NOTIONS OF INDIAN-NESS
BY MICHAEL GREYEYES
In 1999 I performed one of my own creations, a contemporary native dance/theatre
work, at the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People
(ASSITEJ) World Congress in Norway. A gentleman in the audience from Eastern
Europe pleaded afterwards that, although he liked the piece, “Next time, could you bring
something really ‘Native?’”
It would be easy to dismiss this comment as ignorant, or laughable, but it does raise
questions worth examining, such as: what exactly is ‘Native’ dance? Who is its
audience? How does the mainstream (read non-native) audience frame the work of
modern Aboriginal dance artists? At what point does the expansion of the indigenous
framework for expression make it unidentifiable as indigenous? Does it matter in the
least whether ‘Native’ dance is definable at all?
Contemporary First Nations’ choreographers have sought to bring our dances to wider
and wider audiences for over 40 years, moving from traditional sites of performance to
theatres and beyond. By doing so, Aboriginal choreographers are re-inscribing concert
dance -- a western form -- as a vehicle for indigenous expression. Yet, there remains a
significant obstacle to this re-inscription. These artists operate under broad public
perceptions and expectations about the cultural authenticity of their voices as creators.
Audiences, therefore, have demanded that First Nations dance artists negotiate their
work within tropes of aboriginality that define American Indian culture. This paper
outlines whether these notions of Indian-ness are now emerging from within the
indigenous context, by artists unaware of the force of these tropes, or from without, by
audiences equally unaware of their own writing upon native representation.
For this discussion, I would like to focus upon three principal staging tropes. The first is
local color, which in this case encompasses the dramatis personae, the dance
vocabulary, music, and costume. The second is theme, which encompasses the story
and its setting. And the third is non-linear chronologies/narratives. This discussion will
examine these tropes through the work of the American Indian Dance Theatre, John Kim
Bell’s In the Land of Spirits and the work of choreographers Byron Chief-Moon, Stephen
Page, and myself, to help illustrate the way these frameworks influence and shape our
The staging of Indian ethnicity in North America has many parallels in the depiction/
construction of cultures also labeled as “Other,” but what is noteworthy is that the
theatrical concerns for constructing a framework defining Indian identity were
established in America as soon as European-based theatrical practice began here. By
the time of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, several tropes of aboriginality
were already deeply entrenched and unquestioned, with most stubbornly remaining to
this day. For example, the visual language of the Plains cultures had already taken hold
of the American public’s imagination, as well as the “conflation of real and faux” that
ethnographic displays -- Wild West Shows, or the performative ‘Indian villages’ –
delivered, and for which white audiences clamored 1
Recalling W.E.B. DuBois’ definition of what constitutes ‘real,’ the American Black
Theatre (By us, about us, for us, near us), native performance, at that time, satisfied at
least one of DuBois’ criteria: about us (or, at the very least, starring us). This introduced
an essential trope to the theatrical framework: that mainstream audiences expect an
authentic experience through the casting of native performers. This allays an audience’s
concern that what they are seeing is ‘real,’ because certainly no ‘real’ Indian -- proud
people that we are -- would allow our representation to deviate into cliché or worse,
patent inaccuracy.2 Much recent scholarship -- especially the Show Indian-tolerant
examinations* -- asserts that the by us portion was also in play by 1893. Even though
the indigenous communities represented in Chicago were not the producing agents, they
-- by their participation -- actively sought to influence, shape, subvert, and re-inscribe
the events, plots, stories and characterizations about them.3
The effectiveness of using Aboriginal dramatis personae, as theatrical device, is
profound. Consider the shouts of “Bravo!” and “Encore!” that greeted the 12 Sioux
visitors, invited as guests to the 1893 Exposition by William F. Cody, who had agreed, as
performers, to portray Columbus’s welcoming party of Arawaks on Italian Day.4 Or
consider the tumultuous applause that ends each performance of the American Indian
Dance Theatre even now, wherever they perform. It appears to be an almost cathartic
experience for an audience (both native and non-native) to show their genuine
appreciation for the dancers in the company, whom the audience understands, without
exception, to be the ‘real deal.’5
This framework of Aboriginal performance allows easy identification of the performer’s
ethnicity, something that is not as easily accomplished on the street outside the theatre,
where the wide-range of indigenous appearance blends fluidly into culturally diverse
environments. In his HBO comedy special, Bigger and Blacker, Chris Rock joked about
the apparent absence of Indian people in contemporary American life when he said,
* There is a powerful misconception that Indian involvement in the Wild-West shows was
entirely degrading and a humiliating affair for all indigenous participants -- that the sordid
history of the Wild-West shows is something that we now remember only with disdain. For
example, the Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble recently staged The Only Good Indian
(2007) that depicted that history as racist and patently inaccurate. The term show-Indian
tolerant comes from ground-breaking research done by many noted scholars, such as
Philip Deloria, H.G. Moses, etc. that re-examines Indian involvement as remarkable in that
the participants travelled extensively across North American and even outside of the United
States as partners in the theatrical experience. They were not exploited as previously
thought, but gamed the system to free themselves of the reservation system, use their
language, dances and songs in celebration and without fear of punishment. They were
practising their rituals and customs performatively, earning significant income and acting as
legitimate cultural ambassadors across Europe and other places.
