Rulan Tangen’s Indigenous Contemporary dance company, Dancing Earth, performed “…seeds: RE GENERATION” at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage in the nation’s capital.
This isn’t just a review of a performance. This is a marked moment in a long narrative.
Some years ago, because of a recommendation by Mique'l Dangeli at the Dance Critics Association conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in early August 2013, I was going to review Dancing Earth at a dance festival in Battery Park, NYC. For various reasons, it was difficult for me to get to, so I didn’t go to the show that day. But I learned enough about it, because fortunately a colleague of a colleague of mine happened to be there and was able to write about it, that I became intrigued by Indigenous Contemporary dance. I had this sense that it was important, both in dance and historical senses, but Ms. Tangen and Dancing Earth kept performing in places I couldn’t get to. So, instead of going to Battery Park, which was a subway ride and a walk away, I contacted a colleague in the World Dance Alliance who put me in touch with a writer in New Zealand, the next place Dancing Earth was performing. That review from the other side of the world left me more intrigued. Actually, two writers. New Mexico. A difficult to get to part of Colorado. She came to NYC for a show, but there was a missed connection. I did see some of her colleagues perform in NYC, which was great progress in understanding Indigenous Contemporary dance and a great show, but this narrative, this quest began with Ms. Tangen and Dancing Earth so I was determined to keep going until I had finally seen her work in person. Finally, she and her ensemble were going to perform in DC, which is only a train ride away from my home in NYC. The narrative was calling, so I took the day off, booked a train ticket, did my usual half panicked packing even though I was only staying over one night, and finally got on the train.
There are two kinds of dance reviews. In one, I would scribble in a notebook as the show progresses. In the other, I don’t take any notes, and then compose the review on my phone on the subway ride home. In this case, I didn't take notes, and I was hanging out with a friend and colleague who lives in DC for several hours after the show. I am only now writing the review, at about 11 pm. (I’m a Brechtian, so I like to reveal my process.)
I thought Dancing Earth’s entire ensemble were strong dancers. They had continuous control throughout their movements, not just at each step. With such strong dancers, almost any choreography will carry well.
The choreography did have a consistent choreographic idea, but it was frequently varied. From my perspective, this is good. You have to keep in mind that I am a social dancer, which I have mentioned in reviews before. This means that my sense of time for dances is three or four minutes. A typical social dance song lasts three or four minutes, so whether you are improvising socially, or performing, you have to establish a choreographic idea, with a beginning, middle and end, and get the job done in four minutes. In concert dance, by contrast, whether ballet or modern/contemporary, a full length work is often an hour or more. Sometimes, there is one choreographic idea that stays the same for the whole work. Sometimes I find these works to have sections which are all well danced, but cumulatively I find them way too long. (You, the reader, can feel free to disagree with me for any given show. I am just an imperfect mirror, whose job is to get you to shows so you can decide for yourself.)
With “…seeds:RE Generation”, the underlying choreographic idea was so varied in each section that I was engrossed by it from start to finish. This version of the work was perhaps an hour long, yet they packed a lot of creativity into that time.
This is dance, so we often talk about bodies. This show makes you talk about bodies. A lot of the costumes, for some of the sections especially in the beginning, were skin tight leotards or equivalent, that were more or less the dancers’ skin tones, maybe slightly lighter than their skin, with red markings consistent with Indigenous visual art traditions. Ritual body paint. Something like that. Sometimes in dance, the dancers are dressed to present them as nude or almost nude, so that it is all about the body. The body doesn’t have to be sexual, but people, or at least some people, often assume that dance is always a direct precursor to sex. Some dance costuming intentionally plays into that idea. The “seeds” bodysuit costumes by contrast somehow made the body apparent and naked, and yet at the same time not naked at all. The costumes made the dancers of the body, but not in a sexual sense. “seeds” is both an abstract dance work, and a work explicitly about nature. These bodysuit costumes worked on both levels.
Ms. Tangen’s choreography consistently worked on multiple levels, from the front of the stage to the back. There were often three or four levels of dancers on stage, and sometimes a video projection behind them with dancers as well. Imagine the old style animation where one layer of celluloid is laid on top the other next, with several layers creating the final image. This is kind of what the choreography was often like. Each layer was different, but connected to the layers behind it. (As a clarification, Ms. Tangen commented to me after the show that the show was developed using a highly collaborative process, so proper choreography credits would likely include the whole company.)
Choreography often consists of one movement or movements done in synchronization by several dancers. Sometimes there is synchronization, with one or two dancers doing something different as an offset. In “seeds”, there were very few synchronized sections. The dancers were usually doing sometime different from each other, but in a way that was connected and built upon. In fact, while there were some sections that showcased individual dancers, much of the time the dancers moved together in a way that the collective kinetic energy was so dominant, I barely saw the dancers as individuals, but did see this unified flowing movement. To me, as a social dancer, where partnering is everything, this was real partnering, but on some other level.
