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Leslie Arbogast
Music and Dance Reviews
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Indigenous Contemporary
Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College
United States
Durango, CO

Dancing Earth's SEED a call for a return to Indigenous food systems

by Leslie Arbogast
November 15, 2014
Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College
1000 Rim Drive
Durango, CO 81301
(970) 247-7657
Over the course of time, people evolve. Thoughts evolve. Our perceptions of the world we occupy evolve. This evolution brings forth the urge to create progressive change, which could benefit humanity and its home, collectively. Social awareness is a key instrument in motivating such change, and is the heartfelt purpose behind the work of Rulan Tangen, founder, featured dancer, and director of San Francisco-based Dancing Earth. By fusing Global Indigenous concepts of life, cosmology, movement, and the human-to-nature interrelationship with contemporary dance, Dancing Earth confronts the socio-political and environmental issues with which our society, and the world, struggle today.

These ideas were brought to life on stage, Saturday, November 15, 2014, at Fort Collins College in Durango, Colorado, when members of Dancing Earth collaborated with the college’s theater and dance department, for the production of SEED. Prior to the commencement of the performance, the mood was set by the infectious rhythms of DJ Beeso (also known as Kino Benally). He also delivered his “digital magic” during intermission.

A moving dedication, geared toward addressing human/environmental health and its relationship to food, SEED opened with a group of hungry youths, who became violently ill from consuming empty, nutrition-less, processed “edibles”. This scene, saturated with personified fast food brands and “junk food”, fixated on drawing the youths in with seductive music, lyrics, and visual imagery. After witnessing such despair, the ancestors entered slowly from four directions, to surround the youths and offer comfort, healing, and nurturing. These acts of love and compassion led the audience into a journey through the four seasons, beginning with "Winter."

"Winter" opened with a family birds, enveloped in lively colors and bright, protruding feathers, who descended from their nest in search of sustenance. They pecked at the ground, played together, and searched for seeds underneath the snow. Interestingly, we saw that with every changing season or significant rite of passage, an ancestor appeared to open the pathway to that next chapter of life, leading those who seek guidance. This is a common ideology among not only Indigenous peoples of the Americas, but also those around the globe.

A solo by Dancing Earth company member Deollo Johnson marked the ancestral encounter of "Winter," during which he creatively traversed the stage, engaging with the soil, foraging, and leaving tracks for future generations to follow. His gifts were received, as new foragers appeared, following this ancestral guidance.

Traditional methods of planting with sticks are revived during the "Spring" season, one of countless examples of how earth-based props were used throughout the performance, to enhance the audience’s understanding of Indigenous food production. The dancers engaged in human-to-Earth communication, listening carefully and feeding off of one another. After the planting was complete, the audience appeared amazed, from baring witness to seeds in human form, transforming and opening into their own existence, while fluidly pulsing, stretching, contracting and releasing themselves into the soil. Throughout the experience, the audience witnessed the strength and beauty of sprouting seeds, enveloped in sensually touching music that not only complimented the movement itself, but also reflected the cultural concepts behind it. After plants grew from the seeds, their uses were brought to light, as body paint sources for warriors, hiding places for animals and people, medicine for healers, and basketry. "Spring" concluded with an incredibly heart-warming solo by fourth generation Jicarilla Apache basket weaver, Anna Pesata. Several audience members were brought to tears, as they quietly watched her carefully embody each stage of the basket weaving process with perpetual dedication and love. All the while, we were listening to her verbally describe the intricacies of this work, within the very music to which she danced.

The Three Sisters of corn, beans, and squash commenced "Summer," weaving in and around each other, representing how they interact and work together to create a bountiful crop. Soon after, pollen entered the stage, gliding about and attracting the attention of butterflies, bees, and birds. This delightful gathering grew into a festive celebration, oozing with excitement and vigor, as the dancers carried out their own Brazilian Samba-themed party. The mood then shifted, with smooth flute music and flowing seductive movement, as the cast lowered themselves to the floor, with the exception of The Queen Bee, Teahonna James, who danced with compelling grace and power in the center of the group. Through this “haze”, the dancers found themselves entering a period of struggle and pain, upon the entrance of personified GMOs. They were dressed in long, dark blue robes, and moved their bodies as if they were scientists-turned-wizards, casting evil spells that represent the man-made creations and influences that have deteriorated Indigenous food systems. In their presence, the dancers were enchained, contained, and oppressed. All the while, music with lyrics boldly stating “It ain’t goin’ down like that no more”, bolstered the wizards’ destructive work. Inevitably, the search for missing flowers and bees ensued, after the wizards’ mysterious disappearance.

Fire marked the season of "Fall," with flaming multi-media imagery as the backsplash for explosive and unharnessed dancing by Trey Pickett, Deollo Johnson, and Autumn Ancestor, Teresa Stone. Their bodies and the stage were saturated in shades of red and orange, as they represented change and transformation, from beginning to end, and end to beginning. After the chaos, darkness and quiet set in, allowing space for a vision of perseverance and newness to enter. An enchanting solo by Dancing Earth’s Rulan Tangen, represented this vision, as she moved with grace and elegance before images of stalks of corn and blades of swaying grass, morphing gently in the breeze. Gasps, pants, sighs, and other breath-like sounds guided her movements, all showing the reviving power that breath gives to life. As dried falling leaves sprinkled the stage, she interacted with them, allowing them to surround her, while she moved with intentions of hope and motivation to renew. This vision attracted the deer, who frolicked humbly about the stage, greeting each other and the earth quietly, yet playfully at the same time, while the dancers held tree branches atop their heads, emulating antlers.

Post-fire, piles of smoke rose from the Earth, delivering messages, prayer, and gifts to the stars. Climbing the flowing strands of fabric representing this smoke, aerialist Andrea Rose Bear King became the ascending prayers, by creatively contorting her body while suspended in mid-air. The sheer power and beauty of her movement left the audience in a state of awe and disbelief. As the scene closed and shifted into the performance’s finale, the entire cast gathered on stage to offer a visual culmination of each contributing force within the performance, embodying the Tree of Life. This striking scene was enhanced by traditional music and song from a local, pan-Indigenous choir.

SEED was a fascinating tribute to activism in the spirit of returning to Indigenous food systems, with a goal of improving human health and the physical condition of our planet, Rulan Tangen and Dancing Earth have risen to the challenge, once again.

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