Rulan Tangen is the founding artistic director of Dancing Earth, a company that creates contemporary dance and related arts through Indigenous and intra-cultural relationships centered in ecological and cultural diversity. Dancing Earth collaborates with artists, farmers, cultural advisors, and activists. They create eco-dance productions under the guidance of Elders who suggest appropriate themes – such as diversity or sacred land and water – that support the health and wellness of all people and the planet.
This is Part I or a three-part interview.
The word ritual came up a lot when I was discovering your work. Are rituals important to you? How do they relate to the mission of protecting the climate and the Earth?
I want to thank you for the opportunity to bring another texture to the story of myself and Dancing Earth. The origin story does have a lot to do with ritual. Any roots and seeds lead to a particular moment in time.
You can say that the origins of dancing go back to when I was born, or before that. At a fairly young age, I went through a stage 4 battle with cancer. It was quite likely due to living in poor environmental conditions, which are part of the legacy for marginalized people of color. I wasn’t aware of all of that; I was just trying to live. In a sense, Dancing Earth was a vision of a ritual of everyday gratitude for my life.
Who I wanted to have as the first circle of beneficiaries were people who had incredible talent and vision and ways of knowing, but who did not have opportunity or access to the performing arts. These were people I had met in my career dancing and teaching in many places, including in rural reservations. They were Native Americans and global Indigenous people, including mixed people with these heritages. The performing arts can be a conduit for visibility, but I hadn’t stepped forward to do that fully because of so many protections around what can be shared.
A few years before the cancer journey, a woman from the Lakota Nation who had adopted me – my adopted grandmother – gave me permission to move forward with certain things. We had conversations about what would be relevant to share, so it’s almost like the cancer journey became an incubation period. Then, some of the young kids who had been students were ready to make this their full-time vocation.
As far as ritual goes, what I was bringing in was the idea of taking responsibility as contemporary, modern-day people, to create rituals relevant to this moment. There have always been ceremonial songs and dances, visual imagery and oratory that would come together to form rituals of transformation – these are the origins of theatre in all cultures. Some of the participants in the group were part of cultures that had retained this direct connection, and others were revitalizing it. But when we come together as an inter-tribal or intercultural group, there are many ceremonies which are not appropriate to share; they are made for a particular group that share a language and a geography or season.
For example, one of the first dancers in the company is also an accomplished violinist. We had to think about evolving a form that didn’t necessarily have a European influence, since that had been so heavily prioritized. I myself was blessed to have a career in ballet and modern dance, but I wanted to consider whether it was these forms that needed to be on stage. Should they be in a circle? With a violin, we were looking at references to ancient string instruments and found that they represent the wind. The violinist first portrayed a whirlwind, which was circular, and it brought out his Capoeira proficiency; his mother comes from a line of Brazilian Indigenous people from the Amazons. Capoeira is part of his cultural and creative heritage. The sound of the violin was considered a representation of this whirlwind, which is a conduit for change. Like this, we went deeper into why and how we were bringing certain things into the creative process.
In every dance I ever made, where artists come together, is what I call sacred space. That space of creation and visioning brings in something that doesn’t exist yet, even if it’s a known art form or a story being retold. It also brings in a plurality of perspectives where everybody is valued and respected.
I want to be conscious of the fact that there are ceremonies which still exist and have existed for thousands of years – and often what they need is protection. On the other hand, things come up that need a statement. We brought our water dances to various protests. Very different thinkers and performance artists have applied the word ritual to things like brushing your teeth every day. It carries a sense of openness towards the idea of a ritual, but we certainly invest in our rituals with the intention of transformation, including of the people who witness or participate.
The word ritual is quite open-ended, and could be considered an invitation.
Yes, invitation and openness are very centered in my work. I wanted Dancing Earth to be respectful, cautious, and protective – waiting for permissions or taking gentle steps. I was a successful dancer working in New York and around the world. I was happy being a conduit for other’s visions. If anything, I was too intimidated to create choreography or to be a director. Then, when I went through that life-changing battle, I couldn’t dance. I could barely move. I was no longer able to be a conduit, but I definitely had dreams. When I share those with others, they become choreography and direction. Yet, I am still being a conduit for something greater than myself – there’s definitely something coming through me. It is shaped by me because it’s choosing my body to flow through. When we come in the circle, we always have a sense of what is in the middle and wants to be birthed through our process.
Is this a different source than someone else? Maybe a collective thing, or something non-human?
That’s a great question. We’ve been creating for 17 years, so there are many variations to this.
For me, it was coming through an intangible way of relating to the tangible. It’s about understanding life on Earth. It’s not about some other realm, but about the spirit and force that is in all of life. Variations – particular images or glimpses of that – would come through me and I’d bring them into the circle for other people to respond.
When we started, we didn’t have a shared movement language. No school told us, here’s how to move. I had received 10,000 hours of training with a particular group to get to that perfect, refined choreographic language. There was a bit of an urgency – I had been given life for who knows how long.
After a few years, there were a surprising and continued number of instances when Native Elders, specifically grandmothers from the Anishinaabe nation, or a man who had a group from inter-tribal Southwestern nations, would come to us and say, “What you’re doing is important because it’s a way to transmit messages. Here’s a message we have. It is really important. Could you take that and make dances?” In one case, it was about water; in another, about seeds and plants, and how we make food. Each one of those dances has lasted and continues to impact our work. These aren’t projects that are ever done. It feels very different when someone gifts me with a story. They are not always stories that I need to tell, but themes that are given for which I hold respect. Often, they are given because they need to reach far and wide. In other cases I am asked to present them there, in the community, with the youth and Elders, with a particular language group. Afterwards, I can let them go to other places and each of those places and peoples can receive those themes and respond in their own ways. At Dancing Earth, we have a responsibility when we’ve been trusted to carry these stories.
What you’re saying reminds me of movement, not only movement itself as a dance in some form, but also how the form moves, shifts, and changes.
You have just scratched upon a theme that came out of our work, which I call MOMB, like womb: the movement of movement building. Our first workshops when we recognized this notion were in the Bay area. Sometimes you do things for years and then you realize there’s a pattern and you give the pattern a name. We got the movement of movement building from the different practices and processes that we as artists, humans, and humanists come up with: ways to bring our message forward and adapt that message so it is relevant to every place, time, and people. It shifts like water. Our choreographic motifs come from very specific stories or socio-political intentions. There’s a relationship between what we present on stage in full ritual, and the qualities of light and timing and music. Then we take some of that same material and it morphs and changes for an action against pipelines on the steps of the Capitol, for example. They’re all different tactics towards an energy shift.
Thank you, Rulan.
(Top image: Rulan Tangen, founder of Dancing Earth.)
Biborka Beres is a senior student at Bennington College in Vermont, USA, studying dance, drama and philosophy. Her interests and works lie at the intersection of socio-political change and the performing arts. In her interviews for the Artists & Climate Change blog, she is continuing her process of exploring how the arts can create models, practices and imaginary worlds which allow humans to coexist peacefully with nature and with each other.