The hidden treasure that is hardest to find is the kind that's underfoot and all around the whole while. Such is the case with the ancient and immense treasury of dances created by Native Americans. A sampling of its riches, however, will be on public view at Ford's Theatre for the next two weeks, when the American Indian Dance Theatre -- the first national company of professional American Indian dancers and singers -- makes its East Coast debut there starting Tuesday evening.
"Our aim is to show how Indians see themselves as part of nature -- to convey through our dances the spiritual sense that every Indian has," says choreographer Raoul Trujillo, one of the troupe's two directors. "We're bringing into the theater the vital energy of a people who see dancing as an integral part of life." A Genizaro Indian from New Mexico, Trujillo was a principal dancer with the Nikolais Dance Theatre for six years.
The company consists of 24 American Indian performers representing more than a dozen tribal groups throughout the United States and Canada. The repertory of dances is equally broad, ranging from a rainbow dance from the Zuni Pueblo to an Apache crown dance, and drawing as well upon the legacies of a multitude of regions and styles. It is also part of the troupe's intention, while remaining faithful to historic traditions, to establish an "intertribal mode" that seeks the threads common to many Indian dance and ceremonial practices.
The American Indian Dance Theatre is the brainchild of theater director and playwright Hanay Geiogamah, of Oklahoma's Kiowa/Delaware tribes, and of New York producer Barbara Schwei, long a devotee of Indian culture. The summer before last, Schwei and Geiogamah -- who's also the artistic director of the Native American Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles and an adjunct professor in the Department of Indian Studies/Theatre Arts at UCLA -- trekked across the continent in search of dance artists and drummer-singers.
In March of this year, at Geiogamah's suggestion, Schwei invited Trujillo to join the team, and he left the Nikolais troupe the following month in order to pursue the project. An inaugural performance was presented in Colorado Springs last May, and a second at the Beverly Theatre in Los Angeles in June.
Trujillo says the founders were aided by the fact that many types of dances are common to all Indian tribes. "There are some dances that are 'special,' and are performed only by the Sioux or the Chippewa, for example. But almost all Indians have their own varieties of shield dances, or the victory dance, or the grass dances, or the fancy dance that originated among warriors. Since the decade of the '20s, too, when the powwow movement started to bring together many Indian peoples for competitive festivals, a lot of these dances became formally codified, and we were able to draw on all this."
Trujillo emphasizes, however, that the new company is "in no way a glorified powwow." Even though powwow dances, featuring competitive prowess, form an essential part of the troupe's program, the purpose isn't competition but theatrical presentation.
"We want to be showing these dances in a theatrically viable way," he says. "We had to come up with a workable sequence of pieces for the stage, balancing different kinds of dances, balancing group dances against solos, and in such a way as to show the dances and dancers to best possible advantage.
"On the other hand, we're not interested in some kind of slick Broadway version of these dances. We're trying to work within traditional values, even though the material has to be structured and focused for the stage."
Nothing like this has ever been attempted before with the dance heritage of American Indians. Trujillo notes that the closest thing to a precedent may have been the work in the '50s of Reginald and Gladys Laubin, a dance team who studied among the Plains Indians, were "adopted" by the Sioux and took programs of Indian dance on tour to colleges and museums. It was also the Laubins who contributed the extensive entry on "American Indian Dancing" for the Dance Encyclopedia of 1949. Commenting on the official suppression of Indian dancing in earlier days, they wrote:
"Dancing was the most Indian thing about Indians. It was completely interwoven into their daily lives. The government wanted to destroy all tribal organization, everything Indian -- to make white men out of Indians -- so it did everything possible to exterminate the dancing."
Fortunately, times have changed in this respect. This month in Washington, the Smithsonian Institution will be presenting the Pawnee chieftain Charles Shunatona and colleagues in a program of "Music and Dance From the Southern Plains" at the National Museum of American History (Nov. 21 in the Hall of Musical Instruments), and a couple of days before that, dancing will be a featured part of the powwow and other festivities the American Indian Heritage Foundation will be sponsoring at various sites around the city for National American Indian Heritage Week.
Some aspects of Indian dancing and ritual have made their way into the theater via American modern dancers who found in them a powerful inspirational source -- most notably Lester Horton, Martha Graham and Erick Hawkins. In the '30s, when ballet choreographers were striving for indigenous themes, one of the outcomes was "Pocahontas," a work with a libretto by Lincoln Kirstein, a score by Elliott Carter and choreography by Lew Christensen, as danced by American Ballet Caravan.
Indian dancing, however, has little in common with ballet and not much with modern dance either, as Trujillo notes. Speaking as a former modern dancer, he says that "modern dance wants to let power flow outward, whereas the Indian is concerned to not let it out, to keep it contained." (It's interesting to see the Laubins asserting that "the most strenuous Indian dance still leaves the spectator with the impression that the dancer is completely relaxed and using only a portion of his power.") Trujillo says further that "modern dance is about the ego, but Indian dance is about surrendering oneself and letting the movement come through memory and history."
Trujillo was born and raised in northern New Mexico, where he danced traditional dances as a child at family gatherings and also spent a lot of solitary time in the mountains. "In those mountains, I always knew where my body and spirit was in time and space. It also gave me a certain skill in contemplation, and thinking about how to realize ideas in tangible form." Though it would be many years before he'd think of dancing as a career, he did once imagine a dance he called "Earth and Sky," envisioning three characters, a female Earth torn between two males, the Sun and the Moon. "It was a way of thinking about the moon for me; what is the moon but a sun of the night, a light that makes the dark visible."
For three years he served in the U.S. Army in a ski patrol unit in West Germany, and afterward became a ski instructor. Returning home, he saw his first dance performances -- Graham, Nureyev, Pilobolus -- in Los Angeles while a student as USC, and first realized that dancing was what he really wanted to do. Intrigued by a photo in Dance Magazine of an Indian dancer in the Toronto Dance Theater, he betook himself there and had his first formal training.
The composer Ellis Kohs, whom he'd met as a USC professor, encouraged his dance ambitions and recommended that he study with Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis in New York. After a year's study on scholarship at the Nikolais-Louis studio, mostly with Louis, Nikolais asked him to join his troupe.
Trujillo continues to choreograph his own contemporary work and perform as a soloist, but not without drawing upon his Indian heritage. Next February, for instance, he'll appear in a presentation of his own under the auspices of New York's Asia Society, in a program designed to display parallels between the shamanism and mysticism of Indian societies and those of the Orient.
The American Indian Dance Theatre will give 18 performances at Ford's, Tuesday through Sunday evenings at 7:30, with matinees on Tuesdays (11 a.m.), Thursdays (1 p.m.) and Sundays (3 p.m.).