The sections didn’t seem to have a clear build to the movement, which I usually like, but in this case I didn’t think it mattered. I might see a pattern across the work if I watched it again, which I definitely want to do. There was a clear build between the first maybe 80% of the show, and the last 20% where things got alternatively darker and brighter and somewhat more dramatic. When a woman with a dark colored Native-looking costume, but with a really long train that she swings around the stage boldly, and a mask that looks Native, except for the bottom part that looks like a World War I gas mask, you can’t help but pay attention.
While the costumes in most of the show looked clearly Indigenous-inspired, later in the show the dancers were wearing what were either farm clothes or prison clothes, of a sort of weathered blue jean look. This then somehow revealed bright yellow tops, that transitioned to a corn sequence. As in growing corn, or maize, depending on where you are from. And in this corn sequence, Ms. Tangen suddenly had a crown of yellow flowers on her head. Where did it come from? I have no idea. It happened so swiftly and smoothly, one moment her head was bare and the next it was crowned with glory, that it might as well have been magic. Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that any technology sufficiently advanced will be indistinguishable from magic. I think the same can be true of dance, and in this moment it was.
I like to write reviews such that, even for a really wonderful and awesome show like “seeds”, I should be able to find some suggestion for improvement. This is partly from my training in Toastmasters speech evaluations. Towards the end of the show, some of the dancers were moving with some aerial type silks, using them like curtains, but not performing in the air on them. I thought to myself at this point, this is an awesome show, but they could make it better by performing on aerial silks. And then they did. I haven’t seen that much aerial work, but it was plenty impressive enough.
So, I was figuratively scratching my head trying to think of some other way they could make the show better, other than adding a potato masher shaped like a duck, which they didn’t have, but wouldn’t make any sense in this context. (I do have six potato mashers shaped like a duck, don’t ask, so if Ms. Tangen did want to borrow one, all she has to do is ask.) And then they made my job that much more difficult when one of the dancers began to sing. And sing well. Most high level dancers don’t sing or talk on stage, will admit they aren’t good at it, and don’t really want to. Merde, Ms. Tangen has a double threat in her ensemble. Her name is Esme Olivia. Hopefully she will find a studio, record ten songs, and increase at least a few thousand people’s net happiness.
What else could they do better? Put the seats in the back on risers to improve the sight lines. This is a common problem. But they probably have no control over that.
Restage the show to present it in the round, instead of in the current proscenium format. There is no real reason to do this, but dancers can get bored doing the same awesome thing over and over again. Trying it in the round could help the dancers feel challenged.
I did find that some of the sections had a pedagogical intent that was clear, sometimes from the voiceovers, and some earlier in the show that were not as clear. Still, since the show also worked as abstract dance, I don’t think it matters. On the other hand, if Dancing Earth wants to measure how well the audience retains specific ideas or calls to action, which is a reasonable presumption given the extensive program notes in the performance program handed out to the audience (George Bernard Shaw, one of the ultimate program notes writers for his own plays, likely would approve), this might be worth a look. Maybe try the show with a narrator at the start of each section. Maybe shorter version of each section, with more explicit narration, followed by an opportunity for the audience to learn some of the dance. Dancing Earth did a week long residency prior to this culminating show, so for all I know they have already done something like this.
And now back to the show itself. There were sections of the choreography that reminded me of Martha Graham’s Lamentations, where she danced inside of a shroud-like fabric. In “seeds” it wasn’t exactly like this, but if your frame of reference includes Graham, it was a clear link. Except that sometimes what started looking like a Lamentations variation became a living landscape, or people pressed against the fabric from inside through another dancer’s legs, like something out of Rodin’s Gates of Hell (there is an outdoor version of this awesome sculpture at Stanford University - Rulan should take her dancers there and do a site specific work). In part of this, one female dancer, possibly Ms. Olivia, held the fabric between her teeth like some great, flowing, angry tongue.
At least once the dancers were in a grounded grouping, and one dancer was upside down, her legs pointed up in the air at odd angles. The moment reminded me of Momix.
Since I didn’t take notes, I know I am missing something.
There were a couple of moments in the video projection which were like momentary rips in the space time continuum, revealing Ms. Tangen as a backlit, glowing Muse.
There was this rope of fabric which seemed to be one thing in the hands of the dancers in the first layer, and then became something else when handled by the next layer. Something like that. It is Six past Midnight, and I am slipping memories of the work into the review as my memory slips. Worth another look.
Oh, and the two men dressed in Native-style costumes, except that some of the materials woven into the costumes weren’t materials that would have been available hundreds of years ago. And not just these costumes, which I liked, but their creative use of hoops. They each had three, maybe six hoops, about three feet in diameter, and then manipulated first one, then two, then three and more, to form shapes and patterns that were intricate and probably could be described by mathematical equations, if you think equations are beautiful, which I do, but I don’t know enough math to tell you what they were.
