PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

Native Contemporary Dance: No Longer in Sepia Tones

Episode Summary

Christopher K. Morgan focuses on the vibrancy of contemporary Native and Indigenous dance. As a dancer of Hawaiian descent, Morgan shares insights from his own journey, culture, and lived experience, elevating the voices of Yup’ik artist Emily Johnson, Anishinaabe choreographer Sandra Laronde, and Tahitian dancer/choreographer Lisa Solar. He demonstrates how these and many other Native and Indigenous dancemakers not only delve into the past, but thrive in a challenging present.

Episode Notes

Explore Artists Mentioned in This Episode:
Christopher K Morgan and Artists
Daystar Rosalie Jones
Lemi Ponifasio
Neil Ieremia
Moss Patterson
Santee Smith
Red Sky Performance
Rosy Simas
Emily Johnson
Maura Garcia
Brooke Smiley
Dakota Camacho
Anthony Hudson 
Timothy White Eagle
AKU-MATU Alison Akootchook Warden
Deeper dive: 
Code Switch Episode, "The Hawaiin Language Nearly Died. A Radio Show Sparked its Revival."
PillowPlaylist: Indigenous Dance of the Americas 

Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker] 

NORTON OWEN: Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow Archives. I’m Norton Owen, the Pillow’s Director of Preservation, and it’s my pleasure to introduce Choreographer, Christopher K Morgan, the Artistic Director of Christopher K Morgan and Artists. We’re honored for him to host this exploration of Contemporary Native and Indigenous dance. As a dancer of Hawaiian descent, Morgan shares insights from his own journey, culture, and lived experience. 

CHRISTOPHER K MORGAN: In this episode of Pillow Voices, I’m going to be talking about the vibrancy of Contemporary Native and Indigenous dance. How Native and Indigenous dancemakers are not just in the past, but thriving in a challenging present. Or as the Anishinaabe choreographer, Sandra Laronde put it, no longer “in sepia tones.”

I begin by acknowledging that no matter where we are listening to this episode, we are all on lands that were stolen from Indigenous communities. Jacob’s Pillow rests on the traditional lands of the Agawam, the Nipmuc, the Pocumtuc, and the Mohican Nations. I am recording this episode from what is now called Washington DC, on land that was stolen from the Nacotchtank, Piscataway, Pamunkey, and Powhatan peoples - amongst many other native communities whose histories have been obscured, altered, or erased. I invite you to take a moment to think about the land you are on, the people who lived there before you, and the ongoing displacement and violence against Indigenous people. I hope this acknowledgment - from a dispossessed Native Hawaiian - can serve as a reminder of the ongoing challenges facing Indigenous communities. And while naming the Indigenous people whose land we are on is important, as a Native person, it is also important to me that we greet one another properly. For that, I turn to my Kumu Hula, my teacher, Elsie Kaliehulukea Ryder, and a Hawaiian welcoming chant that Elsie shared during The Land on Which We Dance at Jacob’s Pillow in 2019. 



ELSIE KALEIHULUKEA RYDER: I just shared with you a welcoming chant. It is customary in Hawai'i that when we have visitors they would kāhea, asking permission to come in, and then they would have certain expectations of the hospitality that we would offer them. And so I offer you, in translation, ‘the blooming blossoms of the nāʻū,  which is this Hawaiian gardenia. That it may embrace you through the whirlwinds of haaa. And that the gentle, soft mats that are scented with the maile,’ this beautiful vine that we go into the forest and we weave. ‘That you may have a place to lay your head and rest. And also the gardens of 'uala, or the sweet potato, ‘that your appetite may be full and that it will be appetizing to you.’ [Speaks in Hawaiian] My name is Elsie Ryder, my Hawaiian hula name is The White Feather lei of the Snow Goddess Poli'ahu Gleaming on the Peaks of the House of the Sun.

CHRISTOPHER K MORGAN: The Land on Which We Dance was a landmark week-long celebration of song, dance, and storytelling held at Jacob’s Pillow.  The gathering brought together Indigenous peoples from the communities near Jacob’s Pillow with contemporary Native and Indigenous artists from throughout what has been called Turtle Island, and has been divided into territories and colonized as the United States and Canada.

