“I truly believe that the greatest gift that we as humans can do to support the health of the earth begins with movement. Starting everyday with expanding one’s breath and range of motion, circling the limbs with gratitude for the form we have -- indoors or outdoors, getting into one’s body. From that as a starting place, you will grow the instinct, intuition, and imagination to know what to DO or not DO, that is in alignment with all living beings.” –Rulan Tangen
Arts & Healing Network is delighted to present one of the 2015 AHN Awards to dancer and choreographer Rulan Tangen. We applaud Rulan’s amazing leadership and collaboration skills, as well as the beauty and healing power of her creative vision.
After years of teaching dance to Native American youth, Rulan founded DANCING EARTH in 2004 to further hope and opportunity, inspiring a new generation of indigenous peoples to express their heritage through contemporary movement. Based in Santa Fe, NM, Rulan has traveled extensively bringing dance arts to native communities around the United States and in places like Canada and New Zealand. DANCING EARTH projects are grounded in native wisdom and healing the earth. For example, a recent performance cycle, called "Walking at the Edge of Water," focused on water issues, and now DANCING EARTH is creating a new series about food, plants, and the earth called "SEED."
To learn more about Rulan and DANCING EARTH, please visit www.dancingearth.org.
Below is an interview with Rulan Tangen by Arts & Healing Network Director Mary Daniel Hobson from June 2015.
Mary Daniel Hobson: Tell me a little bit about your creative journey, and when you began to understand that dance could be a transformative and healing tool?
Rulan Tangen: I have devoted my life to dance since an early age -- first in highly specialized forms such as ballet, powwow, and modern dance. I found that the daily practice and dedication transformed a chaotic world through discipline and sheer hard work into beauty, strength, harmony, grace, and power.
This was amplified in the experience of performing, when I experienced a profound surrendering of ego, as I transformed into the instrument of a choreographer’s vision and simultaneously felt my spirit take over and fill every cell so I was the most essential version of myself.
I wanted others to have this experience, so I began teaching and saw so many extraordinary shifts in students within moments in a class or over years. My teaching tends to come in cyclical patterns, returning to a location for short periods over many years, so I plant seeds and then leave them to evolve, returning later to witness transformation.
To share this experience with others, I was moved to begin translating dreams into bodies, which is how I describe choreography. Dreams of myself, or dreams originated by the land or by the people of the land, as in “the dreams of nations, First Nations” as so eloquently stated by Anemone Mars of the Narragansett peoples.
Mary Daniel: What inspired you to found DANCING EARTH? Please tell me more about the wonderful work this dance company does?
Rulan: I had dreamed forever of dancing in a professional dance company that brought to life Native philosophies, aesthetic, and worldview and reflected the profound relationships of ecology – of relationship with all of life. When I was in the midst of a struggle between life and death, it dawned on me that if I lived, it was to have a purpose and to bring this vision to the world.
DANCING EARTH is the embodiment of this vision. I have made space for a wide range of dance artists (over twenty-five indigenous tribal heritages represented in the last eleven years!) to be welcomed to the circle to share their unique gifts as respected collaborators. They are dancers, culture carriers, and educators, serving our Native communities as well as global communities. These dance works center on ecological themes, as advised by elders, through community-engaged workshops and with transformative performances in theaters or unconventional sites including our outdoor immersive rituals which incorporate our all-terrain “land dance.”
Land dance is a term that can be applied to what Native peoples have been doing on this continent for millennia – not only the actual ritual dances, but also the dance of relationship with all forms of life on earth. DANCING EARTH reclaims this terminology through a practice of heightened awareness, engagement, and innovation with space, place, and the energy of life forms around us. This could look like humping through abandoned tires, climbing trees, gentle balances on rocks, rolling in snow, or dancing and singing in a procession through farmers market to honor the growers and all that they grow – all this is our dance practice. Our intention for our dance work is
nothing less than total socio-environmental transformation.
