and movement are arresting, like when an Osage man in a suit suddenly crouches low and does a native dance. Or when the vibrant child infected with smallpox from a blanket becomes a tragic corpse. Or when the ragtime music comes up, and the feathered flappers boogie with well-choreographed abandon to the infectious beat. The production could have used a lot more of this: sure-handed direction, an eye for imagery, and consultation with a dramaturge. Without it, the ballet sometimes seems like an endearing and informative historical pageant that has been re- cast each year since its inception in 2012. The story, the power of the cultural blending, the communal support and participation, the willingness of the performers, the moments of beauty and truth deserve to be enhanced and perhaps, one day, will be.

Not only is Wahzhazhe a performance of cultural significance, but it gives the audience an opportunity to see and hear the Osage story as told and drummed by the Osage people themselves. In a world aching for more appreciation of each others’ cultures, the ballet heralds, we hope, an era of diverse groups telling their stories with their unique blending and interpretation of traditional and modern styles.

Photo © & courtesy of Osage Ballet

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