So everybody bitch about how bad they got it. Nobody got it worst than the American
Indian […] You know how bad the Indians got it? When’s the last time you met two
Indians? Shit, I have seen a polar bear! […] I have never seen an Indian family that’s
chilling at Red Lobster.
Well, we do eat at Red Lobster, but it appears that without signifiers (read: braids and
turquoise jewelry), it’s tough to place us.
Music is also one of the necessary tropes of indigenous dance performance. The
presence of the drum (also flute, rattles, etc.) and our many forms of singing, including
the high-pitched vocals of pow wow, typifies our most widely recognized music. The
diverse musical landscape of indigenous North America is familiar to listeners
throughout the world. And, just as casting native performers for the stage is an essential
theatrical framing device, so, too, is the force of our traditional music in validating the
dance choreography as ‘Native.’ The drum, after all, is insistent and powerful. It is a
siren’s call to anyone with a heartbeat. Conversely, the modern transformations of our
traditional music are numerous, from rap to the blues to electronica to jazz. Hybrid
forms, such as Robbie Robertson’s music or the work of Russell Wallace, negotiate the
path between past and present, using contemporary instrumentation combined with
traditional vocal arrangement.
Appropriation of non-native music for indigenous performance does occur, but it
complicates the reading of the dances for critics, scholars, and sometimes audiences. In
1999, Australian Aboriginal choreographer Stephen Page created Rites, which was
performed jointly by Page’s company, Bangarra Dance Theatre and The Australian
Ballet to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.7 The use of this major symphonic work to create a
new dance work was both a triumph for Bangarra and Page, as it situated them
alongside and belonging with a company of international stature, and at the same time
underscored problematic realities about Aboriginals performing to a musical work that
examines pre-modern paganism.8 Jonathon Marshall elaborates:
Page’s production did introduce his characteristic ground-hugging, sinuous choreography
[…] [t]here was, however, no engagement with or critique of the ideology behind the
original ballet and its musical structure […] Bangarra’s role with the project was, if
anything, to add further credence to primitivist ideology by having it enacted by a group of
both white dancers and their primitive Aboriginal others. Despite this, most observers saw
the production as a model of inter-cultural reconciliation).
Within my own experience, audiences became confused by the absence of established
native tropes when I chose non-aboriginal music to accompany one of the dance works
we presented at the 1994 Canada Dance Festival. The work, Night Traveller, used
western dance vocabulary, music by Bela Bartok, and featured a mixed cast of both
white and native performers in non-traditional clothing. Perhaps it would not have been
so problematic if I’d only used non-traditional music, and kept everything else firmly
within the frameworks of ethnic staging -- but I had to go and mess with the whole
formula. Pure chaos from the standpoint of audience reception. This particular instance
introduces another crucial signifier within the trope of local color: the dance vocabulary.
