Preview, Rulan Tangen and Dancing Earth

by Janet Eigner

“Now let’s do the section where you’re sea kelp,” Rulan Tangen briskly directs.  The artistic director and
choreographer of Dancing Earth, the indigenous contemporary dance ensemble, is rehearsing seven of the ten dancers at the College of Santa Fe’s Oñate Hall dance studio.  Several set designers, costumers, guest choreographer (Raoul Trujillo)  and visual artists are arriving later to prepare for the upcoming debut of a collaborative piece called “Of Bodies, of Elements,” in which Tangen dances and Hawaiian native Kalani Quepo is a guest dancer.   A preview performance of the work takes place at the National Dance Institute of New Mexico’s Dance Barns on Sunday, Jan. 31.  “Like the Ballet Russe in the early 20th century,”  Tangen notes, “ all of the indigenous nations arts converge to create this work.” Last summer and fall, she met with some of her dancers to workshop and sharpen the choreographic concepts in this work.  In contrast with the late 20th century in the dance world, when economics allowed a dance company to rehearse for three months, Dancing Earth has two weeks to ready for the company’s preview and three for its world  premiere.

Genetic scientists and astronomers have worked to unravel and document the genetic and atomic materials we share with other species and heavenly bodies, but indigenous nations have long believed that humans share vital connections with “all our relations” (as Winona La Duke wrote in her 1999 book of the same title). Tangen takes as inspiration aboriginal origin stories from all sides of the globe.  She choreographs these interspecies and interplanetary stories, made vivid with costuming, hairstyles, and body paint.  These are not sacred traditional dances, though she is influenced by the forms and movement language of traditional Native dance.  Green is the theme of this new production by her company–ecological and cultural sustainability, seen through the intersection of ritual, culture and ecology.  Sets (made from recycled materials), costumes, body paint, and an attempt at lighting (solar-powered) are designed with the aim of limiting the company’s carbon footprint.

The native Californian, who grew up traveling, didn’t start out her career with an Indigenous focus.  Though her mixed ancestry includes Canadian Metis, Tangen first learned ballet’s classical discipline, then modern dance vocabulary.  Her powerful, graceful technique and beauty propelled her into the New York modern dance company of Michael Mao, that toured the world.  But modern dance wasn’t fulfilling her need to create and present Indigenous culture through dance.

As Tangen met some of the pioneers of contemporary Indigenous dance, she realized that following her own drumbeat meant developing young Native dancers who could share her cultural vision. Hers was a hard ride on the bumpy but exciting performance road for the last 12 years, gradually making progress, and continuing to select fine company dancers during her travels, which have included choreographing for, dancing  and acting in films, including Apocalypto and The New World.  She hires already polished dancers from classical, jazz, break dance and modern backgrounds for Dancing Earth.  Concurrent with the olympian efforts involved in developing a dance company, Tangen dealt with and overcame a serious cancer, using the same will, focus, intelligence and community support that has breathed life into Dancing Earth.  Out of the health challenge came inspiration for a specific viewpoint in an aspect of a creation story —  recreation from a dark place  — performed by the artists who became the core of her company, which was formally created in 2004.

Tangen  writes in an essay for a forthcoming anthology by indigenous dance pioneers, that, in her company, “We go through a series of exercises of unmaking, of returning the body into raw instinct ….We seek out the movement from the marrow….Then, by incorporation of indigenous language and sound patterns and philosophies, we start to find rhythms and motions that bring articulation to the primordial ooze.”  She encourages each member of Dancing Earth to make conceptual and movement-specific contributions to the work.

Eric Garcia Lopez, a U.S.-born dancer of indigenous Mexican (Tarasco, Purpecha) dances, among many other roles, a fisherman casting a net and as break dancer in rehearsal.  He speaks of Tangen as a visionary.  “Rulan’s unlike any other artistic director or choreographer I’ve ever worked for.  Her company is most unique.  She’s extremely conceptual, pulling from different folk stories and native beliefs.  I had a lot of confusion growing up as a first-generation American.  This work really got me closer to the roots of Indigenous people of this continent.  She brings the concepts to life and renews the spirit within.”

Serena Rascon, a New Mexico native (Yaqui),  describes Tangen as a strong woman, a model and mentor. “This work is about intention and purpose and developing conscious breath.  She gives us counts and an idea, like moving through air or mud, and we all interpret it differently. (The movement) has to develop as you go on.”

