Three Questions for Rulan Tangen, Part III

Dance and Science

This is the third part of a three-part interview with Rulan Tangen, founder of Dancing Earth. You can read Part I and II here and here.

Many dancers and choreographers emphasize that dance does what science cannot do when it comes to the climate crisis: it fosters a deeply intimate, emotional connection to the issue. How do you see the role of dance in fighting climate change?

Dance can definitely translate scientific facts into a visceral way of knowing. It can even uncover facts that science hasn’t identified yet. This has been reiterated by Elders and culture-carriers, and by farmers who won the Food Sovereignty Prize a while back. They asked artists to help be a part of shifting hearts, because that’s when there’s cultural change. I’ve seen it happen. The arts help a cause be something that makes us feel good in our bodies. And we lean towards what feels good. For a long time, we’ve leaned towards different types of comfort. I definitely want warm water in my house. It’s nice to have a bed. Then, at a certain point there’s the question: how much comfort do we need? Can we experience joy and beauty and relationships instead of a thousand jewels – even though there’s beauty there, and joy, and an appreciation of that aesthetic? Can there be an appreciation of aesthetics when seeing dance that’s zero waste? It’s not something that we own and we have to store, and then dust off. The experience is temporal. 

Constant growth and constant decay, and the ability to harbor that.

Regenerate, yes…

Between Underground and Skyworld at Arizona State University – Gammage, Arizona. Photo by Pam Taylor Photography.

This might be a very stereotypical thought, but if we are unable to find beauty in our existing surroundings, then how are we to hoard things and get pleasure from them? I think there’s a lot of dissatisfaction in consumerism and the whole practice of accumulating goods.

Dancing Earth is often invited into theatres but we can’t afford to rent a theatre or even a studio – so we dance outside. And at times people go: “Oh, where’s your permit?” A permit is required even in a public park. You’d be surprised how “public” doesn’t mean that you can do what you want. When we place our dances in a theatre or beyond a theatre, we activate the space. We have animated some spaces with our dances – for example, outdoors –where people now say they can’t walk by that area without seeing the life force of the dancers there. They’re literally remembering an active space of ritual and transformation.

We use recycled industrial materials, or remake old fabrics into costumes. There have been times when we were given spaces but we weren’t allowed to use the lights. The owners didn’t want to pay for electricity. We started calling that passive solar. We’ve been blessed twice in the Bay area: one time with a bike-powered sound system, and another time with a biodiesel tour bus. Those were great. We’re always carpooling and using bicycles or public transport for commuting. A lot about how we make a dance production is in sync with our vision of not needing a lot, including how and what we eat. We often prioritize local farms. Honestly, there was a summer when we had no money, and that’s when we ate the best food because of the generosity of farmers. That’s when we understood true wealth. We always remember the importance of reciprocity with the people who have supported us when nobody else would. And we feel good. Our bodies feel stronger; we’re more energetic. One of our dancers, who is a farmer, asked us to make sure we always had reusable water bottles and our own reusable spoons and bowls and our carry bags. This all started to shift how we travel. 

Ballet had been the love of my life. That training was about discipline, about the ritual of returning and deepening my commitment to the craft so that form got more and more precise. I remember a summer when I had left New York. I was involved in more of a social justice thing, living in a van, outdoors. After that, coming back into the studio and seeing a bunch of people propped up on one leg, balanced, seeing what I would have called beautiful and transcendent before, I felt a great disconnect. I spent the rest of my life trying to bring these two worlds together. At this point in my life, I’m remembering my deep appreciation for ballet – anything someone spends so much time on, whether it’s work or graffiti art or ballet, anything someone dedicates so many hours to is worth appreciating. The question is how one can bring that into the world of change, justice, and eco-consciousness. 

Groundworks, a day-long, multidisciplinary, mobile performance art installation that amplifies the oft-forgotten Native presence under one’s feet anywhere in the Americas, culminated in a public performance on Alcatraz for the Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony in the fall of 2018.

The role of dance in fighting climate change… We spent years with this inspiration and there were many moments of awakening in the process. We noticed we can amplify our message when we partner with another organization or entity. We’ve been blessed to dance at the Bioneers Conference, which was attended by thousands of people. We’ve also created work that centered Californian Native voices and stories, and was presented on Alcatraz Island, just after the Sunrise Ceremony.

The point is to use platforms to center unheard voices. Three generations of my family lived in the Bay area. That’s my way of giving back to this community and being a respectful and reciprocal guest in the Bay. I’ve been really proud to dance for a fundraiser in New Mexico, for the new energy economy that’s doing hard, legislative work. The fundraiser allowed solar panels to be installed in one of the pueblos. We danced, money was raised, and spirits were refreshed and rejuvenated. Then that money became solar panels. Our Navajo collaborator and advisor, Denae, had brought solar panels to one of our performances and they had the capacity to power the performance. The system could not be plugged in because of the rules, yet he brought the panels to show that the performance could have been powered by the solar panels. 

