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Review: Earth Dance Theater

Earth Dance Theater Makes a Stunning Debut
(by Marla Watkins/2004)

I’ve seen the future of American dance, and it lies in our past: our ancient indigenous past to be precise.

May 5 and 6 in Riverside California, the Earth Dance Theater performed four pieces at the “Red Rhythms” conference, a contemporary American Indian dance festival sponsored by the Ford Foundation. Each piece was a knock out, pushing the limits of what audiences know as dance. And while each piece seemed familiar to those who know the incredibly rich traditions of indigenous dance, the new company from San Francisco simultaneously managed to raise a wide range of provocative questions about dance in America today.

Bravo Earth Dance! A whole new era in dance may be dawning in 2004.

The questions raised are important. For instance, ballet has frequently incorporated folk dance traditions (such as Russian, Hungarian, Polish, Spanish, etc.); why not the indigenous traditions of the Americas?
Why aren’t the rich mythologies of the Americas (Chumash, Hopi, Aztec, Inca, etc.) reflected in our classical music and dance pieces?
Why has the role of the male dancer still not evolved in most major companies?
More importantly, why are young men still uncomfortable about dance careers?

On the issue of cultural progress, why have the dynamic new forms of dance that have emerged in the past 20 years not yet been taken up by mainstream dance companies? Modern dance is stagnant, not having evolved much since the 1970s. Classical Ballet of course is not supposed to change.
But in this year of retrospectives and revivals like Mark Morris’ Sylvia for San Francisco Ballet, it is good to be reminded that Diaghilev’s and Balanchine’s companies achieved artistic brilliance by pushing a stuffy art form in new directions.
Ballet cannot keep cannibalizing itself. It needs fresh subject matter and new themes if it is to move forward as an art form. Where are the innovators today?

Earth Dance Theater founder Andrew Brother Elk is conscious of these questions, and has positioned his company to help point the way towards answers.
“We have big ambitions,” he stated after a stirring speech at the conference. “Indigenous dance in the Americas was the masterpiece art form- all other arts served or were overshadowed by it. We’re attempting to reclaim this legacy, and at the same time move all of dance in some interesting new directions.”

Brother Elk has assembled an impressive team to convey the incredibly rich source material of indigenous dance in contemporary movement. As such, he has already achieved a milestone as the first dance company of its kind in the USA, joining Australia’s Bangarra Dance on the world stage.

Earth Dance Theater’s show stopping piece, a dance called Thunderstomp, is one hypnotic bundle of masculine dance energy that achieves Brother Elk’s goal. I have never sat through a dance that garnered audience cheers, whistles, and screams throughout the entire piece. It felt like watching the second coming of the Beatles, or a Nijinsky premier. The story concerns an urban Human who must confront the ancient Elements of Fire, Water, and Wind.
Each of these characters has a unique movement style that stands on its own, but also blends beautifully into ensemble work. This blending includes the music, a powerful score that layers electronica with chanting by elders, spoken word, and rap. The costumes layer ancient pictographs on bare skin and buckskin with a kind of futuristic detailing that seems right out of Mad Max.
All of this underscores the vision of the company.

The dominant dancing vocabulary of Thunderstomp allows the dancers to display a stunning virtuosity and range, weaving together ancient steps, break dance, modern, ballet, hip hop, capoeira, acrobatics, and the signature moves of Graham, Nikolais, and Hawkins.
That Earth Dance manages to work this all into a seven minute piece is truly astonishing.

The core of the piece is in its many types of spins and twirls, as the Elements merge to form a whirlwind of power that transforms the human dancer.
Whirlwinds are harbingers of change in many American Indian mythologies, including the transformation through death into the next spiritual realms.
The dancers performed the range of rotations with a daring and bravado that brought gasps from the audience. Using their bodies as sculptures, the dancers froze space into carved tableaux that only heightened the sense of movement.
The ending left many awestruck.

Dancers included Lyle Kochamp as the urban Human, Alejandro Meraz and Anthony Collins as Water and Fire,v and Quetzal Guerrero as Wind.
All were superb except Guerrero, who was merely very good: his onstage counting indicates he could have used a few more weeks of practice. As an ensemble, I would like to see what these dancers could do with more ballet training to lengthen their lines and push their leaps even higher. But they already show great skill and virtuosity in their own right. A little more practice and a better venue (sound, lighting, sets) and they will shine even more.
Choreographer Rulan Tangen shows great promise.

