Spirit–A Journey in Dance, Drums, and Song
at the Shubert Theatre, through October 24
at the Museum of Contemporary Art, October 8-10
By Laura Molzahn
The most poignant line in Spirit–A Journey in Dance, Drums, and Song didn’t seem scripted. After the cast took their bows, Native American instrumentalist Robert Mirabal shouted at the audience (after hawking a hand-painted drum, being auctioned on Amazon.com to benefit the American Indian College Fund): “We’re here! We’re alive! And we’re not gonna go away!”
Thank God that at this point Native Americans are not going away. But the Indian cultural traditions that are supposedly the point of this Broadway-style song-and-dance extravaganza have been quietly disappearing for a long time. And they’re unlikely to return in their original forms because the way of life that fostered them is gone.
Some people believe that the way to preserve vanishing ethnic traditions is to create multicultural art–which usually involves some overlay of more mainstream forms. I don’t know whether they’re right or not. But a purist approach–keeping ethnic dance and other arts untainted by the mainstream–essentially relegates such traditions to the museum.
Certainly multicultural art varies widely in its sensitivity to ethnic traditions. And if anyone doubts that American imperialism is alive and well, they have only to see Spirit, whose Indian dancing, drumming, and singing are overwhelmed by rock music (by Peter Buffett, who scored the fire dance scene in Dances With Wolves) and jazz dance (by Wayne Cilento, who won a Tony in 1993 for The Who’s Tommy). Perhaps the most curious thing about this evening-length work is its simultaneous hatred and celebration of mainstream culture. The opening section, “Urban Overture,” introduces us to the protagonist, a white man in a suit (Angelo Fraboni) who obviously wants to escape the regimentation, bustle, and noise of modern life. (Of course the audience is also urban–Spirit is too big and expensive to tour anyplace but a city.) Then the show proceeds to celebrate loud music and highly regimented, technically difficult dance on a bustling stage loaded with color and activity.
Some 50 performers are divided into various groups: non-Indian jazz dancers, Native American dancers and musicians, rock musicians, and a narrator. Native American culture is treated as a monolith, and the slim story line is at once explicit and obscure. At first the protagonist is bewildered and frightened by what he sees of Indian culture, a threatening group of shamans who’ve taken on animal natures. (What I found scary were the big diagonal set pieces lumbering onstage–they made it look as if he were being taken on board a spaceship.) Then he becomes one with an eagle and encounters a tribe of beautiful women in skimpy shifts–in a section called “Anima,” of course. He has a vision of the ancestors that includes the Indian performers in Day-Glo-colored headdresses and the jazz dancers in hip-hop versions of native dress, mourns the loss of the traditional ways of life and of his youthful dreams (a little strange since he’s still young) while lying crumpled on the floor, and witnesses the rebirth of Native American culture in a big, splashy finale.
Traditional Indian and contemporary ways are intertwined throughout the piece, either alternating or overlapping. But they never really merge, even when Native American flutes and drums are played with the rock music, or the Native Americans and jazz dancers occupy the stage together. The constant shifts back and forth between cultures generate excitement at first, but in the second half of the 90-minute piece they become predictable. Novelty is the point here, and after a while the novelty wears off.
Spirit pays lip service to Indian ways but embodies all the prejudices of Western civilization. Its outlook is decidedly white and male: the protagonist is a man, women are prominent only in the “Anima” section, and the piece as a whole has a yang energy–active and outgoing. Despite the supposed care for vanishing traditions, the framing device makes the individual and his psychology the focus: Indian culture is merely a means to the white man’s spiritual fulfillment. The piece is relentlessly upbeat, alluding to the warfare between Indians and whites but noting immediately afterward that we must look beyond the lives (and deaths, I suppose) of individuals. And Spirit celebrates youth and exploits sexuality: the protagonist and contemporary dancers are usually only half dressed. Strange choices considering that the culture purportedly being celebrated honors its ancestors and the aged.