We’re looking at other partnerships as well – with global environmental organizations. We’re incredibly excited about Dancing Earth uplifting its ecological roots, and looking at pathways for those roots to become more publicly acknowledged – understanding that ecologically focused work is about how we work with humans so we can be part of the larger ecosystem. We want to claim the words “intercultural” and “ecological” as the most welcoming and inclusive ways to describe our work. 

Groundworks, 2018.

I really appreciate your words and hearing your vision. 

One of the great things about global Indigenous cultural exchange has been to work on a remote Apache reservation, and then to host a Māori from New Zealand. This has been such a relation-building awakening. We got invited back to New Zealand, where people have been siloed and separated and are suffering on their own. We got to understand these relationships from the other side of the world. In this, we feel less isolated. There’s of course a cost to this, which is our carbon footprint. That’s one of the reasons why I’m doing my best to embrace new media and apply all of these principles of creativity to online performance-making. With the dancers, we are becoming filmmakers and finding ways to bring those worlds together through technology. We have used our period of isolation to devise ways to bring these global relations together. I see this as a challenge: How close can we get in a virtual space? How can we find ways where dance can be deliciously tangible instead of being just another Zoom invite? 

Actually, I wanted to ask you about how you dance during the pandemic. Again, a huge question but I think one of the great things about this is the opportunity for greater accessibility and the opening up of relationships. I try to remind myself of this when I feel negative about our situation.

The fact that we have a computer and wi-fi is yet another expression of privilege that we have to acknowledge. But now friends in wheelchairs will have an easier time accessing our work. Or people who aren’t feeling too well can lie in bed, and if they want to take my class, they can watch it on their computer.

We were blessed to have been invited to a dance festival outside of New York. They did a promo film with all the dance companies. Our part happened to be a glimpse of prophetic words from an Elder from the Grand Canyon. The dancers were seen from overhead, from an Eagle’s view. It was short but it was very memorable, and this clip has been seen by 749,000 viewers from 29 countries. We believe that this image alone has changed those people.

From April to November 2020, we were in the process of creating two different performances, with two different casts, and two different technologies. One was using Skype and different backgrounds. It brought the viewer into a relationship with six different ecosystems where dancers were dancing in their homeland. In some cases, there was an urban ghetto where our home was and what we want to do was project ourselves on a sacred mountain. With technology, we were able to create our movement and transpose it to where we were in our imagination – let’s say a snowy mountain next to a beautiful tropical jungle. It brought us to a different sense of place, which is central to our work. 

The other one was more virtual reality-based. It involved building a story about surviving the apocalypse, which is the theme we had been working on right before COVID. It revolved around what our dream for the future is – what we want the future to be – and how we want to embody that in the here and now. “Portals” is the word we were using a lot for how we can maximize the virtual reality part, which was almost like a video game. I loved that. We were working with humble instruments, like little broken phones, and the brilliance of the collaborators.

This reminds me that most of the things I’ve seen since the beginning of the pandemic are very dreamlike and about imagination. People really started questioning what they want and need – bodily in our dreams. It seems like there’s this space of desire, and energetically it feels good

This is a time when everyone around the world is in a pause or alteration of habits. What I’m offering in my dance classes is often about shifting out of habits. We might be hunched over because of sitting a lot, and we want to shift out of that habit. Or my habit as someone who’s got a lot of dance training is to move my limbs in a certain way. But we can move like a tree branch instead, more gnarled. We can always find what I call the liminal space, the space in-between established patterns, the unknown that might need to be recognized at this time. It is also about recognizing which patterns are worth keeping and which need changing just a little bit. 

Most of us are going through shifts, as large numbers of people are suffering. Whenever we’re in a shift, there’s an opportunity for change and we can decide what we are actually creating. Sometimes these decisions are made for us but we, as a global community, can work together towards a more balanced way of being. When the moment comes for us to move from the restrictions of ritual isolation – which many cultures have been doing in formalized ways – we should have a vision for what we want. It’s about being conscious of the choices we make when we leave that ritual isolation, whether that is seven years or seven days from now. This is a time to measure the impact of our choices and make movements that not only benefit ourselves, but benefit others; the entire human realm and even beyond the human realm. 

This makes me think of wintering and hibernation. Like the animals’ habit of getting more reclusive, spending time in one enclosed space, recharging, so that when spring comes or when nature shifts into a new season, they can go out again and live.

(Top image: Rulan Tangen. Photo by Paulo T. Photography.)


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.

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