In May 2016, I had the pleasure of attending a free master class with Indigenous choreographer Rulan Tangen. The class kicked off a multi-year Ordway Center for Performing Arts community engagement series, guided by an advisory council and curatorial team led by Native and Indigenous community leaders with the goal of promoting and practicing cultural artistic expression through artist residencies, talkbacks, and performance by Native and Indigenous artists.
Oyate Okodakiciyapi – Dakota for “people coming together” – was a unique celebration of Native music and dance. Almost nine months after having first learned about this community and art initiative, I attended performances by the Native and Indigenous artists involved in it. Structured into one, mixed bill, these performances took place the evening of March 4th onstage at The Ordway Center for Performing Arts, which sits on Dakota territory. Rituals and spiritual preparations–from singing to building stone platforms and burning sage–took place throughout the event.
First up was Christopher K. Morgan’s, Pōhaku, a multidisciplinary exploration of themes in the story of Hawaii’s Native people, told through storytelling, hula, modern dance, classical music, chant, and projection design. Morgan (Native Hawaiian) is a powerful, fluid mover. His storytelling was impactful and the stories he told, jarring. My body clenched when he recounted how U.S.-supported businessmen and sugar planters forced Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani to abdicate in 1893, which lead to the dissolution of the Kingdom of Hawaii two years later. My mind turned with thoughts about autonomy and identity as I watched Morgan’s shift, step, fall, and rebound between hula and classical modern dance vocabulary. The musicians who contributed to creating the Pōhaku score and accompanied Morgan onstage – Hawaiian chant and percussion performer Elsie Kaleihulukea Ryder (also Morgan’s hula teacher) with six-string electric cellist Wytold – were committed and deliberate performers. Each musical and choreographic element, every moment of juxtaposition, each lyric and phrase that Morgan sang or chanted was heavy with significance (as explained in extensive program notes and an additional program insert). Pōhaku is a painstakingly composed work.
Second was NeoIndigenA, a solo performance conceived, created, and performed by Santee Smith (Mohawk Nation). Smith describes NeoIndigenA as her “human call for connection, transformation, and healing. It is a personal ritual performance, and event that I go through that is very much a ceremonial journey.” Long stretches of writhing, serpentine, and almost demonic movements once in a while gave way to ethereal floating and swaying. For the majority of the piece, which lasted well over 30 minutes, Smith pulled, pushed, slid, gasped, and grunted; it was like she needed to expel something deeply disturbing. I am still struck by Smith’s physical strength and profound commitment throughout.
Rounding out the evening was Rulan Tangen’s intertribal company, Dancing Earth. This piece had a lot going on at once. A kaleidoscopic video projection with images shifting between the U.S. American Southwest, a sky filled with stars, dancers in cornfields, streams of water, and sandy ground engulfed the backdrop. The sound design mixed 10 or more songs and samples layered with spoken text about environmental concerns, all sourced from many different recordings. There was an aerial silks interlude. And as the piece progressed, each dancer changed costume at least three times. I found it challenging to appreciate each of these elements without more space and time to digest in between them. The hoop dancers were especially captivating. Their brief duet as the piece concluded was barely enough; I could have watched them for hours.
Leaving Oyate Okodakiciyapi three-and-a-half hours later I had many questions: Why not 2 or 3 separate performances instead of one? It was a long night, which I didn’t mind at all, but some people started to leave after and during the second piece. Was that was because of the program’s length?
Is there a role for young adults in arts and community initiative like this one? I saw very few young adults at this performance. About 5 minutes into Ms. Smith’s performance, the one who was sitting next to me left with her guardian. The subject matter wasn’t beyond a young adults’ intellectual grasp and it seems to me very important that they are engaged in and witness to these forms of expression.
Did the Ordway space serve these artworks? Though I was sitting a few rows back from the stage, the theater seating arrangements and the fact that the stage was raised limited my view quite a bit. I wished I been able to see the stage floor, as each piece had compositional details that were placed directly on it, e.g., Morgan’s stones and what seemed to be a circular rug in Smith’s piece. A view from the Ordway balcony might have remedied some of this, but the impact of those nuanced details likely would have been lost with distance.
What’s the best way to find answers to these questions? Bring Oyate Okodakiciyapi back annually! I hope to be writing about many incarnations of this event for years to come.