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Chasing the Dance: Connecting to Earth and Each Through Movement

By Rulan Tangen, Director & Choreographer, Dancing Earth, Littleglobe Affiliate Artist

Chasing the dance from country to country, from ballet stages to modern dance studios to powwow grounds, I had danced as a pointe-shoed murderess at the Café De La Dance in the Bastille District of Paris; an eagle woman at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada; the chunkiest of four little swans in a Rhapsody in Blue at Woodstock; an operatic gypsy on the Summerstage in Central Park; the Stabat Mater at the Florence Gould Hall; a Graham-esque tribal ecstatic at the Marymount Theater; a Women’s Traditional Buckskin Dancer at Hunter Mountain,; a waltzing flower at the Marin Civic Center; and a masked river spirit in Vancouver.

As a dancer working for more than 40 choreographers, I had passionately devoted myself as an instrument in the humble transcendence of helping give birth to another’s vision. Yet I was still waiting for the roles of my lifetime. I was waiting for someone to create the dances that were of times ancient and futuristic, the anthropomorphic, mythic and profoundly human creatures that walked endlessly in my dream landscapes, and in the un-silenced oral histories that spoke through the land: the Star people, the Woman Who Fell to Earth, Corn Goddess and Lady of Serpent Skirts, Pele the Volcano Deity, the Trees beings, Winged people, Rock people and more.

Years later I was lying fragile, hairless and gray-skinned in a hospital residence room in New York City overlooking the Lincoln Center neighborhood where I had studied, worked, performed and lived for so many years. The other hospital where I received my radiation treatments—the “walk of fire”—was in Union Square, which had been my downtown modern-dance beating pulse. The only movement I could make without pain and effort was a gentle rotation of my wrist and forearm, spiraling in and spiraling out. This was my dance with the nauseous metallic accompaniment of chemotherapy. I wondered, in the haze of reality/unreality, how much of me was dead and how much was alive. Surely, even if dead, I knew I would still be moving my bones in a feeble indication of dance, a skeletal Dia de Los Muertos pavane.

In my haze, I was reminded of indigenous creation stories about the origins of life emerging from mud, from earth, from clay. How did that mud become life; how did it give birth to life? By breathing life into itself, by infusing its breath into each entity? My body, once voluptuous and verdant with long hair, was now a tiny puddle of dry dust. But by reenacting the creation story, I could breathe life into being, re-birth myself. One by one, I recognized and named all the people in all the parts of the world who cared about me, who were holding me in their hearts, their thoughts, their ceremonies and prayers. In longhouses and roundhouses in the Northeast woodlands to the Pacific islands, lighting candles in churches in the outer mission of San Francisco, holding pipe ceremonies in the Rockies, cutting hair and gathering salt in Hawaii, singing in sweatlodges in rural New Mexico, burning sweetgrass and sage. And I lived.

Less than a year later I was invited to be one of four emerging international choreographers to take part in an aboriginal choreography workshop under the mentorship of Alejandro Ronceria, a respected indigenous dancer and choreographer. I had regained my ability to walk a few months earlier, and I was both intimidated and excited in anticipation of my first commission as a “real” choreographer. “The Naming”—my first choreographed solo (tiny, froglike, squatting, simple)—was the dance embodiment of the my own life/death/rebirth moment.

With each subsequent choreography and “performance” (I call them site-specific rituals)— I feel as though my breath is calling all the young dancers who appeared to me, in my haze, from the four corners and who subsequently became the seedlings of my indigenous dance company, Dancing Earth. These incredible multi-talents include Quetzal Guerrero, Cina Littlebird, Alejandro Meraz, Anthony Collins, Jessica Marisol Allen, Kalani, Happy Frejo and Raoul Trujillo. And they have helped me to create a truly beautiful and collaborative dance company as well as an approach for working with non-dancers in community settings.

