Catching an hour of morning sun before a rehearsal of the American Indian Dance Theatre, choreographer Raoul Trujillo stretches out, shirtless, on a rock ledge in the vast Garden of the Gods city park, his deep brown skin gleaming against the red stone.
Only a few months ago, Trujillo was a leading dancer in the New York-based Alwin Nikolais modern dance company--and the notion of forming a national ensemble of Indian dancers and musicians was just a long-simmering dream.
No longer. Resplendent in buckskin fringe and eagle feathers, the 26-member troupe appears at the Beverly Theatre starting Thursday. It is at once America's newest dance company and its oldest, performing traditional dances that date back 800 years or more.
The repertory includes everything from virtuosic war dances of the Plains to mimetic animal dances of the Southwest; from an ancient, sacred Apache ritual to a recent, popular women's technique competition; from traditional social dances to experimental evocations of Indian philosophy.
As Trujillo acknowledges, intertribal performances have long been a fixture of Indian powwows, and many superb dancers have emerged from the competitions held at these events. Yet an authentic, wide-ranging theater-dance company akin to the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico has never been attempted in the Indian world--and Trujillo feels both tension and pride in his responsibility.
"My work has been to take a lot of the dances that are already set and restage or refocus them for the theater," he says. This process, required in the theatrical adaptation of any ethnic idiom, includes editing the choreography for brevity and thus heightening contrasts, changing steps-in-place into traveling sequences and adding structure to what have traditionally been improvisational passages.
"It's a process of refinement and coming to peace with the stage as a new arena to work in," he explains. "And it's also a process of helping the dancers explore the space more and explore the need to convey what they're doing to an audience."
A New Mexico-born genizaro Indian utterly at home in the New York dance scene, Trujillo was brought into the project in March by producer Barbara Schwei (one of only two non-Indians on the creative/performing team) and director Hanay Geiogamah (head of the Native American Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles and an adjunct professor in the Department of Indian Studies at UCLA). Initially, he says, some of the hand-picked powwow champions in the company were wary of him.
"Only after they saw me doing all their steps--after I proved myself as a dancer in their terms--did they accept me and my ideas," Trujillo recalls.
Some of those ideas involved renewing the expressive content of the dances. "I'm asking the women if they're feeling anything or just doing steps in the Victory Scalp Dance," Trujillo says. "I'm getting them to remember what it is to summon the evil spirits after their warrior husbands have died--to bring out Indian thought in how they treat death.
"And in the Eagle Dance, I don't want the men to just put on wings and go through the motions, I want them to become that eagle."
Director Geiogamah (a member of the Kiowa Delaware tribe from Oklahoma) also speaks of the new company not merely as a showcase but as a vehicle for revitalizing Indian dance. "For Indians, this is a chance to expand and advance the evolution of the art form," he says after an afternoon rehearsal at Colorado College.
"We're creating a kind of new pan-tribal idiom here, so dances that may be from one tribe in their origins can be danced by many tribes. I think that this crossbreeding process is absolutely necessary if Indian dance is to move ahead and begin to vibrate with a more contemporary kind of energy."
Geiogamah foresees no controversy within the Indian community over his company's priorities and practices. Indeed, he rejects the assumption that "Indians are locked into a tradition where anyone who does anything outside the norm is a violator of some kind" and insists that most tribal elders would be "perfectly receptive" to his proposed artistic reforms.
"I don't think that there's a conservative element in any tribe that would block this (adaptation of their cultural traditions) if it was done with the proper diplomacy, protocol and artistry," he says.
"From the very beginning we've had discussions continually about the care we all must take in this work not to break some tradition or tribal agreement. We know the taboos, the barriers, how far to go, what not to do. We're considered an advance guard here (by the community) and any questions or problems that arise are part of the work, part of what we're doing."
To producer Schwei, the Colorado Springs and Los Angeles performances are something of a test run--"really kind of a workshop in a way"--to determine potential interest in the company and, on the bottom line, "whether it will work at all." She estimates the cost of producing the company as about $100,000 ("that's just to put the show on its feet; going to Los Angeles is additional"), all of it raised from "a small group of private investors."
Schwei has long been a collector of Indian art and jokes that her kachina dolls may have influenced her to form the company: "I feel like I've had a lot of advisers around the house trying to tell me something."
For Trujillo, the inner messages came from a drum: "The drum spoke to me and I was touched.
"I came here open and empty but became committed," he reveals. "I started this (project) just as a job but now I would never forgive myself if I walked away. I'm interested now in going for grants to be with these (company) people and explore their dances and drumming--to develop a technique that's based on the Indian vocabulary for the dance and drum."
He smiles very broadly. "I'm so charged by working with these people. For me it's a real merging into the absolute source. All of a sudden it's coming home."