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The Spirit Moves Him in New and Traditional Ways

Dance: Saginaw Grant, performing in Cerritos with American Indian Dance Theatre, cherishes his roots.

February 20, 1996|JAN BRESLAUER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Many Los Angeles artists stand with a foot in each of two different worlds, traveling back and forth between the entertainment industry and their home cultures. But Saginaw Grant knows what it means to make the trek on a weekly basis.

A member of the Sac and Fox tribe of Oklahoma, Grant is both a traditional Native American dancer and a working TV and film actor. And for the past 10 years, he's juggled his weekday acting assignments with weekend trips to tribal gatherings where he dances.

The 60-year-old Reseda resident, who has appeared on TV series such as "Picket Fences" and "Baywatch," can currently be seen on-screen in a new IBM commercial. Yet he's also the newest (and eldest) member of the Los Angeles-based American Indian Dance Theatre.

The dancing, Grant says, helps him keep in touch with his cultural identity. "That's what keeps me in balance with myself," he said, speaking by phone from Pullman, Wash., as the company began its six-city winter tour last week. "On the weekends, I'm back in my own traditions.

"It lets me keep my identity," Grant says. "Even though I [may be] playing a role on TV or in film, I still know who I am."

Grant, who has been a traditional dancer since he was a boy, will make his L.A. debut as a featured soloist when the American Indian Dance Theatre comes to the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts tonight and Wednesday. He will appear in the two new works on the bill: as the Shaman in "Honoring Time: A Dance Ceremony" and as one of the featured artists in "Solo Suite."

Founded in 1987, the American Indian Dance Theatre has toured extensively through the U.S. and Canada, as well as in Europe and the Middle East. Its 22 members hail from a variety of North American tribes.

Grant was recruited last year, when the company's artistic director, Hanay Geiogamah, began conceptualizing the "Solo Suite." "Saginaw is coming into the company because I put together the 'Solo Suite,' which is nine dance pieces performed by solo performers who are the best at their styles of dance," Geiogamah says.

"He is the best at what's called old-style men's traditional dancing," he says. "I knew he would be an important presence here--especially since he is capable of [working] in two different worlds, in both film and television and Native American [culture]."

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Grant says he expects the time he'll spend with the American Indian Dance Theatre over the next several months will be a time of creative exploration. "It gives me a chance to expand my own talents to another type of dance that I enjoy doing," he says. "I feel very honored to be with this company."

With the honor, of course, comes the work of learning a new creative process.

When Grant performs at Native American gatherings, his movements are seldom planned. "When I dance traditionally for a gathering, I'm unaware of my steps," he says. "I have a very conscious contact with what my ancestors felt when they were dancing. I dance with feeling. I'm telling a story, looking for tracks, signs of the enemy."

That, Grant says, means creating the dance as it happens. "Basically, I use the same steps [each time I dance], but I may stop and look around," he says. "I don't think that I ever dance the same pattern. It's always different."

When he dances with the American Indian Dance Theatre, however, his movements must be tightly choreographed, not to mention repeatable, and Grant has to get used to knowing what he's going to do before he does it.

"'I've got to end up at a certain spot on the stage," Grant says. "The only difficult part about it is learning how many steps [to take]. It's more timed. You have to take [just] so many steps."

Geiogamah says the addition of Grant to the troupe signals a change of direction for American Indian Dance Theatre, but not, as might be expected, toward increasingly traditional work.

"It's an interesting aesthetic crossing of circumstances," says Geiogamah, who is also a professor in UCLA's Film, Theater and Television School and its American Indian Studies program, and an Emmy-nominated television producer.

"What we're doing is beginning the process of steering the company toward branching out from the basic traditional Native American dance style to an aesthetic point which will incorporate other styles," he continues. "We are beginning a process of creative synthesis."

Eventually, this may lead to collaborations with modern dance choreographers on new works for the company. "We are going to start incorporating modern dance, balleticisms and other folk dances' styles," Geiogamah says. "We've tried to add to our repertoire significantly every couple years, and the rhythm has thrust us toward branching out."

But to move in this new direction, Geiogamah says the company must first focus on what it does best. "In order to start this process, we feel that we have to begin with what our strengths are, in the traditional dances," he says.

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