Spirit does have a few older performers, most notably Chief Hawk Pope, who does much of the singing and all the narration. His bio in the program says that he’s “Principal Chief of the Shawnee Nation, United Remnant Band of Ohio”–and that “the welfare of his Shawnee people has been his life.” In the end his impassioned voice is what carries the show.
I know it’s possible to create a multicultural piece respectful of ethnic traditions because I saw choreographer Ea Sola’s Voila Voila at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Sola grew up in south central Vietnam during the war, leaving in 1974 as a teenager. She ended up in Paris in 1978 and has lived there since, with the exception of four years in the early 90s when she returned to Vietnam to study its music, theater, and dance. Voila Voila is the third evening-length piece in her trilogy about Vietnam, the first of which was performed in 1996.
There are parallels between Spirit and Voila Voila: Both the Vietnamese and Native American cultures revere ancestors and cultivate bonds with the natural world. America waged undeclared wars on both peoples. And both shows include the music and movement of their ethnic sources. Yet Voila Voila could hardly be more unlike Spirit. For one thing all the performers–six female dancers and nine male musicians–are from Vietnam. The singing is in Vietnamese, and the music and movement are from three Vietnamese traditions: the Chinese-influenced court tradition, the Tuong; a rural opera form called the Cheo, which links man to nature; and a tradition of sung poetry called Ca Tru.
I know all this because I read the program. But no program could contain all the background necessary for most Americans to understand how Voila Voila departs from or adheres to Vietnamese traditions. The language of the piece is unintelligible to most, the sounds are unfamiliar, and the story is not explicable in words. Yet this 75-minute piece is mesmerizing, its gorgeous, delicate percussion, wind, and string music creating a rich aural tapestry. Overall the piece generates a surprising suspense–I kept wondering what would happen next even though I couldn’t have said what had already happened–and powerful feelings whose source does not lie in any comprehensible story.
What gives Voila Voila its power is Sola’s immense skill as an abstractionist: it seems that she’s isolated and honed movements from Vietnamese dance to plumb their emotional depths, that she’s arranged the almost entirely Eastern music (the sound of a cello blends seamlessly with the other instruments) to create a Western sense of drama. In one movement phrase, the women bend their knees, then ripple slowly upward through the hips, torso, and head in a motion that suggests both submission and renewal, grass bending under a strong wind and recovering. As the piece opens, we see a woman’s face in a spotlight; almost imperceptibly, her head turns to the right, then to the left. The source of the movement is unknown, and indeed we’re barely aware of change at all. The dancers’ costumes (each woman has two) cover them almost completely, so the body’s center–usually visible in Western dance–is hidden. What’s important here is what we can’t see and know.
Voila Voila is the opposite of Spirit on almost every count. The piece is very female, suggesting that receptivity is an active and benign choice. It follows the journey of a culture rather than an individual; creates an effect of stillness rather than busyness; makes us feel the performers’ anger, sadness, and fear; and celebrates age instead of youth: the dancers appeared to be middle-aged or older. I watched their faces and movements and wondered who they were–what their life stories might be. In Spirit I rarely wondered about the performers because everything I needed to know was right there in front of me: I’m Indian, I’m not Indian, I’m performing.
Perhaps the best multicultural art will always retain some mystery: received wisdom can overwhelm the wonder of discovering new ways. That doesn’t mean such art can’t make a point. Though Sola claimed in a Q&A after the performance that her piece wasn’t political, she did say she was aiming for “Vietnamization”–a twist on Westernization. And at the end of Voila Voila she alludes to the horrors of the war in Vietnam: the piece closes with loud, rapid percussion recalling the beating of helicopter wings or machine gun fire as a woman staggers and recovers over and over again. The allusion was clear but I didn’t feel manipulated into guilt: however presumptuous it might seem, by the end of the piece I felt I was seeing airborne attacks from a Vietnamese perspective, the perspective of a strong culture that has survived and will survive.
Sola has a point to make, while the producers of Spirit just want to make money. Their means is making noise, and their ending just turns up the volume.