Thunderbird American Indian Dancers 34th Pow-Wow
nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
January 30, 2009
The 34th annual Thunderbird American Indian Dancers Pow Wow at Theater for The New City features some standout dances that are compelling and beautiful. But, what I found most interesting about this performance is the way that individual personalities are present and tangible. Of course solo performances are oriented towards an individual's expression, but for a large group to be performing their moves with such distinctive energies was for me an appealing shift from typical group coordinated movement. This ritual demonstrates the essential presence of community, while emphasizing the importance of selfhood. Whether this is a modernized attitude toward the tribal dances or how they have always been executed, I find it a pleasing ritual to behold in that sense. Every shift from one movement to another is executed in precise coordination, but the energy of the movement itself varies from personality to personality. The drama present in the event is not the difficulty of the dance (with the exception of some complicated sections) nor the story being told through dance, but rather the actual individual moving through time and space with his or her personal physical truth laid bare, however simple or involved that truth may be.
I think the reason for this attitude toward the dance is inherent in its function. Rather than existing merely as an aesthetically pleasing arrangement of movement, tribal dance is the expression of a community. I found the individuated yet unified dance consistent with America's tradition of liberalism and my own attitude towards presence in public life. But a significant point to take into consideration is that the performers come from a multitude of tribal backgrounds, so the dances they perform are often not from their ancestors or their own native traditions. To expect unity from a hodgepodge of cultures is probably unrealistic. But for me, often in this country (and especially in this city), that hodgepodge of cultures is the reality, and the coexistence of varying cultures is quite significant.
Although this delightful taking-in of individual personalities was a large component of my experience, that is not to say that the dances themselves are not often impressive. The opening Caribou Dance features the elegant movement of feathers, gracefully gliding in the hands of the dancers. The Hoop Dance, performed by Donna Ahmadi and Tom Pearson, demonstrates the abilities of two fine dancers, and there is a sweet romantic undertone in the young duo deftly moving hoops across their bodies in a variety of ways. The narrator Louis Mofsie provides friendly guidance through the evening. One older performer stands out for having the distinctive personality I mentioned before, with a delightful unhesitant chaos in his physicality. There is something compelling in and of itself about having a steady drumbeat that is loud enough that your heart is forced to sync up with it, especially when there is something like the Stomp Dance or the Men's Traditional Dance that features dynamic movement.
There are a number of dances that are not as compelling, especially in the first act, and although many costumes look stunning and authentic, there are a few made from arts-and-crafts-type materials that detached me from the experience. But, I am overall glad that Theater for the New City hosts this event yearly. All proceeds from the performance benefit the Native American scholarship fund.