In 1987, Hanay Geiogamah and Barbara Schwei created the American Indian Dance
Theatre (AIDT) to showcase and theatricalize traditional pow wow dances for the concert
dance stage. This was a landmark moment in the history of American concert dance and
announced -- first nationally and then internationally -- that American Indian traditional
dance should now be acknowledged and elevated beyond the level of folkloric
expression to join with other virtuosic dance forms, such as modern dance and classical
ballet. The new company toured throughout the world to tremendous critical acclaim.
Co-founder Schwei articulated the idea behind the creation of the company:
We were committed to forming a professional company featuring the best dancers and
musicians from the Native American world, which would perform in first class dance
venues. We also wanted to cross tribal lines and create an integrated company of
dancers, singers, and musicians from various tribes and cultures.
Traditional pow wow dance forms are numerous and have many origins and regional
differences. To find the integration that AIDT sought required codifying individual or tribal
practice and transforming it into a cohesive artistic statement. The result was artistically
legitimate, but moved the pow wow dancing of AIDT toward a pan-Indian model that
negated the wide variations present in contemporary pow wow. AIDT showcased many
styles (jingle, men’s and women’s fancy, grass, men’s and women’s traditional, Eagle
dance, etc.) through their various theatrical programs, including Finding the Circle in
1990 and Dances for a New Generation in 1993, both broadcast on PBS Dance in
America series. Within ten years of its founding, AIDT had circled the globe numerous
times and performed before thousands of spectators, millions if you include the two PBS
specials. Their work helped establish the primacy of the pow wow styles as prototypical
and authentic Indian dance for the world, including the many dance critics and
audiences who saw them.
In addition, AIDT established an organizational convention that placed these dances in a
pageant-like sequence -- first one style, then the next -- thereby maintaining each
dance’s integrity and nuance. The dramaturgical problem with this performance model
was how to link the dances thematically or by some other staging device. One of AIDT’s
piece’s, The Shaman’s Journey, staged in an un-credited role by choreographer Raoul
Trujillo (a former soloist with the Alwin Nikolai company), used the convention of a
shaman preparing a warrior for battle as an overarching narrative.11 This fictionalizing of
ritual also tapped into the long history of “staging the native,” which extends back from
today through Arthur L. Kopit’s Indians and Wasserman’s adaptation of Kesey’s One
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and back even further to the Wild West Shows and
ethnographic performances of fairs and expositions.* These reiterate Bank’s “conflation
of real and faux,” for which contemporary audiences apparently still hunger (note that by
1997, EuroDisney’s theatrical program, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” consistently sold out
and was actually its most popular performing attraction.12)
* These two plays, among others and along with revisionist western films of the late sixties,
mined Indian culture for symbols that might lead that generation of counter-culture artists to
find in the “Indian” a much-sought revitalization of spirit and ritual that was lost in their own
lives. In Kopit' play, the character John Grass finds personal redemption only when he
reconnects to his culture in a ritualistic recreation of the Sun Dance; while in Cuckoo' Nest,
Chief Bromden only finds “freedom” when he escapes the white man' asylum and engages
with the natural world (the Moon, for example).
Artistic Director Hanay Geiogamah recognized that after ten years following the same
theatrical model -- the pageant format that embraced the local color of pow wow dance,
music and regalia --the AIDT needed a change. “We can’t keep doing the social
dances,” he said. “What we’re doing here is dramatizing the mythological backstory
that’s been assumed by our Indian audiences, and missed by others.”13 Kotuwokan!
was to be the company’s answer to this conundrum. For the first time, a non-native
choreographer, Laura Dean, was invited to choreograph a short section to be included in
Geiogamah’s larger suite of dances. Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times called
Dean’s dance, “a shimmering little jewel of a piece that took a rather rigidly
circumscribed vocabulary of small walking steps, colored by tilts and dips of the torso,
and turned it into rich, minimalist art”.14 Geiogamah devised a central narrative to
organize episodes of dance into an full-length work that tells the story of a young man
searching for his place in the world.15 The relatively simple storyline served the overall
piece well, but also reinforced a common perception: that Indian society is caught
between the two worlds of modernity and tradition. In Kotuwokan! the hero’s journey
extended from the city back to his home (significantly) outside the urban landscape.
