At its birth nine years ago, American Indian Dance Theatre resembled the long-established Moiseyev, Bayanihan, Ballets Africains and Ballet Folklorico companies in its emphasis on variety. Like those pioneer predecessors, it offered an array of theatricalized regional suites: ethnic vaudeville, strongly performed.
Increasingly, however, its programs have focused on a visionary pan-Indian identity more than the histories and traditions that make each tribe unique.
Seen at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, the company's latest program offers only one regional suite: six charming social dances from the Eastern Woodlands. Otherwise, traditional sources are radically recontextualized. For instance, the Solo Suite of Seven Plains and Pow-Wow Dances is arranged as a living timeline stretching from the fabled past to a present in which the splendor of feathers and fringe may be gone but the core of Indian dance remains powerful.
The opening of Act 1 introduces a shaman (Marty Pinnecoose, replacing Saginaw Grant) experiencing nature in all its richness, then calling forth dances of celebration that are drawn mostly from Southwestern cultures, depicting eagle, deer and buffalo, plus ritual passages for dancers-as-people. Titled "Honoring Time: A Dance Ceremony," this complex suite can be interpreted as an evolution cycle or as a romantic statement of oneness with nature.
But Pinnecoose doesn't seem absorbed by what he witnesses or brings into being--so he might be considered the artist-as-observer, drawing inspiration from nature and recreating it as a cosmic dance.
Certainly the innovative opening of Act 2, "Creating the Dance Tradition," encourages this line of thinking. Here we see a young man in sweatpants, T-shirt and moccasins trying to choreograph. We watch him taking ideas from the past and his peers, encountering ridicule, gaining acceptance and then growing deeply inspired in a final solo.
Besides being a stamina- and technique-testing star showpiece for Lloyd Yellowbird, the work allows Quentin Pipestem, Bonnie Tomahsah and others to shine. But its greatest achievement is dramatizing the contemporary Indian artist's search for a way to take his heritage into the future.
That search is also clearly the mission of American Indian Dance Theatre, and it is thrilling to watch it push the whole idiom of theatrical folkloric performance toward a new maturity and depth.