Choreography recapitulates phylogeny
“Now let’s do the section where you’re sea kelp,” Rulan Tangen briskly directs. The artistic director and choreographer of the indigenous contemporary dance ensemble Dancing Earth is rehearsing seven of the show’s 10 dancers at the College of Santa Fe’s Oñate Hall dance studio. Several set designers, costumers, a guest choreographer, 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 Queypo 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 Ballets Russes in the early 20th century,” Tangen notes, “all of the indigenous arts converge to create this work.”
Genetic scientists and astronomers have worked to unravel and document the genetic and atomic material that we share with other species and heavenly bodies, but indigenous tribes have long believed that humans share vital connections with “all our relations” (as Winona LaDuke wrote in her 1999 book of the same title). Tangen takes as inspiration indigenous people’s origin stories from all sides of the globe. She choreographs these stories, made vivid with costuming, hairstyles, and body paint. These are not sacred dances, though she is influenced by the forms and movement language of traditional Native dance. Green is the theme of this new production from her company— ecological and cultural sustainability. Sets (made from recycled materials), costumes, body paint, and lighting (solar-powered) are designed with the aim of limiting the company’s carbon footprint.
Tangen didn’t start out her career with an indigenous focus. Though her mixed ancestry includes Canadian Métis, she first learned ballet’s classical discipline and then modern dance vocabulary. Her powerful, graceful technique and beauty propelled her into New York modern dance companies that toured the world. But modern dance wasn’t fulfilling her need to create and present indigenous culture through dance.
Tangen 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 NewWorld. She hires already polished dancers from classical, jazz, break dance, and modern backgrounds for Dancing Earth. Concurrent with the Herculean efforts involved in developing a dance company, Tangen was treated for cancer. Out of this health challenge came inspiration for a creation story to be 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 insists that each member of Dancing Earth makes conceptual and movement-specific contributions to the work.
Eric Garcia Lopez, a U.S.-born dancer of indigenous Mexican lineage, dances the part of a flowing bird and as a 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. 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, describes Tangen as a strong woman, a model, and a 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.”
Tangen enlisted Edgar Soto Garcia 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. I cut the umbilical cord attached to nature and the old ways, which sets us up for generations of drought.”
Djallo Johnson 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 the right music tracks and timing each dance. All along the phylogenetic tree the company goes, and back again, with 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 festivals, cultural centers, museums, educational institutions, indigenous communities, and youth
conferences. The company has toured Canada, Argentina, and Brazil as well as many U.S. locales. Washington University recently honored Tangen as a visiting scholar and Stanford University has invited Dancing Earth to participate in its Race and the Environment program.
Of Bodies, of Elements is funded by a National Dance Project production grant (the program is administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts), supplemented with contributions from many local sources, including the Santa Fe Art Institute, Santa Fe Opera, the Institute of American Indian Arts, Moving People Dance Santa Fe, and the National Dance Institute of New Mexico. After the premiere of Of Bodies, of Elements in Albuquerque (presented in conjunction with Global DanceFest and TwoWorlds), Dancing Earth plans to tour the new production in Alaska and at Stanford University, Arizona State University, and Washington University, among other places.
Tangen speaks of her yearning for a creative and collaborative clan before she formed Dancing Earth. “When I dance up on Canyon Road and various venues, I feel like the last Indian 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 DNA team: Tangen and Dancing Earth members rehearsing Of Bodies, of Elements