Deborah Jowitt of the Village Voice noted that some of the AIDT’s experimental settings
of Kotuwokan! were less than impressive:
The city-streets scene is a well-managed cliché: Wall Street types checking their
watches, joggers, muggers. Are we supposed to believe this superficial episode fuels the
hero’s desire to blend modern and traditional once he’s returned home? It’d be enough to
make me put on all the feathered regalia I could find, and, like Jason Daniels in one fine
solo, honor the birds, the animals, and whatever voices of nature we can still hear.
Unfortunately, this particular work did not see subsequent performances or tours to
introduce AIDT’s core audience to the company’s intended paradigmatic shift to larger
narrative forms. Interestingly, an aboriginal work that did explore such scale in story-
telling and which did mine the mythological ‘backstory’ of its hero had premiered nearly
ten years earlier in Canada.
Deirdre Kelly, dance critic of The Globe and Mail at the time, correctly noted in 1988 that
In the Land of the Spirits was the first contemporary native ballet to be produced in
Canada. This work did indeed belong to the world of classical ballet, both in terms of its
dance technique and its kinship to the story-ballet canon, which includes works such as
Giselle and Swan Lake, although the issue of firsts remains open to debate.17 The
creative force behind this landmark production was the co-composer of the score, John
Kim Bell, a Mohawk, who almost single-handedly ushered this work into existence,
through his organization the Canadian Native Arts Foundation. Since its premiere in
1988, no other Aboriginal dance production has ever approached its scale or level of
production values, nor garnered the media attention and accolades In the Land of the
In the Land of Spirits was first choreographed by Jacques Lemay, former resident
choreographer of The Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Not surprisingly, it used the classical
vocabulary with which he was familiar, and required a cast of dancers also versed in the
technique, led by Mark Antonio Lopez (Apache, Navajo), a former principal with San
Francisco Ballet, Suzanne Brown, from the National Ballet of Canada, and Raoul Trujillo
(Apache, Ute, Latino) (Rowe). Trujillo, as he did with the AIDT productions, employed
his knowledge of traditional native dance to contribute as an un-credited co-
choreographer and provided a needed balance to Lemay’s balletic voice. Kelly critiqued
the unevenness of Lemay’s choreography, calling it “an uneven pastiche […] that cried
out for fine-tuning.”18
The inclusion of Aboriginal dramatis personae lent undeniable weight to the ballet,
providing for most viewers a convenient way to see past the classical dance vocabulary
to the story, clearly belonging to the mythological world of Canada’s First Nations.
Andrea Rowe, critic for The Ottawa Citizen, noted:
However, the scene that drew the most appreciation from the audience (which included
many natives) was one that featured traditional dancers moving slowly in a circle as they
chanted to the beat of a drum. Their costumes were decorated with elaborate beaded
embroidery, feathers, fringes, even necklaces of bone, and they performed with the grave
dignity of their ancestors.
Again familiar tropes were called upon: local colour—de rigeur for Indian shows (of any
kind) and the presence of pow wow dancing. It was apparent in reviews and through
audience reaction what worked and what didn’t. In fact, when the production was re-
mounted in 1992, Kim Bell insisted that the show’s weakest point—the modern
choreography—be addressed. He commissioned Canada’s enfant terrible of dance, at
that time, Robert Desrosiers to theatricalize the dancing to better match the fine visual
production elements and the sophistication of the Ojibway narrative.
Mark Antonio Lopez, who returned as the lead in the show, also contributed changes to
the choreography, which according to Vancouver Sun critic, Michael Scott, “resulted in
an authenticity of movement that no non-native choreographer could ever match”. The
Vancouver Sun dance critic did not elaborate further on Lopez’s ‘authentic’ movement in
the choreography, nor describe it for that matter, but it seems likely that any new
choreography thatmoved away from ballet’s attenuated connection to the floor and
vertical suspension of weight along the spine, and which moved closer to the lilting and
rounded forms of pow wow must, therefore, be ‘authentically’ Indian.20
In pure dance terms, a lasting trope appeared when Lopez danced an “authentic Eagle
Dance […] during his moment of triumph, and a pow wow [is enacted] that is used as a
metaphor for the solidity and creative potential for native culture”.21 This trope states that
native characters can never physically assimilate or move their dancing toward the
western vocabulary, but must always move toward a pre-Columbian physical state -- as
if that was somehow identifiable -- or at the very least move toward the prototypical pow
wow of AIDT. Any departure from this dramaturgical convention can only lead to
complicated post-colonial readings of identity, representation, and cultural essentialism,
which do not bode well for morality plays such as these.
