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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


October 18, 2003 - Issue 98


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Indian Dancers Mix Ancient with Modern

by Susan Morgan Anchorage Daily News
credits: Members of the American Indian Dance Theatre wear their tribal regalia during performances.

Members of the American Indian Dance Theatre wear their tribal regalia during performances.In the 1970s, theater producer Barbara Schwei started looking for a new project.

"I was thinking, 'What do I like to do? What would inspire me?' " she said in a phone interview from New York.

A longtime fan of Native American art, Schwei wondered if a show featuring American Indian dance might be the ticket. "And there started the adventure," she said.

Schwei hooked up with Hanay Geiogamah, and the idea brewed for a while.

"We explored some things and got the dialogue going," Geiogamah, a professor of theater at the University of California Los Angeles, said from his L.A. home. "It all began to come to fruition 10 years later."

In the summer of 1986, the pair traveled across the country and attended every powwow and Native American dance they could find. They assembled a cast, and the first performance of American Indian Dance Theatre was the following year.

Now, after Anchorage appearances in the early 1990s, the 18-member troupe returns for two performances in Atwood Concert Hall.

"We're happy to come up" again, Geiogamah said.

After an Anchorage show in 1990, a reviewer wrote that the group reminded him of Buck, the Saint Bernard that discovers he has the soul of a wolf when he's brought to the Yukon in Jack London's book "The Call of the Wild."

"These dances and the drums and chanting accompanying them stirred memories beyond immediate experience," reviewer Paul Ben-Itzak wrote.

Reviewer Anne Herman said there was something elementary, spiritual and potent about the group's performance here in 1993. "(It) was a compelling statement by a culture that is ancient and contemporary and very much alive," she added.

Geiogamah said that remains true. The dancers are all traditional, he said; most grew up performing with their tribes at powwows. They are not officially costumed but wear their own regalia.

"That contributes to a stronger performance, a more intensely personal focus," said Geiogamah, a member of the Kiowa and Delaware tribes of Oklahoma.

The group performs a variety of dances, including what Schwei -- who says she's the only non-Native American member of the group -- calls "pan-tribal pieces." But there are some they never do.

"We would never try some of the religious dances, of course," she said. "That wouldn't be appropriate; this is theater."

It's also educational, showcasing traditional Native American dances such as the Eagle Dance, set to music by Robbie Robertson. But the group also choreographs work such as "New Dance," blending old and new dances.

"We don't want to just do traditional dances; we want to create new stuff," Geiogamah said. "Every culture has to evolve and create new expressions of their art."

The American Indian Dance Theatre has been successful in doing that. It has traveled the world, was the only all-Indian group to have a national television special, received an Emmy nomination for a later special and a Grammy nomination for its original-cast album.

At times, the dancers have toured as much as 35 weeks a year, supporting themselves without grants. Geiogamah said that will be changing as he looks for funding to further the group's ability to perform and travel. The group is especially conscious of the need to make their work accessible to the casual viewer, even those who've never seen Native American dances.

Geiogamah calls the performance a "universal expression of celebration," including personal and group stories told by the dancers.

"(Visitors) will leave our show feeling uplifted," he said. "It is a positive and uplifting experience for everybody."

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