I suspect the many teenage boys who were in the audience are busy practicing these moves right now at home. What an exciting prospect!
A fresh crop of male dance talent is being born, one that can inspire more than the traditional image of the male dancer in tights. That the inspiration comes from American Indian dance is even more exciting. The whole dance world should sit up and notice.

Three other pieces displayed the magical range of Earth Dance Theater.
Miinigooweziwin was danced by Kalani Queypo, a lithe Hawaiian performer whose long hair and lyrical movements gave the piece its beauty.
His character is the Anishnabe Spirit of the East, who dances near the Tree of Life with his gift of knowledge, kindness, and generosity. With an offering of red Willow, he gives the Anishnabe people the gift of life.
As staged by Earth Dance, the piece becomes a creation story that is both emotionally available and aesthetically satisfying. The ending has Queypo shimmering into darkness, a poetic disappearance of the hero-spirit.
Like his fellow dancers in Thunderstomp, Queypo could probably perform with higher leaps and greater virtuosity given a better venue and circumstances.

Tangen cast herself in The Naming, an excerpt from a larger epic work that she and Brother Elk are planning to premier in 2005 for the entire company.
And casting herself was a wise decision, as this dance requires immense technical skill to move beyond familiar dance idioms towards a whole new vocabulary of movement.
Trained in ballet, modern, and indigenous styles, Tangen seems to have stripped all of these down to some core phrases that lean heavily on floor-centered movements that are perfect for an earth- themed company.

With striking accompaniment by Guerrero on a berimbau, an indigenous bow and gourd instrument used extensively in Capoeira, The Naming opens with Guerrero’s musical procession through the audience wearing nothing but a Mohawk and skin colored hemp pants.
This broke the fourth wall of the theater, and linked audience and performer more intimately. Tangen performed to a mystical piece of music by Edgardo Moreno that throbs and rattles like a headache in a jungle snake pit.
Rocking on her haunches, making masks of her hands, and scooting across the floor without seeming to ever leave it, Tangen’s movements cast a spell on the audience.

One imagines that her breath can be seen and felt-certainly it can be heard in the audience. Her hands create a language that is beyond the silly pantomime of ballet; these are gestures that immediately evoke pain, exertion, and joy.
No shrinking violet, her movements are at times powerful, angry, and erotic.
They summon up a Creator that is neither male nor female but both. As the Creator completes her naming of all creatures on earth, the dance fades out and she resumes her position as a masked sculpture.

The final dance, Ancestor Dream Medicine, had many of the same elements, but this solo is not for a mythical being.
It is for a Shaman, and because of this human connection it was even more poignant.
Danced by the legendary Raoul Trujillo, the performance takes on a majesty and terror that only someone who has danced for over 30 years can accomplish. In this aspect the dancer and dance merge into one, following in the steps of his predecessors Graham, Taylor, Hawkins, Shawn, and Limon.

Trujillo threw himself at the character with a rawness and vibrancy that must have been exhausting.
He emerges from a dream, screaming silently in pain.
He lifts himself from the ground and dances a circle of flame.
Fluttering bird creatures float by on the light (dancers Alejandro Meraz and Kalani Queypo), which gives him strength.
As a Medicine Man he must mediate between the spirit world and the world we know as “reality,” and to do so he must take in the poisons and evil spirits that afflict others.
This familiar story is brought to life so effectively by Trujillo that it is easy to forget this is not an ancient indigenous dance:
it is a modern portrayal of an ancient character.

By far the most memorable dance of the evening, Ancestor Dream Medicine can only be danced by someone with both the dance and acting skills of a veteran like Trujillo.

Here too Earth Dance Theater seems to raise important issues about youth-centered dance companies, where one can go a whole evening without seeing a performer over the age of 25.
This performance not only asserts the indigenous value placed on experience and wisdom (two values in ever more limited supply in American life), it shows the way for all young dancers to mature into Lear-like performers of great range, depth, and power.

It was exciting to witness all of this artistic creativity in just one company.
Earth Dance Theater is not only the new company to watch in the folk and world dance genre, it may well change the entire art form of dance if it is able to tour successfully in the coming years.
The audience of 2000 in Riverside witnessed a rare birth, one that I hope that is shared at other college venues around the country.
With the new themes the company brings into modern dance, its cadre of amazing male dancers, and its potential to attract much younger audiences, Earth Dance Theater should be on every presenter’s subscription series next year.


© Marla Watkins