With slow, spacious arm gestures, a seated dancer begins a quiet and dignified ritual to open a program by the American Indian Dance Theatre on Thursday at Bridges Auditorium at the Claremont Colleges.
A tribute to tribal elders passing on traditions to a younger generation, the dance also establishes the deliberate pacing and expansive conceptual framework essential to shifting the audience from anticipation of mere entertainment to acceptance of serious cultural legacies.
But all is not exactly grim when Hanay Geiogamah's still-young company (founded in 1987) takes the stage. One of two new additions to the repertory, the Bear Dance from the Southern Ute tribe in Colorado even pokes some gentle fun at tribal traditions.
A courtship dance tied to the natural cycle by being timed to the awakening of a bear from hibernation, the piece contains the potentially subversive message that Mother Nature may need a prod or two, at least where the human community is concerned.
Against rasping, growling sounds, two women flutter their fringed shawls cautiously, then more confidently at a sleeping bear (Gary Tomahsah), who groggily awakens only to be led off by Eric Sampson (the "Catman").
In a swift change of locale, Sampson presides over a social dance.
Apparently as much a spurrer of suitors as a tamer of bears, Sampson flicks his whip to encourage shy men to begin dancing with the not-so-reluctant ladies.
Presumably, as the couples leave, the natural cycle will take over.
In contrast, the Zuni Butterfly Dance of the Southwest Pueblos celebrates in sunniness and joy this symbol of the blossoming natural world as two men and two women quick-step in place, then shift around each other to take new positions in the line. The image extends infinitely.
New to the Northwest Coast Suite is a backdrop displaying the tribes' typically symmetrical art work, seen also on the costumes of the bobbing and lunging dancers in a new concluding Ceremonial.
In familiar repertory, Jonathan Feather displayed virtuosity in the Hoop Dance and the brilliantly costumed Tomahsah, Rudy Bob, Ernest Grant, Martin Pinnecoose and Dwight Whitebuffalo created a sensation as the Fancy Dancers.
The American Indian Dance Theatre dances at 2 and 8 p.m. today at Royce Hall, UCLA.