In dreaming up the creation of an indigenous dance company, I asked myself what would make it specifically “indigenous?” Was it indigenous dancers, indigenous themes or indigenous teachers/trainers and cultural consultants? My answer was yes to all of the above and, perhaps most important, I wanted to create a model of aboriginal collective leadership and collaboration. As a leader, I did not want to impose my own training, choreography or culture but rather encourage and empower every artist and collaborator that would form the core group. The company would resist hierarchical power structure and allow for intertribal—or multi-tribal—voices to emerge to create a unified vision.

When the company was younger, I was adamant about developing a company-specific vocabulary and technique. But now I believe that dancers can take different routes to get to certain important “awarenesses”: breath rooting each movement, limbs working in spirals based on individual anatomy, body angles made in relation to space, differentiating rhythms, landing from high jumps or quick turns in an efficient way, and training and cross-training with balance so as to avoid injury. And central to pioneering dance movements is the practice of integrating all the body parts, the torso integrated into movements of knee, hip, arm and head. In these I am trying to encourage both diversity and integration through collaboration.

The importance of this approach was poignantly highlighted for me one day when I was hobbling across Union Square to my chemotherapy appointment. I got caught somehow in the middle of the crowds and ran into a dancer I had worked with in Europe with the Michael Mao Company. We stood facing each other. I was gaunt and bald, and he was a recent amputee, missing a leg due to a rare cancer. With few words, we had a conversation that only the two of us could ever have. His name was Homer Avila and it was after his amputation that he went on to have an incomparable career as a solo artist, working with some of the greatest choreographers in the world. He revealed to all of us the inestimable potential of the human body to express the dance of life, that we each must do it in our own way.

My rebirth, experience with Dancing Earth, and encounter with Homer Avila have given me the roles of my lifetime and deeply shaped the way I work with communities of people who wouldn’t call themselves dancers. As a choreographer, teacher and collaborative artist, I was fortunate enough to be a member of the core artist team of Littleglobe’s “Memorylines” project (2007). This project was a collaboration among the Littleglobe team and 24 Santa Feans, ages 5-86. The ensemble held the widest range of physical abilities. Together, we created a new opera that premiered in Santa Fe in May of 2007. Over several months, we went through a series of exercises to connect to our stories, our bodies, to earth and to return the body to raw instinct, finding the deep essence of what makes us move a certain way and why. I encouraged the group to seek out the movement from the marrow, the actual DNA of their ancestors.

Together, we started to find rhythms and motions that were both comfortable for each individual and rooted—movement that brought articulation to the primordial ooze. That’s the best way I can describe it. Sometimes we were embodying humans from the past, present or future, sometimes from spirit, sometimes animal or bird, sometimes constellations, cloud formations, falling leaves, rockscapes—all of these our ancestors. This is what is called “contemporary dance” because it is being created now, but we were often creating dances about times before the dawn of humanity or perhaps the upcoming dawn of a new time cycle, as in the Mayan prophecies. Integrated movements of our limbs were important, encouraging us to connect to the circularity of time and creation, to our “indigenous” ways of moving, to each other. The goal was and is to allow our personal stories and experiences to emerge from the body. And though these stories are personal, they showed themselves to have reverberations for all participants on many levels.

As the months progressed, the segments of “Memorylines” emerged from the wishes of the ensemble (we did not begin the process with any ideas about what the opera/performance would be about—this would grow from the collaboration). Our movements together helped to develop the ideas emerging so that the performance would be made of movement “indigenous” to the ensemble itself. This is what made “Memorylines” so beautiful and so moving for the audience—creating movements that truly belonged to each individual and integrating these into collective movement for the group/ensemble was as powerful for participants as it was for the audience. The process also created truly original dance.

As in the earliest traditions of humans everywhere, dances are rituals through which we invoke our relations with each other and with the earth, depicting heroic struggles and sweet courtships, welcoming plants and animals as part of our beings, invoking food sources and spirit guides, noting changes in the sky and seasons and more. In this, our rhythms and breath serve to renew ourselves and earth in an always emerging, collective dance of life.