Culture and choreography

Horse and Yellow Bird Dancers at FirstWorks
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  October 15, 2009

 THEATER_F-HORSE_main3

SPEEDING TOWARD AN UNKNOWN FUTURE The Horse troupe.

Not only is the FirstWorks organization devoted to presenting “first-time-in-Rhode Island” performances throughout their seven-week fall festival (through November 15), but the staff is also always seeking diversity of cultures, media, and experiences. Two dance troupes who are performing in the next two weeks exemplify that: an all-male company from Taiwan called Horse (October 24) and the Yellow Bird Dancers from Arizona, presenting traditional Native American dances (October 17), both at RISD Auditorium.

The Yellow Bird Dancers are an extended family, with matriarch Doreen Duncan serving as manager and patriarch Ken Duncan, Sr., as director. Though Doreen grew up with her tribal affiliation (Arikara, Hidatsa, and Mandan) in the Three Tribes area along the Missouri River, Ken is from the Southwest (San Carlos Apache), and they met more than 25 years ago at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.

Doreen has conducted educational programs at the Heard Museum in Phoenix and worked for 10 years as the director of the Salt River Pima Maricopa Tribal Museum in Scottsdale. As a storyteller, flute player, and Apache craftsman, Ken has been a cultural consultant for the US State Department. The Yellow Bird Dancers were named “Culture Keepers of Arizona” in 2004.

Their dance troupe is truly a family affair — “We have been blessed with seven sons, one daughter, and four grandchildren, and all of our children and grandchildren have or will participate in our dance group,” Doreen noted.

One of this family of dancers was named Miss Indian World of 2006-2007, and another was the World Champion Teen Hoop Dancer of 2008. The Hoop Dance continues to be a favor-ite of audiences everywhere. The hoops are 1-  feet to two feet in diameter, either wood or plastic. When they are linked together, they form animals that appear in Native American folklore, such as the coyote, the eagle, the butterfly, and the snake. As tail-feathers or wings appear, the dance, performed to rapid-beat drumming, becomes a story, the dancer a sto-ryteller.

Another dance in Yellow Bird’s repertoire is the Apache Rainbow Dance, enhanced by sign language and Ken Duncan’s haunting flute music.

Doreen Duncan hopes that the performance of these dancers and others will give people a “better appreciation of the positive aspects of Native American culture and an understand-ing of the contributions Native people have made to American society.

“Family is a very important aspect of our culture,” she emphasized. “And our Native ways of respect for all life can be a blessing to not only American society but also to all peo-ple.”  

The other dance group, Horse, took for its logo a Chinese character made of three horses, signifying the unbridled energy, motivation, and passion for dance of its five founding members. Formed in 2004, the group received Taiwan’s highest arts award, the Taishin Arts Award, the first time they were nominated in 2008. They’ve performed twice at the Joyce Theater in New York City and are bringing their newest work, Velocity, to Providence.

Based on their observations of male bodies in an urban setting, as well as movements specific to their generation, the multiple choreographers for this piece wanted to examine the fast-paced nature of contemporary life as it evolves, progresses, and sometimes takes a step backward. Moveable walls around the stage define spaces that separate the dancers and then pull them back together. Using theater, drama, mime, and games, the creators of Velocity see human beings as speeding toward an unknown future, unable to determine the course of their journey, but barreling headlong through their lives.

The six dancers are dressed in brown pseudo-business suits that strip to T-shirts and eventually to bare chests. Their gravity-defying partnering, expressive hands and faces, limber and acrobatic poses, and use of projected images on the brown-paper “walls” and music that ranges from classical to modern all combine to create a fascinating, funny, and powerful theater/dance piece.

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