Rulan Tangen’s Dancing Earth in “Of Bodies, Of Elements” World Preview, Sunday, January 31, 2010 at National Dance Institute (NDI-NM) Dance Barns
Standing room only, bleachers filled to the rafters, late comers lined the aisles at the NDI at the world preview of the latest of Dancing Earth’s contemporary indigenous performances. Word is that the same audience interest filled the Albuquerque premiere of the work at VSA North Fourth Art Center, Feb. 6th and 7th.
The ninety minute work, divided into two acts, read like a string of unpolished beads, one story segment after another, strung together by a resonant collage of indigenous music, some vocal and acapella, some purely melodic, masterfully coordinated and sound-engineered by the Albuquerque composer-musician Jeff Brown.
Choreographer, Director RulanTangen had workshopped segments of this theater piece in the year preceding the concert with some of the present cast and some dancers who didn’t appear, because half of Dancing Earth’s artists live outside of New Mexico. Each performance gathers this company’s dancers who can break off their acting, dancing, visual arts or musical careers to gather for rehearsals wherever the company is performing.
The dancers who wove in and out in ensembles and solos included Tangen herself, Serena Rascon (who also performed as aerial soloist for the Albuquerque concerts the next weekend), Kalani Queypo (Guest Artist), Nichole Salazar, Sarracina Littlebird, Erika Archer, Edgar Soto Garcia, Djollo Johnson, Eric Lopez, and Amy Becenti (Apprentice). Raoul Trujillo consulted as Director for the “Caged” section of Act 1.
The metaphoric creation stories began with three small groups lying prone, then forming a chain like a strand of DNA coalescing— cosmic, trembling, writhing ensembles. Tangen and Queypo entered and exited at a slow, ceremonial pace, The delicate scrim lighting enhanced and didn’t distract or overwhelm this production, though the second act scene enacting modern consumption needed more illumination.
Tangen and the male dancers stood out for their strength and technique, Garcia, Johnson and Lopez for their hip-hop-break dance skills combined with the native and contemporary moves, Queypo and Tangen for a stunning dignity and presence in their contemporary indigenous style. In the shadows, to the sounds of wind, four men doing individual movements with long poles, began slowly and whirled offstage. Three women as a sunflower sisterhood twitched undulated, and another woman rapidly cris-crossed her legs and traveled in a version of an indigenous fancy dance.
To the sound of turtle shells, three men and one woman encaged the sunflower women with three-layered-wire hoops, from which the women struggled to emerge, frenzied in their moves, the men fierce in theirs.
The second act began with a graceful, eerie version of the ghost dance, the men’s bodies in golden light with Johnson as an eagle, hopping, wings flapping, after which a couple appears twisted in cord, pulling against each other, until the man whirls free of his binding, and struggles to breathe. As the man freed of his ties, he twirls and back-flips without using his arms, an explosion of break dance moves, after which Tangen appears.
Powerful and notable, though not lighted well enough to fully understand its impact, Tangen enacts a metaphor for the greed and detritus of modern life — reaching and clawing skyward, her mouth open to receive all the stuff she could drop in and chew. Embedded in her ample long black gown were dirty plastic bags, empty junk food wrappers, soda cans. Like an indigenous Mother Ginger from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, she lifted her skirts and four dancers crawled out, enacting varieties of narcissistic preening and devouring.
To indigenous drumming, the hip hop ensemble raises its arms as if holding rifles, aims, and a chanting begins, faces grimacing, then more African-inspired urban dance, all dancers close to the ground, when Queypo, soothes with a slow, sustained arm reach, followed by the ensemble undulating, quivering, break dancing, rolling and re-rolling across the stage. Then a trio unites, and crawls off looking caterpillar-like, and as the frenzy builds and suddenly, the ensemble slows, all dancers thrust their arms into the air, gracefully, take a big breath, thrust up one arm, and lights blacked out.
The dancers’ technical levels varied…the work needs more rehearsal time for a couple of the women to have the strength and presence to sustain their movements in transitions from one choreographed move to the next…the mark of a performance dancer is one who understands how each moment counts, that there is no “down” time or movement on stage. Sarracina Littlebird, Serena Rascon and Nicole Salazar used fluidity and power in their movements though the choreography didn’t fully allow for an integrated and flowing design that would allow the dancers to weave together the segments. Still, the potential for this work was clear. Tangen has created powerful and integrated works before. She’s still experimenting with the contemporary, indigenous form.
The audience’s excitement and standing ovation lasted quite a while, followed by a Question and Answer dialogue with the audience. Tangen described how she had wanted to do the dance of “our ancestors,” and started this work as a structured improvisation, aiming to make the work a functional ritual.