Land acknowledgments are growing in prevalence in the arts community. There are a handful of Native and Indigenous artists doing work in primarily white institutions. Despite this progress, one must recognize the barriers Native artists face to have their work presented and embraced by such institutions, to feel recognized and welcome, let alone supported with cultural competency. The Land on Which We Dance was of critical importance to the way I began to feel welcome at Jacob’s Pillow. Like the Pillow, many institutions are doing great work to increase access and support for Native artists. But even in well-intentioned institutions that are working to decolonize their practices, Native artists are frequently confronted with reminders of colonial narratives and behavior. Yup’ik artist and maker of body-based work Emily Johnson shares an important perspective on Jacob’s Pillow’s wayfinding signage in this clip from her recent time spent in creative research at The Pillow Lab.

EMILY JOHNSON: Something like coming across the signage up here that notes that, that this was originally a farm, you know, it can seem. We get so used to that, we get so, we’re used to colonization. But once you start to notice, like, they’re not benign. Like, a sign like that is a violent erasure of thousands, thousands and thousands and thousands of years of culture and art and living and making and loving here on this land. We know now that we need to decenter the colonial narrative. To continue to go by a sign like that and think it’s benign is actually reinstating that violence and causing it again. Causing harm again. Not only for indigenous people, but for any, any settler too. Because that’s not the true narrative of this place. And so, like, that’s the kind of like heart opening, it’s making me cry, that’s the kind of like heart opening, undoing that needs to be met by all of us. And so I see something like that that’s an awesome opportunity, like, you know, the crew here can make a beaut, another beautiful sign, it just, they can work on what that language is of local indigenous folks. And they can, like, start to shift back to that acknowledgement, and start to shift the understanding. And so when people come here, they’re not coming to a place that was originally a farm, they’re coming to a place that is and always will be indigenous land. And that, you know, this beautiful place that is Jacob’s Pillow that houses so much creativity and futurity in a body-centered making, which is, which is, which is necessary, and needed, and beautiful, you know, it can, it can be in better relationship with, with the actual land history and ongoingness of this place. 

CHRISTOPHER K MORGAN: While Emily highlights the impact of a seemingly benign aspect of colonialism, she also highlights the necessity for beautiful creative spaces that are in right relationship with Native peoples. Emily’s work brings communities together in shared artistic practice. In doing this work, Emily asks the venues who present her work to decolonize their institutions. Decolonizing is difficult work that can be met with extreme challenges. It requires leadership, communication, and community building to create and sustain these necessary changes.

Right relationship, balance, reciprocity -- these are important values in Indigenous cultures. But for Native and Indigenous contemporary dance artists, finding balance within one’s own work can be challenging in and of itself. There are perceived and prescribed constructs and definitions of “traditional” and “contemporary” that inform how Native and Indigenous work is seen by both native and non-native eyes. For movement artists working at the intersection of western contemporary dance and movement forms from their native cultures – there can be real tension present in their identities and creative processes. In this next clip, we hear Tahitian dancer and choreographer Lisa Solar reference this as she discusses the work of Neil Ieremia, and what brought her to Jacob’s Pillow to study with him in a Cultural Traditions workshop in 2007.

LISA SOLAR: Well first, when I read his biography and when I read his work, about fusing both traditional and contemporary, it just clicked in my mind. I said, ‘well, maybe that’s why I need to go there,’ right? And so finally I met, we met him and after viewing and talking about his work, especially when he said he started re-training at 19 years old. And after talking with him he said that he was working in a bank, and I worked in a bank, and his parents were so-so about dancing, my parents did not want me to dance. And then his issues of fusing, putting traditional dance and, and showing it to his people, or putting traditional dance onstage, for people, west, the contemporary world, and also the struggles, or the consequences of him taking traditional form and working it into his own, you know, own choreography. And I really relate to that because I rebel on both sides. I rebel to the fact that people call grass skirts Hawaiian when it’s Tahitian. And I rebel that people see hip-shaking as sexual and that’s all it is, and I rebel on the other side for girls in Tahiti always trying to be perfect and ‘you have to have the long hair and you have to be skinny.’ And I rebel against that. And I, I mean there’s, like, both sides. I rebel bo, both sides and so I feel like he went through the same struggle, but awful. Obviously Samoan is different, they have their issues and, I mean not that the girls are a big issue, but dancing-wise those are mainly the big issues. 