In terms of thematic content, Kim Bell raised the bar for all subsequent contemporary
native dance productions in Canada, by establishing -- for his mainstream audiences --
that the First Nations mythological lexicon is our version of the classical texts of Greece
and Rome, on which the foundation of our drama rests and to which we may always
return for sustenance and inspiration. Michael Scott notes, “There is real genius in the
way the Ojibway myth of Winona is handled here. At its heart is a traditional hero-quest:
in order to save the woman he loves, the central figure must enter the underworld and
do battle for her. [Kim] Bell links the original myth to contemporary woes -- in his version
the hero must battle alcoholism to succeed in his quest”.22 In stark contrast to many later
large-scale native dance productions where simple binary readings (Past is Good;
Present is Bad) dominate (reminiscent of the bleating sheep in Orwell’s Animal Farm:
Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad) In the Land of Spirits unabashedly lives in the world of
myth and the fantastic.23
In the Land of Spirits was also visually stunning, thanks to a considerable budget and
the work of many accomplished theatre artists, including the set and costume designs of
Mary Kerr and Maxine Noel (Sioux). Kim Bell’s genius was that he commandeered
theatrical forms, whose mastery (and cost) commanded the instant respect of white
audiences, to tell an Indian story. Yet, this approach, which paid equal homage to
Broadway and Las Vegas, also affirmed the artistic validity of those production styles. It
should be acknowledged that as a pioneering producer, Kim Bell, knew both his
intended audiences and it appears the Roman theatrical adage of dulce et utile. In other
words, in 1988, Canadian audiences needed to be introduced to the richness of
indigenous story-telling and, equally, educated about Native Canada’s expertise in forms
such as classical ballet and symphonic music.
In choosing those particular avenues of expression Kim Bell knew his (monied)
audiences would be entertained, sweetening the pills (advocating the centrality and
beauty of indigenous culture) he was administering. His success as a producer was
clear, as critics lauded In the Land of Spirits as, “a disquieting work of skill and
imagination” and as “that rare accomplishment: the successful adaptation of an
aboriginal myth to a Western art form”.24 Subsequent breakthroughs in the way native
artists would then shape the stylistic concerns of contemporary dance were already
working their way to centre stage, including my work and the work of my fellow artists
Rosalie Daystar Jones, Raoul Trujillo, Alejandro Ronceria, and Santee Smith, among
Quest, a more recent work by the choreographer Byron Chief-Moon, illustrates some
familiar tropes, such as the mythological back-story (in this case a Blood creation story)
and a central figure, the urban Indian caught between two worlds: the modern/present
and the nearly forgotten past. The work also introduces a newer trope, that of non-linear
time and fluidity of setting/space. Quest was developed for the stage, but filmed by
director Byron McKim for the television network Bravo and as such was clearly adapted
for the grammar of film production. Quest is clearly identifiable as a native-themed work,
garbed in the music of Salish composer Russell Wallace, which in this case resembles
ambient techno, but with clear traditional drum beats and vocal arrangements, combined
(powerfully as a signifier for aboriginality) with a woman’s voice speaking in Blood, a
In terms of dramatis personae, Chief-Moon succeeds in populating his world with three
ghost-like apparitions, a woman and two men dressed in plains-style buckskins, with
roaches and body paint, representing the ancients.25 Their positions as figures from the
past are set against Chief-Moon’s urban character in a black suit. In addition, their
movements are grounded (read “weighted”), but there is a lyrical quality to their arm
movements -- especially so for the woman -- who moves sinuously, in an almost Tai chi-
like fashion. The two men move more heavily in open-legged stances; their port de bras
implies they are conjuring. Their basic movement vocabulary is pow wow-based.26
The central figure, played by the striking Chief-Moon, is first seen as a sleeping figure,
awakened by the two men -- in this case -- portraying Wind and Water. The stage action
is simple: the urban native man awakens, struggling against forces that distort his body
in shape and weight distribution, moving him inexorably toward reconciliation or
destruction. The ancients, Earthwoman and Wind and Water, are ever-present, calling or
gesturing to him. But against this physical throughline of action, Chief-Moon and McKim
use jump cuts to change settings almost continually between the natural (forest glades
and beaches) and urban (empty intersections, parking lots, alleyways). With the shifts in
setting, the choreographer and filmmaker deconstruct the film’s continuity and ground
the main character’s sense of dislocation in time and space as part of the very structure
and function of the film narrative.
