This year's 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' voyage to the Americas is focusing new attention on the American Indian population throughout the continent.
For a group of Indian performers on a national tour, this would seem a ripe opportunity to broach controversial issues surrounding the explorer's "discovery." But as members of the American Indian Dance Theater take the stage at Claremont Colleges' Bridges Auditorium tonight at 8 and at UCLA this weekend, they are steering clear of controversy and instead focusing on education through music and dance.
"Our company is not dancing toward or against any political agenda, or protest, or commemorative point of view," said director Hanay Geiogamah in a phone interview. "We're not participating in the Columbus debate, we're not performing for any Columbus event or activities. . . . We perform with an attitude of responsibility, to educate people."
Geiogamah, a member of the Kiowa/Delaware tribe from Oklahoma, co-founded the company five years ago in an effort to undo cultural stereotypes surrounding Indian dance and music. There was no venue at that time to present the beauty and truth in Indian performing arts, said Geiogamah, who in addition to being a playwright and director is an adjunct professor in the department of Indian Studies and Theater Arts at UCLA.
All the pieces the 24-member troupe perform are authentic American Indian dances and represent tribes from across the United States and Canada. (Geiogamah negotiated with tribal councils before deciding which dances could be included.) The performers, chosen from dance competitions across the country, range in age from 20 to 61 and wear a variety of highly detailed costumes, from simple buckskin dresses to layers of beaded and feathered ceremonial dress. The music is played on different types of drums, wooden flutes, bells and rattles.
"The dances reflect the living culture, and a vital reality," Geiogamah said. "Indian culture never died or came close to dying, but we have to deal with that notion people have. Indian culture has always been there, and we're presenting it as it is."
Though Geiogamah sees the recent films about American Indians--"Dances With Wolves" and "Black Robe"--as possibly bringing more people to the performances, those movies, he says, have had little other effect. And while Hollywood has brought the American Indian into public consciousness, the dance company will continue to fight stereotypes regardless of whether the plight of the Indian happens to be in vogue.
"Our society is very trend-oriented," Geiogamah said. "I don't think the movies help our image, because we don't derive our image from a movie. It doesn't work in that direction.
"We're always working against stereotypes as Indians, in our way, not the way of the Hollywood movie, not in the way of the network TV attitude. We are making a hands-on effort at eradicating stereotypes and showing the work of our culture. What we do is going to continue, even if the cycle of Hollywood interest ends. We're happy with that interest, but we're not counting on it."
Since its inception in 1987, the company has toured nationally and internationally. It has received a Grammy Award nomination for its original cast recording, and this year will be featured a second time on PBS' Great Performances.
The 1991-92 tour includes three new "suites," as well as a complete restaging of last year's show. The first UCLA performance Friday night will benefit students in the school's American Indian Studies Program. (Performances continue Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. at Royce Hall.)
Geiogamah has approached the choreography of the show carefully, he said, making sure the dances remain authentic while at the same time educating the audience.
"We must be sure to keep the integrity and reality of the dances and music intact," he said. "Many people don't know what to expect; there is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about Indian dance. When they see us perform, that changes immediately. We elevate their elementary perceptions that all Indian dance consists of tom-toms, or is simplistic or religious."
The growing curiosity about Indian tradition, whether brought about by movies or through groups like the dance company, has brought a different kind of audience to the shows, Geiogamah said. Those who come have more than just a passing interest in Indian culture.
"The public is responding to us on a level that is more sincere and stronger in texture than the interest generated with 'Dances With Wolves,' " Geiogamah said. "Audiences now have more interest in the culture than those who just see a movie and think it's cool. It's rewarding for us as a company.
"We cannot hold a grudge against people for not knowing what Indian dance is," he said. "That they are coming shows they want to learn and absorb. And we will continue working honestly and humbly, with all our collective energy, to make the company a strong, solid artistic enterprise, fueled with Indian creative energy."