DANCE REVIEWS : Making Drama From Ritual


Swimming majestically through sprays of light on the the stage of the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, a masked whale-dancer opens a hypnotic North Coast initiation ritual presented by American Indian Dance Theatre on Thursday.

Worn as a sculptural crown, the whale mask is both a family crest and an effigy representing the connection between humans and the natural world.

This traditional Red Cedar Bark Ceremony (or “Tseka”) of the Kwakiutl people dramatizes many similar connections, invoking the ancestor figures, nature spirits and dark forces that teach the initiate his place in life.

Dwarfed by enormous birds, dragged screaming into the forest, he is ultimately purged of his own blood lust, rewarded and returned to society.


Of course, the Kwakiutl people of Alert Bay, British Columbia, live closer to whales and ravens than we do. But, even for California theatergoers, these images resonate beyond the picturesque, conveying with dark splendor a deeply holistic view of nature and of dancing.

In 1979, the locally based Aman Folk Ensemble mounted its own Kwakiutl winter ceremonial--spelled “Tseyka"--with faultless dancing and with the spectacular masks, robes and other regalia no less authentically reproduced. But the special achievement of the American Indian Dance Theatre staging by Bill Cranmer is its unwavering focus on the essential social purpose of the ceremonial: depicting what each individual must face and learn in order to become civilized.

Dances that teach how to be an accepted member of the community form one whole block of the American Indian Dance Theatre repertory. But the company’s new “Winter Dances” production also showcases other modes of movement expression. The familiar Eastern Woodland suite, for instance, features social dancing: lively linkups between lines of men and women--with the former showing off their mastery of high-velocity stamping and the latter excelling at sharp sliding steps.

Partly revised this year, the Plains suite revels in virtuosity, with the bravura footwork of soloists George Alexander, Roland Barker and Poncho Brady nearly eclipsed by the mesmerizing movement of the tassels and plumage adorning their incredibly puffed-up costumes. Indeed, choreography for fringe provides a special subdivision of the suite, with the women of the Fancy Shawl Dance whirling in a rainbow aura of flying strands.

A new suite of Pueblo Winter Dances from the Southwest attempts an ambitious layering of the workaday and the miraculous. At one extreme, women grind corn and a hoop dancer (the phenomenal Eddie Swimmer) launches ever more intricate displays of dexterity. But before and after these village activities we see symbolic deer, eagle and buffalo dances of great dignity and weight.

And, somehow, it doesn’t play: Despite the careful contextual scene-setting, most of the episodes prove too brief to take an outsider deeper than the obvious major contrasts they offer, and the result seems too self-consciously panoramic. We’re given a survey of Pueblo dances but not the experience of them--at least not until the final Hopi Butterfly Dance, where the sense of community interaction, and the antics of the clowns, involve us in a joyous celebration of renewal.