The trope of non-linear time is present in other contemporary aboriginal art forms,
including the text-based work of indigenous artists, such as Marie Clements, William S.
Yellow Robe, Tomson Highway, and the Turtle Gals Performance ensemble, the
integrated art works of Kent Monkman and Shelley Niro, and the choreography of
Santee Smith. This convention also exists outside the North American context. In 1993,
Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Stephen Page examined through his dance work Pride the
charged issue of why a disproportionate number of Aboriginal men were dying in
Australia’s penal system.27 The work was televised on one of Australia’s national
networks and explores the Aboriginal community’s place as inhabitants of the country,
defying the widely-held belief of terra nullius, which states that large portions of the
country were uninhabited prior to colonial times, thereby obscuring issues of ownership
that loom large over Australia’s political landscape.
Specifically, Page’s choreography ranges from inside a prison cell to beaches, alternate
spaces in conflict with each other, with characters (akin to Chief-Moon’s ancients) that
transcend those boundaries appearing in both spaces in continual time.28 In a section
that precedes the broadcast of the dance piece, interviewer Andrew Ross discusses the
work with its creator Stephen Page, in which,
Page dodges the rhetorical questions of the interviewer, yet even so, appears to
acquiesce to a colonial paradox since he remains trapped in a master trope of the
coloniser/native relationship. His subjectivity is locked in the grid of an Australian
patriarchy that names him and for which he creates a narrative about the mistakes of
This essential construct -- that we as indigenous artists operate within the ongoing
framework of imperialism and colonization -- is itself a limiting factor. In my own case, I
often am basing artistic decisions about the direction or tonality of my work in reaction to
perceptions that are coming from outside my community. I create work that confronts
and challenges white audiences, since they inevitably compose the majority of the
audience at concert dance programs. And oddly, if they’re in attendance at an
indigenous dance concert, then am I not preaching to the choir? Are they not already
sympathetic and open to the ranging experiments of Aboriginal expression? Perhaps
they are, perhaps they just have a subscription to the dance series in which I might be
programmed. In the end it does not matter at what level of understanding or close
reading a non-native audience is capable of making, since it doesn’t change their
position within the “master trope relationship.” Belief and viewpoint are rooted in history
and inevitably work their way inside deep concepts, like perception of time and space.
The colonial framework operates in Page’s interview by inscribing difference onto
Aboriginal places. Andrew Ross, the interviewer, questions the authenticity of Page’s
work addressing the ‘origin’ of the piece. In the context of Ross’ questions the ‘origin’ to
which he continually refers is place. A map drawn by the interviewer locates Bangarra’s
work under the guise of a static place in which discrimination is justified.
In this way, manipulations or deconstructions of time and space within First Nations
dance is both political and ontological, coming from the position of the colonized as a
battle cry, and, equally, from simple ways of knowing ingrained in our upbringings and
relationships and embedded in our stories and ceremonies.
