35th Annual Dance Concert and Powwow
January 29-February 7
Theater for the New City
155 First Avenue (10th Street)
All proceeds benefit the Native American scholarship fund.
For complete programming, schedule and ticketing details, call 212-254-1109. Online ticketing here.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: Tom Pearson's Ceremony will be performed only on the evening programs, not the matinees.
Dancer-choreographer Tom Pearson (Creek/Cherokee) talks about performing with Thunderbird American Indian Dancers
EYA: Tom, to followers of contemporary dance, you're probably best known for your work as co-director of Third Rail Projects (with Zach Morris and Jennine Willett). With Zach, you won a Bessie Award for Vanishing Point, premiered at Danspace Project in 2008. But your involvement with Thunderbird's concerts and powwows reflects a commitment to personal identity and culture. How long have you been working with Thunderbird and how did you first become involved?
TP: I’ve been working with Louis Mofsie (Hopi/Winnebago), Thunderbird's artistic director, and, by extension, participating in Thunderbird events and programs since 2003. However, my experience with the Thunderbirds as an audience member and a writer pre-dates that by a few years. I first saw them perform in 2000, I think. Louie came to a performance of mine in 2003, in which I premiered the original version of my contemporary dance solo, Ceremony. He was interested in the work, and we began collaborating on the next version of Ceremony which performed alongside traditional dances on the following Thunderbird program. Since then, I have studied traditional dances with the members of the group and begun dancing at powwows and social gatherings, and Louie and I have collaborated on several contemporary dance projects over the years as well.
EYA: What's most meaningful and fun about working with Thunderbird?
TP: I think the one thing that stands out the most is how much of a family the group is--a family that spans several generations, and very warm and welcoming. There is a real sense of history and tradition, and not just in a big American Indian kind of way, but a very specific Native New York community kind of way.
Most people don't realize that there is a large population of urban Indians in New York, and a great number of them are performing artists, or the children and grandchildren of performing artists who found themselves dropped off here when the wild west shows ended their tours in the late part of the 19th Century and at the turn of the 20th Century. There's quite a bit of Native history entwined with performance history in the Native community in New York, but maybe that's a story for another time.
What I love about the Thunderbird group is that many of them come from this tradition, and everyone shares a common interest in preserving and sharing their traditions, and it’s all volunteer-based. No personal income is derived from the powwows and performances at Theater for the New City. So, it’s really driven by love.
EYA: I'm interested learning about the type of preparation--not so much physical but mental, even spiritual--that you make for the very different types of dance that you perform. Or even if these approaches to dance are different, as you see them, in the way they encode information and meaning.
TP: I think I actually do more concerted mental and spiritual preparation for the contemporary work I do than the traditional, because the contemporary is often so specific to my own vision, and there are so many more unknowns. The traditional dances are more codified. Each performer attaches his/her own style and approach, of course, but you are standing on the shoulders of giants with these. There’s a whole tradition that supports you, and each dance has its own inherent system of meaning.
But of course, with anything that the community has a vested interest in, you can often come under the scrutiny of the culture cops, self-appointed quality controllers. It’s sort of a joke, and at the same time not. It always becomes a question of what most honors the tradition--an exact replica of steps and staging, or a furthering of the spirit of the work. With the contemporary, at least, that type of pressure is off when you are generating new material.
EYA: You will be performing a traditional hoop dance in this year's concert but also showing a piece of your own, Ceremony, inspired by your exploration of your Native American heritage. Tell us a little about this piece. How has your cultural exploration and your work with traditional dances influenced your creativity? Has it reshaped your approach to contemporary work?
TP: Ceremony is a solo that I perform every couple of years, and though the dance is basically the same, the internal meaning and ceremony itself shifts. Originally, it was a work that I made to explore my own cultural inheritance by way of reclamation. I set up a couple of polarities within the work that I move between, and the in-between becomes the thing itself, a representation of my own hybrid identity, while at the same time referencing that which I am given and that which I claim.
When I created the work, I chose a traditional war dance song. For years, I had been attending powwows but not participating because I lacked a point of entry. Though I am Cherokee and Creek, my family had lost the cultural connection, and so I took what I could and applied my own movement vocabulary to it. I think this is what Louie responded to in my work, that I was working backwards through assimilation, and trying to honor all of my selves together. That’s probably the most direct way I can answer your question about how the traditional influences the work.
Also, I think the work I’ve done in a contemporary vein has been moving towards connecting with the traditional, and not the other way around. Mostly though, I think I draw upon the traditional for structural cues, especially with regard to ritual. For example in many of my individual works like Ceremony, REEL, Lacuna, and Mesa, the pieces often end where they begin, or move in a circular pattern. This is much more reflective of a Native approach to story-telling, ideas that move clockwise or up-and-down, and not along a linear path. Likewise, the identity politics in my work stem from issues of assimilation, loss, reclamation and representation that are all borne from a Native world-view.
I especially love that this year I get to perform Ceremony and a hoop dance (with the fabulous Donna Ahmadi) on the same program. I think it’s important for audiences to see the same dancer performing in two very different ways because they are then able to connect the dots between the “us” and “them” that often occurs when the beads and feathers block the view.
Many people get upset when their expectations aren’t met regarding what they perceive as Native American Performance, and people have very definite and historicized ideas about what that means. When the same dancer can play into those ideas and also challenge them, I think you get a little more mileage in terms of expanding an audience’s field of vision and bringing Indian identity into the present tense.#