DASSDance Brings Tribal Struggles to Life

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Photo courtesy of DASSDance

Deep in the Amazon forests of Brazil live the Awa, a nomadic, indigenous tribe of people who have little or no contact with the outside world. Lately, their way of life has been threatened by illegal loggers invading and destroying their habitat. On Friday, September 20, 2013, the lives of the Awa tribe were recreated at Washington Hall by DASSDance, a bi-coastal company based in Seattle and New York City led by Artistic Director Daniel Wilkins. DASSDance delivered Tale of the Ten Green––a tale of solidarity, struggle, and resistance––with a compelling vocabulary of high-powered and fearless dancing.

The group transformed Washington Hall into a tropical forest for the performance. Potted plants and trees surrounded the stage, two tent-like structures made of grass stood on each end, and a projection of trees covered the back wall. The scene opened with a male dancer performing a solo of acrobatic and athletic yet slow and sustained movements to ethnic tribal music. The rest of the tribe, three women and two other men, entered the stage and went about their daily business: cooking, washing, etc. Then came a series of duets between the characters, sometimes between two women, two men, or a man and a woman. Wilkins used the duets to establish the relationships between them, be they siblings, friends, or spouses.

Wilkins’ choreography, which cleverly combined acrobatic lifts, gestural movements, and contemporary ballet ideas, appropriately showcased the dancers’ talents without losing sight of the story behind the movement. Influences from African dance, capoeira, and even martial arts were incorporated into the modern dance vocabulary. Every movement, whether a simple change in gaze or a demanding lift, had a purpose in the story. Nothing was inserted for shock value, no matter how extreme. Wilkins’ choreography beautifully weaved all the dancers’ bodies across the stage, around each other and themselves. And the dancers took up the challenge. No matter how risky the choreography, they moved with alacrity and an unwavering spirit.

The costumes, however, were problematic. The fitted nude top and skirt on the women and the nude bottoms on the men beautifully accentuated their lean and muscular figures and movements. However, the added feathers along with the face and body paint in various patterns were similar to the Native American war paints, far from the traditions of the Brazilian Awa tribe. Wilkins did say in a preface that it would be impossible to get the Awa cultures and traditions perfectly accurate, as the piece was inspired by the Awa tribe and not a literal reconstruction of their culture. In the end, it looked like a combination of different cultures culminated into the mainstream idea of “tribal look,” regardless of which specific tribe it came from. Whether the costumes were appreciation or appropriation is another discussion entirely.

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Photos courtesy of DASSDance

The highlight of the dance came during a point in the story when the illegal loggers destroyed the tribe’s forest. A projection of bulldozers cutting down trees appeared in the background, and red lighting showered the stage. The anger, the desperation, the confusion, and the resistance of these characters were all blended into the choreography. High-powered kicks and leaps were punctuated with resolved stares toward space. Boiling anger was met with resolved resilience. The rhythmic fusion music, undoubtedly incorporating elements of African, Jamaican, or even oriental melodies, became a driving force for these dancers. At one point, a spoken monologue became the music.

Toward the end of the piece, disappointingly, the lighting became inconsistent. Fluctuating between stage lighting and house lighting, it spoiled rather than enhanced the artistry of the dance. By the end, the six dancers performed an explosive unison phrase illustrating their resistance and struggle for independence. But despite the storm of limbs, heaving breaths, and a roller-coaster ride of emotions, no movement was as impactful as when the dancers stood in a line across the stage, and slowly reached their hands through the darkness to the audience. They reached out as though braving the unknown, unsure of what fate had in store for their lives.

Tale of Ten Green was performed Friday and Saturday, September 21, 2013 at Washington Hall. For more information on DASSDance, go to www.dassdance.org