Interestingly, Page -- who is probably the most acclaimed and widely known
indigenous choreographer in the world -- remains circumscribed by the political realities
of his homeland and the equally constrained ontologies of the international dance
community, who define his work only in aboriginal contexts, as a review of Bangarra’s
performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City attests. B. Jennings in
Attitude: The Dancer’s Magazine, states:
Worse yet is the choreographic decision to show that Bangarra dancers are lithe,
beautiful movers that can do all the doublework and Graham/Horton floor work that
European concert dancers worldwide know to do. Horton’s ‘Deep floor vocabulary’ and
Graham’s knee crawls are an Esperanto professional dancers-speak (know). In this
case, the choreographers [the performance piece in question, Bush, was co-
choreographed by Frances Rings] did a grave shift away from the unique rhythmic
decisions, rituals, animist roots, and Outback denizens into a colony’s reconfiguration of
coals coming to NewCastle.
Perhaps the reviewer -- and possibly by extension a large portion of the audience -- was
expecting ‘authentic’ movement, local color, or an even more overt mythological storyline
and was disappointed by Page’s elided responses to the expected tropes of Indian-ness.
The tourists had been gypped.
Imagine angry patrons making a straight line from the Columbian Exposition, to the
various throngs at the Wild West Shows (including Euro Disney), and the crowds at
AIDT performances. and to the most recent incarnation of the “Indigenous Dancelands”
tour across Canada, where Santee Smith and I performed our duet The Threshing Floor
(which always raises a few hackles for those expecting “authentic native” dance) –
imagine audiences storming the backstage door or the box office demanding their
money back! “We were expecting to be rewarded for our genuine interest in your
culture, our simple love for your dance forms or music, our passion for your costuming
and the artistic excellence of your performers; instead, we had those expectations
thwarted, subverted, and re-inscribed onto often unrecognizable new forms and
The combination of entrenched staging tropes, the stubborn beliefs of the broad public
and what we, as choreographers, want to do will always be in flux, in dialogue, in re-
negotiation or simply at odds. While tech-ing the Indigenous Dancelands tour, all
choreographers (Santee Smith, Michèle Olsen, Gaétan Gingras, and myself) warmed up
together in a Montréal theatre talking about these very issues and I concluded that there
is NO First Nations Dance. The category does not exist. The only category is dance BY
First Nations artists, whereby we move in and out of traditional forms and staging,
searching for new audiences and dance languages. Is the public ready to go there?
Aimee Ts’ao, in a review written just after 9-11, offers one answer:
The evening opened with the American Indian Dance Theatre performing a series of
traditional dances. The dancers' intense performance and what appeared to be their
surrender to a trance state was compelling and hypnotic, made even more so by the
accompaniment of live drumming and chanting. Unfortunately, I was put off by the
intermittent use of recorded music by Robbie Robertson that bordered on New Age
appropriation, a few glitzy costumes with lots of sequins and satin, and the dry ice clouds.
For me, the globalization of the Las Vegas-Disney aesthetic makes it all the more
imperative to preserve authentic art forms and protect them from the rapidly spreading
The larger question remains: who’s writing upon whom?
! " #
% & '
( ) ' ,-
Bank, Rosemarie. “Representing History: Performing the Columbian Exposition.” Theatre
Journal, 54,4 (2002): 593,595, 599.
Note that the publicity for the American Indian Dance Theatre (AIDT), Spirit, Red Sky’s
Shimmer, and John Kim Bell’s In The Land of Spirits all affirms quite vigorously the ethnic identity
of their performers.
Moses, L.G. Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians, 1883-1933. Albuquerque:
University of New Mexico Press, 1996), p. 134,135. See also the analysis of subverting the tourist
gaze by Christopher B. Balme, “Staging the Pacific: Framing Authenticity in Performance of
Tourists at the Polynesian Cultural Center,” Theatre Journal 50, no. 1 (1994): 54.
Bank, Rosemarie, 595.
This cathartic spectacle is not dissimilar to the way pre-dominantly Black audiences show their
appreciation for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre. (Author’s personal observation from Ailey
productions in New York City and Cleveland, Ohio.)
Rock, Christopher. Bigger and Blacker. HBO, Keith Truesdell, dir. 1999. Rock’s performance
material is certainly hilarious but reflects another bias: the hidden assertion that First Nations’
communities are essentially rural—that there are no Indians in the cities or specifically Brooklyn,
Rock’s home borough—whereas the truth of the matter is that the native community in New York
City is one of the largest in urban America.
