Musical numbers: “Creation,” “Sacred Twins,” “Butterfly,” “Shadow of the Moon ,” “Prayer,” “Concrete Warrior,” “Pow Wow,” “First Kiss,” “Duel,” “Call to War,” “Drum Duel,” “War,” “Where Eagles Fly,” “Exile,” “Spiral Road,” “Vision Quest,” “Power of the Circle,” “Finally Home,” “Tribe.”
Tribe,” co-produced by the Ordway Music Theater and Arizona-based Red Sky Prods., is a sincere — if not entirely successful — attempt to articulate the current state of American Indian culture through dance, theater and music — especially drums. The challenge is finding a way to squeeze them all into a commercially viable package and still have the final product retain some semblance of cultural integrity.
Still very much a work in progress, “Tribe” looks a bit too much like what it is: a collection of interesting music-and-dance choreographies stitched together rather loosely around an American Indian myth about the sun, moon and Earth.
But there are quite a few reasons to believe that this show may yet develop into something spectacular — and perhaps even important. A formidable collection of Indian artists representing 15 tribes was hand-picked from around the country for the show, making it perhaps the greatest concentration of American Indian talent ever assembled.
Much of the dancing — an intoxicating hybrid of contemporary and Indian styles — is superb. The vibrantly colored costumes are exquisite. The music, by American Indian composer Brul, is an energetic (though occasionally monotonous) blend of New Age rock, techno-industrial elecronica and drums. And the story itself — about the sun and moon fighting for the love of Earth, daughter of the first woman — is an ancient myth that lends itself extremely well to theatrical metaphor.
All of these elements hold tremendous promise, but it’s a promise the production’s current incarnation has yet to fulfill. As much as “Tribe” is about conflict, historical and personal as well as cosmic, it is also at war with itself. Somewhere in the mix lurks a desire to tie the lives of contemporary Indians with their rich cultural heritage, but in such numbers as “Sacred Twins” and “Concrete Warrior,” where contemporary Indian youths dance side by side with their historical counterparts, today’s kids just look like a bunch of aimless street toughs living in a cultural void. This note of alienation is countered elsewhere by an odd impulse to celebrate the idea of “one planet, one people.” The messages are decidedly mixed.
In terms of art and theater, the contemporary side of the show doesn’t have much to offer, either. In fact, virtually everything worthwhile and interesting about “Tribe” is rooted in traditional Indian culture, while almost everything unfortunate and misguided about it (the commercialization of indigenous culture, the pop-rock packaging, the vapid appeals for peace and harmony) are a byproduct of the 1990s.
In bits and pieces, however, “Tribe” reveals what it has the possibility to become: a powerful assertion of America’s debt to Indian culture (in hip-hop dance techniques, for example) as well as a window on American Indian culture as it is lived. Dancer Christine Friday Oleary, as the Earth, blends Indian and contemporary dance techniques into a number of fluid and beautiful forms, basing her movements on such elements of nature as birds, butterflies, water and fire. Tall, muscular Brandon Oakes is an Adonis-like presence as the moon, and his “Power of the Circle” ring dance — in which he does magical things with a series of pizza-sized hoops — is one of the show’s highlights.
Providing the perpetual drumbeat to it all is the impressive drumming duo of Benito Concha and Ray Hernandez. Like the urban percussion duo in “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk,” Concha and Hernandez begin the second act with a rousing drum duel, beating feverishly on opposite sides of a giant rack of different-sized deerskin drums in the show’s “Call to War.”
To become what it could, however, “Tribe” needs a stronger narrative thread to integrate the music and dance with the story it is supposed to be telling. It also needs to figure out what it is trying to say.
Are we, as the theme song suggests, “two worlds, one tribe”? Or are we still a deeply divided culture in denial over the fact that, to create America, the people and culture of those who lived here before us had to be all but exterminated? Or are we both?
It’s a complicated issue, well worth exploring, but songs with such lyrics as “you gotta walk the path of peace, bring love back into your heart,” are far too inane to do it justice. If “Tribe” can ever find the wisdom and clarity it needs , though, beating the drum for it will be easy.