CHRISTOPHER K MORGAN: Having to rebel against one’s own culture while simultaneously rebelling against a colonizing dominant culture is frustrating. I hear that frustration so clearly in Lisa’s impassioned words that leave me wondering how we move beyond these constructs of traditional and contemporary. Beyond this limiting binary and into full self-expression?  One important step in that process might be ensuring that the culture itself is not under threat.  The first tool of colonization is to take away a people’s language, music, dance, and food - to strip them of their culture. Culture is a living entity, and without sustenance, it cannot grow and evolve. I had the opportunity to address this in a Pillow Talk during the Land on Which We Dance.

CHRISTOPHER K MORGAN: Something that was very particular in the native Hawaiian community that I imagine other communities have also experienced of all types of identities is that when our culture was quite suppressed, and perhaps nearly erased. And then as an opportunity for it to experience a cultural renaissance, that in our community really hit its stride in the 1970s and ‘80s, and continues to flourish and has flourished. When it was so close to disappearing, the culture bearers very rightly wanted to make sure they got it back. That the language came back in its proper forms. That the music and dance, you know, in, in, in what was almost lost and the forms within, within which they were almost lost. And it created a sense of protectiveness over it for a long period of time, very understandably and rightfully so. But now, in our own native Hawaiian community, as the culture has become more solid, as there are more practitioners of it, as there are more people speaking the language, I wish I was one of them. But many of my cousins, my age and younger, all speak Hawaiian, they’ve been in Hawaiian immersion language schools and other opportunities to more deeply connect to their culture. As that becomes increasingly solid, now it’s not a worry if someone starts to experiment because there are enough culture bearers making sure that it continues and now we can continue it further. 

CHRISTOPHER K MORGAN: Many people can conjure an image in their mind’s eye of what a Native American hoop dancer or jingle dress dancer might look like, or an image of a Hawaiian hula dancer. But a contemporary Native dancer? Despite decades of work by Native and Indigenous choreographers such as Daystar Rosalie Jones, Lemi Ponifasio, Neil Ieremia, Moss Patterson, Santee Smith, among many others  - it can be difficult for even the most knowledgeable dance aficionado to summon an image of Native contemporary dance, let alone one free of preconceived notions of what Native dance might look like. 

Let’s listen to Anishinaabe choreographer and artistic director of Red Sky Performance Sandra Laronde share a beautiful metaphor of how traditional and contemporary dance can exist in a continuum with one another in this clip from that same Pillow Talk that took place during the Land on Which we Dance.

SANDRA LARONDE: The best analogy I can make to it, if I could go to music for a second, it’s like, you know, when you have a drum or standup bass, something that has that, keeps time, you know, and it’s keeping things regulated and there’s this time that constant. And then it’s only because of that that you can have these vocals that go ‘woo,’ way off, and then come back to time. Or an electric guitar that goes off, and it does it’s big, you know, wonderful thing, but it can come back home, to its home time. That’s why it can go those distances and come back. So I think about it like that it's the best way I can describe the difference of, of traditional and contemporary, through music. And in terms of dance, of course, it's much more fluid and a lot of times people think of traditional dance as being, first of all, in sepia tone, and in the past, and something, you know, from before. And I, and we have, we seem to have a hard time sort of seeing indigenous people in the here and now, or indigenous people into the future. And being, and, and what is the relationship with indigenous people and indigenous artistry in the future. We’re pretty good at, you know, cataloging it and all that, so, but there’s this fluidity of course in contemporary forms too because when you look at the latin word even of contemporary, ‘con,’ with…

PANEL: Time. 

SANDRA LARONDE: With temporary. So, contemporary, that means there’s something traditional, there’s something, a source to go back to. In the same way I’m describing going back to music and going back to something that is kind of like home base. That being said, even traditional dance, for example, like the ‘Jingle Dress Dance’ which came to  Anishinaabe, Anishinaabe woman in Lake of the Woods Era in a dream. It came to her in a dream where she, it was called ‘A Healing Dress Dance’ at the beginning, then became the ‘Jingle Dress Dance.’ And then it went right across indigenous, you know, have you seen it with the cones? It has that ‘ch-che-che-che’ sound? They, so when that happened, that was contemporary. Now it’s traditional, but it was temporary in its time. And so, you know, what is traditional and contemporary, it’s fluid, it's, it’s porous, it’s all these things and I think that’s a really exciting continuum.

