Dancing Earth’s Rulan Tangen on Indigenous Dance, Life-Force Energy, and Memory in Motion
Dancing Earth’s Indigenous contemporary dance creations play in sold-out theatres around the globe, inspiring audiences to a new understanding of the beauty and bio-cultural diversity of the world we share. They present a unique fusion of expression drawn from the stories and perspectives of a multitude of Indigenous peoples and have been building relations for communities in 18 states and eight countries since 2004. Rulan Tangen, Artistic Founding Director, spoke with us between rehearsals from Dancing Earth’s base at Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Parvati Magazine: You describe your dances as “an elemental language of bone and blood memory in motion.” Why are bone and blood memory powerful and how do they inform the productions of Dancing Earth?
Rulan Tangen: The term blood memory emerged from the writer N. Scott Momaday, who was a Kiowa writer and poet and it has resonated with many dancers. You’ll hear many people in the indigenous contemporary dance movement referencing blood memory. It is trusting your body, trusting your intuition, going into deep improvisations, inside of your being. As with any kind of indigenous knowledge, science is starting to track things that are passed down, that are embedded, maybe through DNA. Things that can’t be explained in logic, but can be expressed in a kinetic experience.
It is building trust in your intuition, which serves you for life and certainly is one of the first things that gets shut down in colonization. So this trusting of your own feet on the ground, of your breath, of what your body’s thinking. That’s our first healer. I shifted it to bone because bones last so long. Bones are stones, our mountains. I bring together the constancy of bone and the fluidity of blood to become the fluidity of memory and of imagination and of regeneration. All those things speak to me of motion, of flow of continuity.
Parvati Magazine: That’s beautiful. It’s like being in a state of complete flow, or oneness with life-force energy.
Rulan Tangen: Life-force energy. It’s interesting you say that, because someone asked me once, why do I dance? And I felt like it’s trying to understand and honour and celebrate life-force. I feel most alive when I’m in my body, whether that means an emotion or in a very empowered stillness.
Between Underworld and Skyworld (BTW US)
Parvati Magazine: “Between Underground and Skyworld” (BTW US) is your new work to be presented across the United States in 2020, focused on renewable energy. It will be an immersive experience, co-created with your host communities. Why have you chosen this approach?
Rulan Tangen: When we come back to communities over time, people want to have more and more involvement. The first time they might just welcome us to the land when we ask permission in a good way, by bringing gifts and songs, and intention. The next time they might say, “maybe we can do an opening song for your show.” And then the next time, “You know I have a little granddaughter who wants to dance.” And then the next time, the grandpa himself wants to be in there. So, there is a continual interest and understanding of the relevance of what we’re doing.
We bring a work like a gift. Before the opening of each performance there is a tribute and a celebration to the genius that’s already present. We might be bringing themes about water or seeds or plant medicines or now renewable energy, but there are certainly people who might be already expert at it right there. We always make an opportunity for local native people to share what they care to share or just come and witness if that’s what they prefer to do.
The co-creation has happened over a long period of time. Shared stories, shared sounds that go onto a soundscape or glimpses of videos they collected. The work ends up being like a mosaic. It’s taking responsibility as contemporary diverse indigenous peoples to make the new rituals for the issues of our times.
What is renewable and what is energy? Those are two of the questions that came up. When we’re dancing we’re often energized by the ground, and this time we’re looking up. We’re considering the stars and that we are all beings of stardust, and there are beautiful stories about sun and moon and relationships that we might be able to learn from. Often there are stories that depict destruction and regeneration.
Parvati Magazine: What is your dream for the eventual influence “BTW US” will have on the broader world and how do you envision it manifesting?
Rulan Tangen: We’ve had some incredible partnerships, such as an organization called The New Energy Economy Incentive. And they’re doing really hard work. The funders brought us in for a fundraising performance, where we danced out the beauty and the nourishment of what they’re doing. It really replenished the workers, those hardworking activists, and it also replenished the folks who are supporting it financially. It was, “Oh, remember the sacred, remember the sweetness, remember what it is we’re fighting for as well as what we’re fighting against.”
That was a powerful way of inspiration becoming action. Because out of that there were funds raised to put solar panels on one of the native pueblo villages in New Mexico. That felt like a real victory where it turned into something very clear.
Parvati Magazine: Dancing Earth comprises indigenous collaborators from across the globe. How were the first dancers from outside North America attracted to Dancing Earth, and how have those relationships influenced your development and work?
Rulan Tangen: There’s been this blessing of the weaving of the constant long migrations of global indigenous people that have occurred from before colonization. For example, my first three young men, in the company that was called Dancing Earth, were break dancers from Arizona. They were very proud to call in their tribal heritage and quickly pointed out that the lineage between the three of them overlaps from South America to Central America to what is now called Mexico to the Southwest. They said, “it’s one long trade route. Not only are we carrying this, but our ancestors did too.” They had a very wide view on things. Then one of my first guest artists is this incredible actor, director, singer, multi talent, also a dancer named Kalani Kwaito, of Hawaiian heritage.
People that I knew of, I think we all dreamed of being in somebody’s indigenous dance company. Then it turned out we were the ones who would make these companies back in our home lands. So we started creating this new movement. It feels good when we can invite each other or invite each other’s students to work with each other. There’s a huge sense of seeing yourself in someone who comes from so far and recognizing the power of the differences and the power of the sameness. There is a beautiful awakening that happens. I’d call it intercultural international indigenous cultural exchange. None of us are trying to impose a viewpoint on everyone. We’re all in negotiation, all learning from each other like, “Oh, here’s what we think about water.” Like, “Oh, can we think about it like this?” How do we put those onstage together? And dance seems to be a very beautiful way for different ways of being to coexist.
The Gifts of Indigenous Contemporary Dance
Parvati Magazine: What do you feel are the most valuable gifts Dancing Earth has given to the indigenous community and to the world as a whole?
Rulan Tangen: What I love is the performances we make. We can be on fine opera house stages, but we also can take the same performance , maybe without the fancy lighting, to the reservation gymnasium and people can see themselves in that. Even though we might not be of the same first nation, people can resonate with it. I remember a grandfather saying, “You guys are like superheroes. I couldn’t remember that our people lived like that. Healthy and strong and able to jump and fly.” “Between Underground and Sky World” has so many people that are like superheroes, such as hardworking single moms.
We’re also making communities for indigenous costumers, photographers, videographers, dancers, musicians, and set designers who do not replicate Western ideals of what theatre is. I think that is important. People don’t realize the power of the diversity. We are serving up an intercultural negotiation to create a process and that ends up on stage, which might be more like a mosaic rather than one specific first nation’s heritage.
Parvati Magazine: You have spoken of elders charging you to “use our art to change hearts.” Our work towards the realization of the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary (MAPS) is built on that exact philosophy and embraces the way it transforms our own hearts in the process. How does the necessity of MAPS speak to you?
Rulan Tangen: It is sacred work for this sacred place. Thank you so much for this peace sanctuary. I’m very moved by it. MAPS is letting it [the Arctic Ocean] exist as it should be. It’s a sacred spot for the purpose of itself, for its own right to be. What has been lost with development is to be able to reach out and hold hands around, rather than reaching in to grab and take. Thank you.
Rulan Tangen is the Founding Artistic Director/Choreographer of Dancing Earth, a grassroots Indigenous contemporary dance initiative. Tangen is internationally acknowledged as a leader in Indigenous contemporary dance with over three decades of experience in movement arts. She lectures at universities, conferences, and educational programs, and has conducted fieldwork throughout the Americas.