Tangen enlisted Edgar Soto Garcia (“somewhere in the Mayan area”)  when she discovered he was both a hairdresser and a dramatic break-dancing talent.  Now he brings  both skill sets to her company. “ And I do the Rope Duet in the second act, (in contrast to the ancient creation stories of the first act.)  I cut the umbilical cord attached to nature and the old ways, which sets us up for generations of (cultural disconnection) drought.”

Djallo Johnson (West African Fulani, Creole and Cherokee) describes Tangen as excellent at picking dancers who quickly develop an energetic synergy.  “I respect her intentionality, her honor, appreciation and reverence for the elders.  She is like a sculptor and we’re clay.  She says, ‘Let me see what kind of clay you have.’ ”

Tangen sits at the front of the room, her back to the full-length mirror, near her production assistant, Alejandro Quintana, who focuses on playing and replaying the right music tracks and timing each dance. Up and down the phylogenetic tree * the company goes, and back again– the dancers becoming stars, shiny stardust, a mythic woman who falls from the stars, spiders, caterpillars, clay, a dead-ringer for a scorpion, turtle, bird, rabbit, air, praying mantis, dry earth, water, yucca.

Dancing Earth’s riveting style has attracted many invitations to international native festivals,  cultural
centers, museums, educational institutions, indigenous communities and youth conferences.  Many invitations come without the promise of funding.  The company has toured Canada, Argentina, and Brasil, as well as U.S. locals. Then recognition began to oil the financial wheels, a bit: Dance Magazine named Tangen one of  “25 to Watch” in 2007.  Washington University recently honored Tangen as a Visiting Distinguished Scholar. Stanford University has invited Dancing Earth to participate as a project leader this spring in its Race and the Environment program, also sponsoring her with a scholar residency through its Institute for Diversity in the Arts.

Dancing Earth is the first Indigenous contemporary dance ensemble chosen for funding from the National Dance Project production grant (the program is administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts), put together by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, as well as Ford, Mellon and MetLife Foundations. “Of Bodies” stems from that grant, in addition to supplements from many local sources and in-kind sources, the Santa Fe Art Institute, College of Santa Fe, Southwest American Indian Association (SWAIA),  the Institute for American Indian Arts Museum and College (IAIA), Global Centre for Cultural Entrepreneurship, National Dance Institute of New Mexico (NDI-NM), VSA North Fourth Art Center’s Global Dance Festival and Two Worlds Festival, Moving People Dance, and Wise Fool New Mexico.

After the preview in Santa Fe, Dancing Earth presents the concert at one pueblo and three northern New Mexico communities in the Espanola Valley area each day, the last week of January. Also, 500 Santa Fe school children will attend a concert, bussed to the NDI from pueblos and Santa Fe schools, courtesy of  the National Hispanic Cultural Center, The Santa Fe Opera, Espanola Arts in Schools program and Roger Montoya.

After the Albuquerque premiere of “Of Bodies, of Elements, at Albuquerque’s Two Worlds Festival and
Global Dance Festival, her company is negotiating tours of the new production to Alaska, Stanford University, Arizona State University, and Washington University, among other places.

Dancing Earth plans to perform in 2012 at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, where Tangen will also work with the Executive Director of NHCC, Dr. Estevan Rael-Galvez.  Rael-Galvez says, “the power of dance…gives us the ability to expand a standard curriculum in the schools. …(and) enables a collaboration with an amazingly gifted artist and ensemble…Our hope is that it will expand the dialogue… within and across cultures and communities, and inspire new forms of creativity in students living in northern New Mexico.”

Tangen speaks of her yearning for a creative and collaborative clan before she formed Dancing Earth. “When I (solo) dance up Canyon Road and various venues, I feel like the last indigenous being on Earth.  But now I have, for three weeks, the container where we can put ourselves and our ancestors into the performance.  We are told we come from the stars.  Onstage we won’t be entirely human–we’ll be all our relations.”

**the scale of  evolutionary unfolding: as the human fetus develops (ontogeny), it mimics or recapitulates the forms of species as they evolved (phylogeny)

Details Box:
–  Sunday, January 31, 7 p.m., National Dance Institute, 1140 Alto St. at  NDI Dance Barns, Santa Fe.
Buy tickets at the door or in advance at KICKS, 801 Cerrillos Rd, 982-9277.
-Saturday Feb. 6, 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 7, 2p.m. at VSA North Fourth Art Center, 4904 4th NW, Albuquerque.

Tickets: phone box office: 505-344-4542 or visit www.vsartsnm.org.
$15 general admission, $10 children, students with ID, and seniors.

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