CHRISTOPHER K MORGAN: Sandra’s metaphor of the constancy of a drum complemented by a voice that flies away from the steady rhythm while remaining connected to that bass line reminds me of contemporary Indigenous dancemakers. It links a visceral, universal experience to what I witness in performance artists who maintain strong connections with their Native identities while developing wholly individual contemporary work. Sandra’s words bring to mind artists such as Rosy Simas, a Haudenosaunee multidisciplinary artist whose works investigates how culture, history, and identity are stored in the body and expressed in movement. Also, Yup’ik choreographer Emily Johnson whose work envisions a world where performance is part of life; an integral part of our connection to each other, our environment, our stories, our past, present, and future. 

And so many other contemporary Native artists; Maura Garcia, Brooke Smiley, Dakota Camacho, Anthony Hudson, Timothy White Eagle, AKU-MATU Alison Akootchook Warden. These artists all work in a wide range of performance and expression. They, along with many others, are shaping contemporary performance in this time. They are evolving Native contemporary dance and performance. 

SANDRA LARONDE: I’m very interested in the line of, when I think about contemporary indigenous dance, I, you know, like, like for example, ballet has a line. And we say ballet, we already see a line to the, to the, to the shape of it. And then I think, well what is contemporary indigenous dance? What’s that line look like? And we are in the process of discovering that, and inventing that, or reinventing that. And I think it has something to do with a sort of curvilinearity to it, that is maybe more like a snow drift or the shape of a snow bank or more akin to what our architectural forms are like. That’s what I think our dance, our dance line’s like. And in terms of contemporary expression, we, we, you, you know, contemporary dance for indigenous people in some ways, as we know it as contemporary, has not been that long. So we are still in the throes of discovering what that is. 

CHRISTOPHER K MORGAN: Sandra asks us to imagine an Indigenous ‘line’ or as she poetically put it, “a snowdrift”.  And while not every dancemaker works towards creating lines in their dances, I appreciate the heart of Sandra’s words  -- the field of Native Contemporary Dance is still relatively young, is being shaped and created NOW, and has its own aesthetics outside of the western lens.

In recent years funders and venues in the United States have expanded their efforts to support Native artists. But the United States does not yet match the extensive support Native and Indigenous artists benefit from in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (or Aotearoa). The depth of support in those countries has propelled the development of the work being made by these Native Artists. In the United States, Native artists must spend extensive time and labor on advocacy, decolonization, and performing their identities for Non-Native audiences to gain the support needed to make work. How might the work of US-based Native artists be able to blossom if we were truly free to express ourselves? I look to the work of Sandra Laronde, whose company RedSky is based in Toronto, as an inspiring example of that possibility.

CHRISTOPHER K MORGAN: So that really resonates with me. And one of the things that I’m most excited about in this space of contemporary natuve and indigenous performance is your work, which I’m only just try, though I’ve known of you for a while and we’ve been getting to know each other the past year. I just got to see your work live and in person for the first time this week. And it got me really, really excited about that possibility that your identity is so deeply rooted in the work that whatever tools are needed to manifest the vision of that work are welcome. Whether that’s a highly technological tool like video projection and, you know, a whole array of musical instruments from many, many different traditions. Like, it’s about following the inspiration, and there’s no denying that the foundation that’s there is your, in part, indigenous identity. And I think that’s so, so clear. And so the space where, or the opportunity and possibility where that is just present and celebrated and not the core. It’s not that it’s not the core. Not the primary marketing piece of the work. It’s not tokenistic, it’s just, it’s a foundation of who you are, it’s a core value. It’s visible and present, but I’m also invited into a space where maybe if I’m not from those traditions, I can sense that core there, and I can respond to it. And I’m invited into it, but I also have this, this connection to things that I see in other mediums. And I think there’s just such a beautiful, I’m still actually digesting what I see and feel in your work. But I think for me it’s one of the things that really responds to this question, like, this tension that I felt in my own practice for my own time I just articulated by saying, ‘sometimes I would leave part of myself outside.’ And I just witness such beautiful integration in your work. And so it’s really inspiring to me and it’s actually a, a direction that I want to deepen in my own practice. 