Mary Daniel: Can you talk about directing an all-indigenous, inter-tribal dance company and how has that empowered indigenous people and culture?
Rulan: There have been many inter-tribal performance companies, evolving from as early as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. What I think distinguishes DANCING EARTH is that we gather Native collaborators in all aspects of production: dance, music, costume, video, and tech crew, and we provide opportunities to perform, teach, and travel. While in New Zealand, we were awarded medallions by the US Ambassador for our cultural ambassadorship, which was certainly empowering. When Native people see our company perform, or experience our workshops, they feel proud, inspired and filled with a sense of wonder about the possibilities. I think it is such an honorable form of empowerment to see the reverberations through our communities.
Mary Daniel: I was particularly moved by the video on your website called “Dancing at the Edge of Water.” The haunting music with the powerful words and the beautiful movement create such a strong healing message. Could you tell me a bit about how this performance evolved, and what its impact has been on audiences?
Rulan: At a Native youth conference years ago, several Lakota grandmothers were so appreciative of the dance work that we had shared with the youth that they asked us to dedicate our work to the healing of the waters -- of our bodies and of the planets. We were honored, and after each performance there was a similar echoing, in which culture carriers shared water stories. I was also able to sit on a panel with Josephine Mandamin, the Anishnaabeg grandmother who began walking the circumference of the Great Lakes to call attention to the importance of respect for water. With her blessing, the name for the cycle of water dance works came to me: “Walking at the Edge of Water.”
In 2012 – the prophetic Mayan year, we began our activation of this messaging in several bioregions with expansive involvement from Native peoples. It has had many manifestations, which have reached widespread audiences and students of our related “Waters of Wellness” workshops. We have offered a trio onstage amongst world-changers at the Bioneers conference; a performance by twenty-one Native community members and artists from over 25 First Nations at the Lensic in Santa Fe, NM; a tour in New York City and New Zealand; workshops for the Bangka Canoe Journey (restoring canoe knowledge amongst peoples of the Pacific); and joining dancers around the world for Global Water Dance Day.
It’s amazing how people can be impacted. I had danced the role of ocean in a long skirt edged with trash, with movements that evoked struggle and sorrow. Years later I ran into the mother of a three-year-old son, who had attended the performance and been so affected that he zealously collects trash and encourages his schoolmates to do so. Meanwhile our performance in New Zealand alerted Maoris to the threats of hydrofracking, and audience members joined a protest on the West Coast of that country against hydrofracking the following month.
Mary Daniel: You are so skilled at connecting and collaborating with others in your dance work. Can you talk a little about the collaborative process, and perhaps offer advice for other artists who would like to work in a collaborative way?
Rulan: I do so much travel, sharing this work with communities across the country and globe as a service for the earth and her peoples that I come across initiatives with aligned visions. Sometimes opportunities grow out of these relationships for us to combine forces and create something more powerful and expansive than what we could do on our own.
Dance itself is a collaborative entity that is created in relationships of body and movement with space, sound, and other art forms. But most often my collaborations are with non-arts organizations that serve Native peoples, health and well-being, or environmental sustainability. They have important work and messaging, and they see how arts can help translate their visions more broadly to wider audiences or more deeply as experienced through embodiment.
My recommendation for artists who seek collaborations is for these to arise organically from the relationships you build with your work, because strong collaborations need that foundation of understanding.
Mary Daniel: You have also survived cancer. Did your creative work help you in your healing process?
Rulan: When I was in that monumental health challenge, I lost everything I had valued about myself: my independence, my physical strength and fortitude, and more. I learned about interdependence, compassion, and vulnerability. In returning to the world of the living, I was led by my spirit because my body was so frail. I learned to trust my instinct and intuition, and to love and honor life by offering my creativity with gratitude.
Mary Daniel: What do you think is the most powerful thing we, as humans, can do right now to support the health of the earth?
