Cycles of Life

Shakura Ensemble Ritual Theatre

at Northside College Prep, December 20-21

A few years ago a playwright friend asked me, “Why do we put up with people who talk incessantly about the healing and magical qualities of art? If they were evangelizing that way about religion, we’d be out of the room like a shot.”

That question came to mind as I watched Shakura Ensemble Ritual Theatre’s Cycles of Life, being remounted after its premiere in September. It’s a tricky proposition to turn religious rituals–here Native American–into theater. There are no big numbers in the American musical about transubstantiation. Though rituals have an undeniably theatrical and performative quality, taking them out of their usual context tends to strip them of their power and render them academic curiosities.

That tendency is something that Blanche Blacke and her Shakura cohorts haven’t managed to overcome in this piece, which the company baldly states is “intended to enhance and renew creativity.” Using the seasons of the year as parallels for death and rebirth, Blacke draws heavily on Navajo myths involving the earth goddess Estsanatlehi. The ensemble represents the seasons’ psychic palettes using music, movement, video, and spoken word, including Blacke’s own hypnotic incantations. These segments are interspersed with performances by New Mexico’s Dineh Tah Navajo Dancers: under the direction of Shawn Price, they provide snippets of such rituals as the gourd dance, celebrating rainwater and growth, and the sash belt dance, in which strips of cloth are braided together in maypole fashion to celebrate spring’s new life.

Blacke may be familiar from her collaborations in the 1980s with then-husband Phil Bimstein in the rock group Phil ‘n’ the Blanks. According to a press release, “Her healing gift was revealed after a near-death experience in 1993.” She served a five-year apprenticeship with teachers in the Native American and Tibetan traditions and now hangs out her shingle as a “spiritual healer and modern shaman.” And yes, as my friend observed, those are the kinds of phrases that get me looking for the nearest exit, especially after spending several years in the New Age-addled Bay Area.

Yet Blacke’s sincerity and artistry come through clearly in this sprightly 90-minute piece. Her voice is limber, sinuous, and simultaneously teasing and soothing. As a movement artist she isn’t as impressive, but she has the good sense to surround herself with a young, energetic group of six dancers as well as a tight quartet playing New Agey music and some intriguing video art by Matt Lindenberger.

Thankfully, Blacke and her ensemble don’t imitate Native American dances, instead using a modern dance vocabulary to create their own spin on the well-worn themes of death and rebirth. The opening sequence, “Winter,” finds Blacke decked out in a long ragged white wig, looking very much like a crone from a Beckett play as the ensemble members tumble across a bare stage, slowing down and finally freezing into tortured positions as if stuck to an ice floe. Spring busts out all over with yearning lust, expressed in powerful capoeiralike moves while effulgent images of pollinating flowers play over the back wall. Blacke–now in a dark wig–chants, “My feet are pollen. My voice is pollen.” Summer is depicted in images of night and day, the former represented by women bearing strips of soft undulant cloth, the latter by men with erect cudgels. The men and women thrust and parry, tangle together and come apart. Images of sunflowers and bats also clash and meld in the videography, picturing the inevitable synthesis of night/day, woman/man, soft/hard. During “Fall” a sculptural dead tree is moved center stage and a man lifts an initially passive woman off the ground; the two dance slowly and uncertainly, hands shaking like leaves in the wind, as Blacke moves through the auditorium: “I am old age. I am a child. I have become blessed again.” By the end, of course, we’re right back at the beginning.

The Dineh Tah ensemble also includes six dancers, three men and three women in traditional Navajo dress. Director Price provides chanting accompaniment, and in one of the most evocative and simple moments in the piece, plays a Navajo flute. But questions of cultural appropriation–or misappropriation–must come up any time Anglo artists use Native American traditions as a springboard for their own healing.

Andrea Smith, a member of the Chicago group Women of All Red Nations, confronts these questions head-on in her brilliant 1994 essay “For All Those Who Were Indian in a Former Life.” After cataloging the results of ongoing discrimination against Native American women–coerced sterilization, unemployment, poverty, and a life expectancy far below that of white women in the United States–Smith notes, “This trivialization of our oppression is compounded by the fact that nowadays anyone can be Indian if s/he wants to. All that is required is that one be Indian in a former life, or take part in a sweat lodge, or be monitored by a ‘medicine woman,’ or read a how-to book. Since, according to this theory, anyone can now be ‘Indian,’ then the term Indians no longer refers specifically to those people who have survived five hundred years of colonization and genocide.”

I don’t believe that Blacke’s spiritual journey and her work are motivated by cynicism or the wish for profit. It’s clear that she has deep respect for Native American traditions. But there’s a troubling naivete at the core of Cycles of Life. Certainly we can believe that everything in the universe is cyclic, though not everybody views the seasons through the same lens: though Blacke calls fall “the grieving time,” I find it a far happier time of year than summer. The danger of hammering away at the “it’s all part of a cycle” mythos is that human responsibility gets lost in the oversimplified patter. If death is part of life, then why get bent out of shape over the fact that (according to Smith’s essay) Native American women have a life expectancy of 47 years? Why think about the millions of Native Americans murdered in the name of westward expansion? As Smith notes of many white women engaged in exploring Indian spirituality, “Their perceived need for warm and fuzzy mysticism takes precedence over our need to survive.”

Of course I have no way of knowing what Blacke’s offstage commitment is to the Native American community. And I have no doubt that the intentions behind her self-proclaimed “intentional” theater are good. But I do wish that Shakura’s exploration of the seasons of life had let in some light and sound from the real world. No one lives by ritual alone.