In Dance Theater, the Future Is Indigenous — and Renewable

If colonization is what got us to this place, maybe "re-indigenization" -- in dance -- is our way forward.

Natalie Aceves-Ghezz of Dancing Earth in "Between Underground and Skyworld (BTW US)." Photo: Love Cruz.

Late last month, I traveled to Yelamu, the occupied Ohlone territory better known as San Francisco, to attend a work-in-progress performance by Dancing Earth Creations at Dance Mission Theater. The engagement was poignant because Dance Mission Theater is where Dancing Earth was birthed 15 years ago.

Rulan Tangen, Dancing Earth’s founding artistic director (previously profiled on the CFR here and here) called the company’s new work, Between Underground and Skyword (BTW US), “an onstage journey from apocalypse into Indigenous-centered Futurism” and “a contemporary ritual for collective Futurity.” The company received, from the New England Foundation for the Arts, a 2019 National Theater Project Creation and Touring Grant for this piece. In many ways, it signals the future of contemporary dance theater.

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Before seeing the show, I met with a friend in a nearby cafe on Mission Street. Together we monitored the Kincade Fire that was spreading toward her town up in Sonoma County. My friend was one of nearly 100,000 people who were evacuated; she’d come to San Francisco to wait and worry. We spoke about how climate change was driving both the size and the intensity of the fires in California. We also questioned what was going on in the path of those flames — the apocalyptic scenes of destruction that would be left behind.

That conversation was on my mind when I met Tangen on the lobby floor of Dance Mission Theater. Her response:

What we call climate change is the long story of colonization.

On the walls of the hallway at Dance Mission Theater hang photographs of social justice warriors, including the legendary Winona LaDuke, who once said something similar:

A society that consumes one-third of the world’s resources is unsustainable. This level of consumption requires constant intervention into other people’s lands. That’s what’s going on.

Yes: that’s what’s going on. And if colonization is what got us to this place, then perhaps re-indigenization may be our way forward.

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I was digesting these notions as I took my seat for the performance and asked the usher for a printed program. There was none. Resources here are conserved; program notes and show credits are shared verbally, within a community framework.

Indeed, Dancing Earth’s whole ethos is conservation: they use salvaged and repurposed materials for sets, props and costumes. And I was taken by their elegance, such as the set pieces created out of found branches and cardboard by designers Kayo Muller and Drew VanBrahn. Throughout the performance, the pieces were transformed and appropriated into mounds, barricades and archways as well as the sun, the moon and a sacred hoop. BTW US opens with a dancer in a cape made from a US Army parachute (by Muller) and a stunning moon headdress by Susan Baker-Dillingham. The intricate cardboard masks and costumes were created by Connie Wind Walker. There is a fragility to these elements, which were constructed a few months ago for another work in Ogaa Po’ogeh — the occupied Tewa territory better known as Santa Fe, NM. When I interviewed Tangen before the show, she was repairing the moon headdress, as it was damaged during transport.

Dancing Earth’s process for making work is itself about sustainability. When Tangen likens BTW US to a “vision for futurity that renews connection with continual sustainable spiral energy of all our relations,” she means that the work itself spirals out of previous projects, guided by regularly renewed relationships with indigenous communities and individuals through tours and collaborations. In fact, BTW US was launched with a prompt from elders elsewhere in rural New Mexico in 2017, who suggested a project on renewable energy that could be led by young people — and would speak to their dreams for the future.

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“BTW US” cast member Raven Ilm Bright. Photo: Justin Giehm (another cast member).

BTW US strives to be unique in other ways. The spoken word, rapping and dialogue is all live and in English as well as Fino’ Håya, the indigenous language of Guåhan — better known as Guam. Tangen herself isn’t performing this time; she’s serving instead as more a cultivator, a nurturer, a negotiator between multiple bodies and ideas.

Ranging in age from 22 to 34, the cast exudes confidence. Tutting, top rocks and tilts endear them to the audience. Perhaps ironically, the piece is strongest when they seem to perform for themselves as well as for each other. In the future development of the work, I look forward to seeing them going further as they explore the raw physical vocabularies of uprootedness and bounce. Tangen told me that she wants the message of BTW US to be “felt down in our bellies — we don’t say hearts anymore — the belly is where we digest.”

BTW US features the contributions of many types of artists. The soundtrack, for example, has a stand-alone brilliance attributable to cast member Dakota Camacho (Matao). B-boys and breakers Justin Giehm (of Navajo, German and mixed heritage) and Raven Ilm Bright ground the piece in innovative freezes and grooves. Olivia Camfield (Mvskoke Creek) and Eugene Pickett III aka “Trey” (West African, Cherokee, French, Irish) hold onstage power as individual dancers but also in a memorable duet that incorporates West African dance and a moccasin walk that depicts one’s circle of influence on Earth.

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As you might imagine, Dancing Earth incorporates local indigenous performers for each of their engagements. Not only do they honor local voices, they pay them. Tangen explained to me that the company’s aim overall is to compliment and uplift, not to add dissonance to local ecosystems. Through workshops and residencies, they have a natural process of national recruitment to the company, with collaborators coming in and out and a process that include Memorandums of Understanding to protect intellectual property. In Yelamu, Dancing Earth hired local dancers Natalie Aceves-Ghezzi, Andreina Maldonado, Devon Chen and Kayla Banks, who performed as a cohort of knowing celestial beings.

BTW US runs approximately 65 minutes but is encompassed within a two-hour experience that includes a 30-minute opening of the space. This segment — again curated with local talent — includes a land acknowledgement, ritual, prayer and cultural sharing. At Dance Mission, that first half-hour was led by Bernadette Smith, Ras K’Dee, Gregg Castro and Kanyon CoyoteWoman Sayers-Roods, who also created a video as a welcoming, performed a traditional dance, and sang in Mutsun.

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Michelle Antone of the Red Lightning Women’s Singing Group sat next to me during the performance. She’d participated in an event that afternoon outside the theater called Reindigenize, curated by Tiśina T. Parker. Antone and others from her group had received free tickets to stay for BTW US. When I asked her to describe it, she called it:

A beautiful and powerful illustration in dance. And it was so important to open with the Ohlone people.

Yet Antone and her mom, a stoic and elderly woman, had confided that they intended to leave at intermission. In the end, they proved so captivated that they stayed for the whole performance. They were the first to rise to their feet for standing ovation.

As I reflect on seeing Dancing Earth — and I recommend you bookmark their website here, to track where they’re performing and when — I’m beginning to understand what it really means to re-indigenize our performance practices, and how new approaches to audience development, as well as astronomy and wildfire management is, indeed, the future. As one element of the multilayered BTW US soundtrack told us, “We are flammable.” And we are.