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Of Bodies Of Elements: “Mending the Sacred Hoop”

Rulan Tangen’s Of Bodies of Elements presented to a packed house at the James A. Little Theater on Friday night, August 19. Tangen, the founder and director of Dancing Earth, the seven-year-old company that is the only contemporary indigenous dance troupe of its kind – emerged in a red silk wrap to describe the trajectory of this performance on a national tour and back to Santa Fe, where it was created. Tangen noted, to a chorus of “ahos” from the audience,“It has taken 13 years” for her company and this dance – an imagistic rendering of myths and a story of “mending the sacred hoop” – to win a coveted performance spot on the eve of Indian Market in Santa Fe. Featured Image:  Kate Russell ©2010

A contemporary and homegrown production with roots and tentacles spreading far enough to encompass dancers of diverse tribal memberships, and designers of costumes and sets and multimedia too, Dancing Earth is not just a company of Native American dancers, but a voice for making performance relationships demonstrate a critical intersection where performance meets environment. Tangen has taught or led workshops at such places as Stanford University’s Institute of Diversity in the Arts, and at Trent University’s indigenous performance initiative in Canada. She spoke to both experiences on August 12th at Santa Fe Art Institute, whose support midwifed this dance  into being.

Of Bodies Of Elements has also appeared in cities including St. Louis and San Francisco, as well as in Albuquerque, Montana, and at Fort Lewis College in Durango. “The vision of Dancing Earth is global, indigenous ,” Tangen told a video interviewer in Buenos Aires in 2007. But, she added, dance is not the sole mechanism for the company of carrying the message forward.

With audience members dressed to the nines in jewelry and body-hugging dresses, Tangen’s pre-dance remarks appeared to rivet the audience,as she gave thanks to her mother, and all the earth’s mothers. She related, in additional post-performance comments, that the indigenous grandmothers have tasked her with making a new work about water, in time to come.

One could have argued that hearing about the next project made for a slight sense of dislocation just after experiencing this dance rich in metaphor and image. It had indeed riveting moments, in which multiple propositions of constellation myths and birthing stars swirled and circled the small stage, effectualizing themes of rupture and healing, pollution and re-purification, with the dancers’ bodies packed close. Certain things were given: six women and four men danced, with special note to lead dancers Nicole Salazar and Deollo Johnson (and guests like a quartet of break dancers who took the stage up the aisle).

While the first act revealed this company finds in a modernist vocabulary reminiscent of Martha Graham in the dancers’ elongations and compressions, the second act began with aerial performance and moved, in what for me was the strongest segment, through iterations of the Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee massacres – video multimedia and original music accompanying. Then Deollo Johnson as eagle plucked the bodies of the wounded, dressed in white, one by one, off the stage. And Tangen in a butoh-owing black dress tied as if with the detritus of the world, plastic bags and litter, made a stunning appearance with the healing beings emergent from under her symbolic armature.

What would have mainly to be said about this dance, was that it was images that built the dance’s cohesion, rather than the dance movements one often associates with what propels the tension on stage. Dancing Earth is dance theater probably as much as it is “dance,” and as such, finds in a wordlessness packed with animation a story that turns a key into reclaiming the sacred. I’d love to have seen the dance at a venue better suited for dance than the James A. Little, with blocked sight lines, for this promising company and its potent dance-stories.

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