Rulan: I truly believe that the greatest gift that we as humans can do to support the health of the earth begins with movement. Starting everyday with expanding one’s breath and range of motion, circling the limbs with gratitude for the form we have -- indoors or outdoors, getting into one’s body. From that as a starting place you will grow the instinct, intuition, and imagination to know what to DO or not DO - that is in alignment with all living beings. To find that, you must first be in your own body, in motion, to create optimal healthiness as part of the interconnected web of life, to make decisions that are rooted in this embodied sense of interconnectedness, and to build confidence and compassion that counters the rampant negativity of apathy, sloth, and violence.
Mary Daniel: You are heading to Vancouver BC this June to work with First Nations people. Could you tell me about the work you are doing there?
Rulan: I have always had a fluid relationship with what is now known as Canada. My grandmother was from there actually. I am heading there for a short residency that starts with presenting my work and myself to representatives of the Coast Salish First Nations to seek permission, sanction, and welcome before embarking on my work, which is a traditional protocol applicable to all visitors to all territories everywhere. Next I offer a series of workshops for dancers and for community members with limited/no dance experience, as well as interaction with a local community garden that may include land dance practice, weeding, and teachings about plants for weaving – which may in turn inform the dance phrases we make together.
The First Nations of Northwest Coast have a very strong, rich, and nuanced performing arts tradition. Long before European contact there were massive multidisciplinary operas that lasted many days, complete with lighting created from fire through logs, stilt work, and feasting. When I return there around summer solstice, it will also encompass Global Water Dance Day, and Canada’s Aboriginal Day. These themes will be woven together, and I will collaborate with local people to honor the rich history, reflect the local land and water, celebrate aboriginal resilience, and embody ecological themes that have resonance for the whole planet!
Mary Daniel: What inspires you most about your work right now?
Rulan: I am so inspired by my current cycle of work about the theme of seeds, plants, and foods. It is so rich, and relates to so many people. We have always been known for our interconnections far beyond the dance world, but this is unprecedented in reach -- with food justice leaders, farmers, seed savers, and foragers as amazing collaborators. The powerful water cycle actually led us to this, because many Native communities who were expressing their concerns as well as their sacred stories about water, led us to gardens where they were caring for their plant relatives. And so we moved organically from water to earth.
It is so rich that it will definitely be a multi-year cycle of work under the collective name of SEED. Last year, the first year was under the theme of Origin-Nation, and it brought up a lot about cultural roots. This year is Re-Generation, and seems to be about the resilience and renewal that overcomes challenges.
The metaphors are so rich. We are seeds, carrying ancestral knowledge from generations past, with limitless potentiality for our futures. We nourish ourselves and others with intentions and actions, and we all have stories associated with food! We are plants, with roots that stretch from underground to the sun moon and stars. We share breath, move, pollenate with the wind, wilt, and renew. All elements are encompassed in the life form of a plant and in us. And, I would love to quote Rosalie Jones - the beloved grandmother/creator of Native American modern dance in the USA – who said that as Indigenous dance leaders, “we are like the deer, we give our life force so that others may live.”
I am interested in all the activities before and after what is called performance, that are part of the relationship building, inspiration, and transformation that is ultimately the goal of our performances. These include cultural protocols and exchange, sharing of stories, recipes, meals, and field work (literally work in the field) from land dance to trying my hand at growing food and flowers. It is all about preparing the soil of our souls for creative blossoming!
I have in the past been interested in the ancestral and magical surreal dreamscape of past and future as it overlaps with the everyday, and now I am interested in the everyday as the starting place -- what it is to be fully human -- and let that be the foundation for performance.
Mary Daniel: Do you have anything else you would like to share?
Rulan: I am truly honored for this work to be recognized through this award for arts and social change. The work I am doing now answers a call to action from Basque Farmers who were awarded the Global Food Sovereignty Prize and called for artists to create work highlighting their cause, because only art can change the hearts of the people. So the question is not how social transformation can happen through art, but how can social transformation happen without it!
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