To go back to the beginning of the show, they started with a welcoming ritual, where some people who live in DC, or Nacotchtanke, were asked to go on stage and say a few words of welcome. One also gave a short drum performance. I have seen this before in the one other Indigenous Contemporary dance show I have seen. I have the impression that the people who are drawn to Indigenous Contemporary dance are generally welcoming people. They have pride without attitude, which is the kind of people and dance I like. (And they invited everyone in the audience into a circle dance at the very end of the show.)
I am just musing here, but I find it strange that some Indigenous people who go out of their way to call themselves Indigenous or Native or First Nations, and insist that such words be capitalized as a marker of respect, which they should, also call themselves “Indian”. Yes, Indigenous peoples in the US have been called American Indians, but this started because Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean thinking he would land in India, and instead came ashore somewhere unknown to him, rather lost and confused. Not that it matters. People can call themselves what they want, and sometimes terms that started as insults can be turned around to become words of pride. (See Queer, the history of the song Yankee Doodle Dandy, and many others.)
So now, in the somewhat rambling way my writing can sometimes be, we get to the topic of India. I try to avoid calling any dance company “the best” because it is difficult to make those comparisons, and it will unnecessarily make everyone else upset. (And never, never call a dancer “the most beautiful” because this will make your wife or girlfriend upset.) That said, if I were forced to pick the best dance company of those I have seen, or certainly one of the best (see, I am taking my own advice and hedging), I would go with the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble from India. I have seen them several times, and even put them on the cover of my children’s book, Dance Your Verbs. The dancers of Nrityagram devote most of their lives to dance, and their control, even in their stillness, is among the best I have ever seen. I would hazard to estimate that the dancers in Dancing Earth are close. Maybe 0.84 Nr, to make the comparison sound overly scientific with too many significant digits, and a somewhat arbitrary number. What is true, speaking as a purely objective observer (actually there is no such thing, but that is another topic), is that were Dancing Earth and the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble to do a two week collaborative workshop, choreography that is new yet old and worth watching would emerge.
One other company with which Dancing Earth ought to collaborate is The Seven Fingers from Montreal. Seven Fingers is a Nouveau Cirque company, so lots of really accomplished aerial silks and much more. The results would likely be worth watching too. Seven Fingers has also perfected cooking on stage during a dance show, which to the best of my knowledge Dancing Earth has not yet attempted. (Seven Fingers does need a potato masher shaped like a duck, so one of my six is reserved for them.)
There must be a foundation out there who could fund these workshops.
What else? Watching Indigenous Contemporary dance has led me to think about what it means to be Native or Indigenous. Part of this is about bloodlines, to use the old term for genetic and cultural family history, linked to original settlement of certain lands. In the US and Canada, and some other places, there are legal definitions for who is or is not Native. But, it also seems to me that being Native is about more than blood and accidents of birth. I think you also have to choose to be Native. You have to choose to enact certain values. For example, in the voice over that was part of much of “seeds”, they talked about caring about and defending one’s land. Maybe I am living where my ancestors lived, or maybe I am living far away, but either way, I can choose to care about and defend wherever I am. I am not Native in the sense of being from an Indigenous tribe, but I do think of myself as being a “Native New Yorker”. I care about the place, and try to make it better. Perhaps my Native and Ms. Tangen’s Native are 10% the same, just to pick a number at random, and whether that makes us allies or family, I don’t know.
Native used to be something derogatory, lesser, savage. Now Native is or can be something better, honest, a set of values that let you stand tall.
It is more important to me as a dance critic (a word many people incorrectly use to be synonymous with “negative”) that a dance give me something to think about and something to say, than it is that the dance be “good”. In the case of Rulan Tangen and Dancing Earth’s “…seeds: RE GENERATION”, there was a lot to think about and to say, and the show was consistently awesome. It took a journey halfway across the world and back over almost six years to finally see it, but it was worth it. Or as Edward Albee said in “The Zoo Story”, sometimes you have to go a long way out to come a short way back.
I need to see “…seeds: RE GENERATION” twice more. The second time so I can just watch it and try to just enjoy it without automatically composing text in my head. The third time to take the hypotheses of this first viewing and back it up with more detailed evidence and analysis, as well as more discussion of the work's environmental subject matter. Plus a few other of Ms. Tangen’s works, and some works by Ms. Tangen’s colleagues. Except for a few major dance companies like NYCB and ABT, who have months long extended seasons, dance company seasons tend to be a week or two, if they are lucky and successful, with many dance company seasons just a weekend or two. Based on what I have now seen of Indigenous Contemporary dance, it would be possible to compile longer seasons. Not easy, from a marketing and financial perspective, among others, but possible.
I have been taking a leap of faith with coverage of Indigenous Contemporary dance, and now that I have seen “…seeds: RE GENERATION” I am confident I was right to take that leap. I’m in. Or since Indigenous is properly a proper noun: I’m In.