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Dancing Earth’s BETWEEN UNDERGROUND & SKYWORLD: Luminous Hope for a World on Fire

by Kathryn Machi
October 26, 2019
Dance Mission Theater
3316 24th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 826-4441
Editor's note: This review is a deep-delve reflection on a performance that happened in October 2019. The review was published June 16, 2020.

Kathryn Machi helms ViviLu Productions where she creates feminist screenplays and stories focused on performance, family, and community for international audiences ages 10 to 110.
www.viviluproductions.com
https://www.facebook.com/ViviLuProductions/
Sparking extensive Indigenous community dialogue about climate change, commodification, and colonization, world-renowned Contemporary Indigenous Dance leader and Dancing Earth director Rulan Tangen (Metis) asked: “What is energy? What is renewable? What is our collective futurity?”

In her fierce, timely, and entrancing multi-media work-in-progress, “Between Underground & Skyworld” (BTW US), Ms. Tangen responded to a final question: “How do we make relevant our Elders’ cultural teachings of the past while encouraging the present generation’s sustainable imaginings of the future?”

On a steamy October evening after the hottest summer on record, a passionately anticipatory crowd of youth, elders, activists, pan-generational artists, and families packed the Dance Mission Theater in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District. At the same time, 75 miles north of SF, the Kincade Fire continued to burn out of control, displacing rural and Native communities and filling Bay Area skies with ash. Many of those present, both attendees and performers, voiced concern and solidarity for their family and community members once again in the fire’s deadly path.

Offering prayers for safety, four California Native artists and ceremony keepers including Ras K’Dee (Pomo) and Kanyon Sayers-Roods (Costanoan Ohlone/Chumash) hosted the performance in Dancing Earth’s signature tradition, with local Indigenous songs, dances, gentle humor, and sacred smoke.

The earthy-sharp healing scents of cedar and sage wafted lightly through the studio as the slender, regal, and precise Ms. Tangen then briefly took the stage. She mentioned her journey from dancer to choreographer and director of Dancing Earth. Sixteen years ago as an impassioned young dancer in NYC, “living to dance and dancing to live,” a battle with cancer and her steep recovery inspired her to change her path: “To make dance to give life.” Speaking humbly but forcibly, she continued, “For Native people, the Apocalypse arrived centuries ago. Climate Change is the symptom of something Indigenous people have been experiencing for 500 years.”

Despite this horrific truth, BTW US—as in all of Ms. Tangen’s productions laser-focused on the environment and Indigenous leadership—decisively aims to cultivate hope for all our youth, and for the endangered Seven Generations to come.

As the stage darkened into a place of stars, drum, rattle, and otherwordly chant, the ethereal, majestic White Moon Woman appeared, her long, translucent hoop skirt swaying behind her like ripples in a cool stream. Taking her place in the heavens (elegantly enacted upon a tall, pale ladder) White Moon Woman’s hooped skirt transformed to a beautiful, inner-lit teepee of wisdom and protection. Hypnotic, maternal heart rhythms announced the sinewy, sinuously feminine Luminous Beings, who danced with reeds-in-the-wind undulations and spinning, capoeira-like movements. Their lovely, comforting strength, and equilibrium filled the star-lit stage…until the story fast-forwarded to the near-future.

Now, earth-crunching cranes and oil derricks filled the video screen, disrupting the elemental peace as machines made by greedy humans were in the act of destroying the Earth. Heralding the impending Apocalypse, the rhythmic world music changed to harsh, ominous blues while five new dancers—four men and one woman in colorful found-costumes of survivor clothes, wearing bulky backpacks and bright running shoes—careened onstage in an explosion of energy, their staccato, fluid Hip-Hop handsprings, leaps, and flips expressing existential outrage and fear.

One dancer pants, "It’s been a rough 500 years. How will we get through it?” The frazzled group agrees they must seek out an Elder for help, and so their voyage to visit White Moon Woman commenced. One by one, burdened by grief and heavy backpacks, each Human crawls into the luminous teepee-sanctum; one by one they exit, having been given the true story and deepest need of their once-nurturing Mother planet – and how they can save Her.

Back on Earth, the newly aware Humans recount White Moon Woman’s teaching in fierce, sometimes humorous, dance and story: In the Long Ago, the mixed-race child of a God and a Human carried wondrous, healing gifts to Earth by means of a Rainbow Bridge. In time, however, the Humans grew jealous and attempted to cross this bridge themselves. The God-Boy tried to talk them out of it but the Humans persisted, destroying the bridge and bringing calamity upon the Earth. But pieces of the Rainbow Bridge remained. White Moon Woman has filled the Humans’ backpack with these embers of wisdom, kindness, courage, empathy, strength, and gratitude. With these Superpowers, the Humans can begin to walk in beauty again, honoring all forms of life as sacred, and renewing the Earth.

Ms. Tangen’s extensive works defy succinct definition. Her natural intuition for spirit and community as the common ground for individual people in the world marks her as a true maverick. Her philosophy that “each dancer should tell a story with their bodies” encompasses a generous and versatile blend of contemporary dance movement that, within unifying, often breathtaking choreography, explores and sculpts each dancer according to their strengths, empowering each artist to fully embody a locomotion and e-motion uniquely their own. The spectator cannot help but be emotionally drawn in and spiritually fired.

Masterfully weaving movement and video footage with searing spoken word expressed with exuberance and profundity, humor and tragedy, perseverance and transcendence, BTW US urged the audience to seek out, re-member, and practice the old ways of creation and harmony in order to regain our cultural, moral, and ecological balance.

The marvelous, charismatic dance ensemble was accompanied by a poetically explosive soundscape of both up-and-coming and established musicians and poets, including John Trudell, Robert Mirabal, A Tribe Called Red and a host of fabulous, original, Indigenous compositions arranged by John Carlos Perea (Aerep Music). At the end of the performance, each dancer introduced themselves and offered a few heartfelt words in their Native languages from the mountains, deserts, and waters of Mexico, Venezuela, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and the Bay Area.

“Between Underground & Skyworld” unequivocally delivered its fiery message of action and hope to those of us determined to keep dancing for balance in however holy, wild, or desperate a fashion, while still reaching for and listening to the stars.

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See the trailer for BTW US here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plQGS71dBZU&t=5s

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DANCING EARTH Performing Artists: Natalie Aceves-Ghezzi, Kayla Banks, Raven Bright, Dakota Camacho, Olivia Camfield, Devon Chen, Justin Giehm, Andreina Maldonado, Trey Pickett, Rulan Tangen.
Artistic Director: Rulan Tangen.
Concept: Rulan Tangen and Dancing Earth artists, incorporating collaboration and visioning sessions with diasporic community members through lived cultural research and relationship building.
Choreography by: Rulan Tangen and Dancing Earth artists.

Dancing Earth is respectfully based in Ogaa Po Ogeh - occupied Tewa territory known as Santa Fe, NM, and Yelamu - occupied Ohlone territory known as San Francisco, CA.
Natalie Aceves-Ghezzi in Dancing Earth's Between Underground and Skyworld (White Moon Woman)

Natalie Aceves-Ghezzi in Dancing Earth's Between Underground and Skyworld (White Moon Woman)

Photo © & courtesy of Pam Taylor


Dancer Introductions after Dancing Earth's Between Underground and Skyworld

Dancer Introductions after Dancing Earth's Between Underground and Skyworld

Photo © & courtesy of Joanna Cruz

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