CHRISTOPHER K MORGAN: In my artistry, I have struggled with embracing the intersectionality of my identities and fostering the clarity I see and admire in Sandra’s work. I began confronting this struggle in 2006, embarking on a journey to learn more about my own Native Hawaiian culture and reconnect with the hula I had danced as a child. Along the journey, I encountered multiple points of resistance; resistance from my fellow Hawaiians, resistance from the venues and funders, resistance from myself.  I slowly began to build new collaborative relationships, forge trusting partnerships with venues and found transformation and acceptance from myself, and others. This additional labor harkens back to Lisa’s words earlier and is a noteworthy aspect of what it means to be a Contemporary Native dancemaker in the United States today. 

CHRISTOPHER K MORGAN: Yeah so I think something that I’m really excited about in terms of the intersection of my own identities and this point in time is that it feels like there’s actually space for that to happen. Space takes lots of forms, space is partly time, space is partly resources. Sometimes that’s financial resources, sometimes that’s the physical resource of space. These are not things new to anybody who’s connected to the realm of dance, but it’s a moment in time that there is some space for that intersectionality of identities to be welcomed and present. There was a long time in my own life where I felt very fractured and I did a lot of code-switching. I would be in my modern dance world and I would speak a certain way. And then I would be with my Hawaiian cousins in the islands and I would start speaking Pidgin, but then they would call me Haole, because I was a white person from the continent. So it, it often felt quite fractured. And there’s something very beautiful happening I think in a number of realms that’s in direct contrast to a lot of political things happening in the United States right now, so I, I love that tension. It’s one that I’m deeply engaged in. But I love this possibility that venues like the Pillow, funders, and arts presenters and supporters are making space for that intersectionality to be welcome. And it’s not just nat, the native indigenous and Western identities. There’s lots of new seats at the table. And I think that’s a really exciting thing. And what it allows artistically that I’m most excited, is the fullest expression of myself, right? That’s what every artist wants. We’re looking, how can we most fully express ourselves in the mediums within which we work. And when I was stuck in a moment of fractured identity and code-switching, I was never fully being myself when I’m code-switching. There was not, there was a time not that long ago where I wouldn’t have had the balls to sit here and chant in Hawaiian in front of a room full of strangers. Partly that was not knowing if that was welcome in a place that is a “modern dance institution,” right? Serious air quotes around that, this is so much more than that here, but just recognizing that I brought that baggage to this space. This is a home of modern dance, so I’m gonna leave my hula-self outside. No longer, there’s space and it’s welcome and I’m grateful for that. 

CHRISTOPHER K MORGAN: As we move beyond tokenism, and the necessity to perform identity, as we simply and wholly embrace the expression of Native artists in whatever it is they bring to their craft and communities -we step into the future.  There is so much to learn about, develop and explore in the realm of Contemporary Native dance as we move into that future.

EMILY JOHNSON: We need that better future now. We just need to be in it. And so I want to create a work wherein we are in that better future. And I don’t know how to do that, so. Have been thinking through that and dancing through that with jasmine, with trees here and with trees at East River Park. With my collaborators who are thinking through processes of collaborating with our more than human kin. With trees, fire, with other beings, but really collaborating not as in just sensing or listening, but truly collaborating and finding out what that technology of communication is and what we might learn about this future. 

CHRISTOPHER K MORGAN: Native Contemporary dance, growing and developing new futures, informed by land, ancestors, place, people, traditions. 

We began this podcast with a welcome from Native Hawaiian Elsie Kaleihulukea Ryder. Just as greetings, asking permission to enter a space, and clearing ourselves of negativity is an important part of protocols whenever Native and Indigenous folx begin something, so is how we close a gathering. To close our time together in this podcast, we will end with a chant from Aoteroa (New Zealand) that was shared by Atamira dance company as they concluded a performance on the Inside/Out stage at Jacob’s Pillow in 2013. 

Mahalo nui loa, thank you very much, for sharing this time with me.

ATAMIRA DANCE GROUP: [chants in unison] 

[Music begins, composed and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob's Pillow, we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org, and of course through live experiences during our festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us again soon, either online or onsite.