Burridge, Stephanie. “Dreaming the Future: The Emergence of Bangarra Dance Theatre.”
Australasian Drama Studies, 41: 85.
Marshall, Jonathon. Recovering citation. p. 98.
Marshall, Jonathon, 99.
Schwei, Barbara. AIDT press release material for their appearance at Wolftrap National Park
for the Performing Arts.
Walker. Recovering citation.
Bank, Rosemarie, 595.
Quoted in Reardon, Christopher. “When Collaborators Find Themselves Out of Step.” NYT, 30
Aug. 1998. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/30/arts/dance-when-collaborators-find-themselves-
out-of-step.html?sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all. 30 Mar 2006.
Dunning, Jennifer. “A Culture’s Age-Old Rituals Made Fresh in a Journey Through Time.”
NYT, 10 Aug. 1998. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/10/arts/dance-review-a-culture-s-age-old-
rituals-made-fresh-in-a-journey-through-time.html. 29 Mar 2006.
Jowitt, Deborah. “Writ in Water.” Village Voice, 25 Aug 1998.
http://www.villagevoice.com/1998-08-25/dance/writ-in-water/2. 30 Mar 2006.
A year earlier New Song, New Dance, an important Aboriginal dance work choreographed by
Rene Highway preceded In the Land of Spirits and premiered in Toronto, but like many
contemporary Canadian dance pieces of that time and this, has been overshadowed by the
media attention afforded the ‘classical’ work, mounted a year later.
Kelly, Deirdre. “Stunning Imagery Lifts Native Ballet Above Message.” Globe and Mail, 18 Nov
1988, p. D9.
e%2C22%29in+the+land+of+spirits. 30 Mar 2006.
Rowe, Andrea. “In the Land of Spirits lively, unusual ballet”, Ottawa Citizen, 17 November
Michael Scott, interestingly, also rejects the suite of traditional dances offered as the opening
act to the production as, “sorry business” and “offensive.” Scott asserts that such dances, “which
are not intended for mere entertainment,” but, in fact, “help native people explore their origins, to
make sense of the wider world, are presented here as a kind of sequined Wild West show.” In
doing so, he betrays an anti-theatrical prejudice that ‘authentic’ folkloric forms (and the rich
contribution of ‘Show Indians’ in the Wild West shows, for that matter) do not belong in such
venues. He states further, “This [dancing] is no more authentic than the Archbishop of
Canterbury making a show of his costume in a music hall would be an authentic expression of
western religion.” Admittedly, Scott is correct about the question of artistic taste in this particular
section [the Kwakiutl Hamatsa/ Cannibal dance], which has everything to do with Kim Bell’s
Vegas-style leanings and less to do with whether or not these dances have a place on the North
Scott, Michael. Vancouver Sun. Recovering citation.
Read Kotuwokan, or Spirit: Seventh Fire, a large scale American theatrical production, combing
music, epic film and Native American Dance.
A roach is an important piece of male traditional dance regalia. Made from porcupine hair, with
short, stiff deer hair to support it—the roach is worn on a dancer’s head and resembles a stylized
Mohawk, which bobs and sways with a dancer’s movements.
It should be noted that Bryon Chief-Moon is Blood (a Plains culture) so his use of elements of
Plains culture: buckskin clothing, roaches, traditional body paint, pow wow dance vocabulary
emerge organically from his own background and reflect how he wants traditional knowledge
expressed in his work. It should be noted that his principal character is dressed in modern
clothing, and, therefore, represents a direct provocation of the tropes of staging ethnicity.
Wiess, Celia. “Story Space in Bangarra’s Pride: An Imperative for Reconciliation.”
Australasian Drama Studies, 41: 90-100.
Jennings, B. Reviews: Modern Dance, 1998. “Bangarra Dance Theatre.” Attitude—The
Dancer’s Magazine 19, 1: 42-43.
Ts’ao, Aimee. “Dancing Yosemite and the Face of America.” The Dance Insider.
http://www.danceinsider.com/f911_2.html. 23 Mar 2009.