BECKET — Thunder sweeps into summer rain. The sound of water builds in growing force, and dancers are gathering in a circle. A woman moves with her shoulders back, keeping percussive rhythm with her feet. With her body, she holds a shimmering beat.
Acosia Red Elk asks the people gathered around her to imagine hundreds of women moving around her and hear the sound they would make together — a high rustling chime, like a warm soaking rain or a thousand, thousand shells.
She dances a jingle dance. Red Elk performed on opening night of Jacob's Pillow's 90th anniversary season. She returns Aug. 4 with Indigenous Enterprise, a company of Native dancers from nations across the country and Canada.
She is a world champion dancer and a member of the confederated nations of the Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla, peoples of the Pacific Northwest, and also Nez Perce and Colville.
On her mother’s side, along with Scots and Scandinavian, she has ancestors among the Seneca and the Micmac. The jingle dance comes from the Eastern woodlands where they would have lived, from the Ojibwe, who have lived for centuries in the forests along the Great Lakes.
And at The Pillow she performs her own choreography to music by TBZ Tha Boyz, Northern Cree. Every dance evolves, as she says here on a summer night, and the dancers of Indigenous Enterprise say in their performances.
As a new generation of dancers, they hold a mission to preserve Native identity, perform their artforms, persevere — and progress into the future, with learning and leadership and community.
The Pillow too has a responsibility to support the deep traditions of Indigenous dance, woven through the wide range of American dance traditions, Pillow associate curator Ali Rosa-Salas said, and to support the people who have always lived on this land, and open pathways for them to come home. Jacob’s Pillow rests on the traditional lands of the Agawam, the Nipmuc, the Pocumtuc and the Mohican.
Here in the mountains Indigenous Enterprise came as artists-in-residence last fall to the Pillow Lab. The Pillow gave them time and space to come together from different parts of the country, to work on their newest performance, "Indigenous Liberation" a month before they brought it to the Joyce Theater in New York City, said co-founder Kenneth Shirley.
He was speaking from his home in Phoenix, Ariz., as the company prepared for a national tour. They'll stop at Jacob's Pillow between performances at the Lincoln Center and in California.
In the last few years, Indigenous Experience has performed around the world. They began as a gathering of friends, Shirley said, rising artists who knew each other from powwow dances and competitions and wanted to create new ways to teach and perform.
In 2016, they made a video with music from the alternative rap group the Black-Eyed Peas, he said, and it went viral — and the world widened. They have ridden that momentum around the globe, to Australia, to the Sydney Opera House, onto the World of Dance television show and into the NBA finals and President Biden’s inauguration.
“Their origin story is incredibly dynamic,” Rosa-Salas said. “They share dance and music traditions from a breadth of places, and they bring their own (knowledge and interpretations) — traditional and contemporary, evolving in the now, and they embrace that — social media, digital media, collaborations from (Hip Hop) to fashion to the world of dance.”
Red Elk’s jingle dance comes from a pandemic, she said, during a recent interview. Her people have survived illness so many times before. In the story of the jingle dance, a young woman was ill and sinking, and her father had a dream. He heard a sound, Red Elk said, a high, clear, musical sound — the sound of women dancing in dresses sewn with seeds and shells.
In the dream, he knew it as the music of the northern lights, and he knew that the wash of that sound could heal — the vibration could sweep through the body on a cellular level. And when he woke, he asked his daughter to dance.
At that time and place, Red Elk said, among the Ojibwe, women did not often join in the dances, and this dance became theirs. Today she makes it hers. The traditional dance grows from subtle movements, held close in and near the ground, but she will lift her feet high, turn in wide arcs, move backward and forward freely through space, and fill the stage with her presence.
Shirley has taught himself. He has performed at powwows in many parts of the country since he was 2 years old. He was dancing before he could talk, he said, and he grew up coming to these performances of Native dancers and musicians from many nations and traditions.
Powwows have an amazing vibe, he said, a festival, live music, food, artists meeting informally and old friends talking late at night, and he finds it powerful to reconnect with artists and communities who come together from across the continent, from Canada and beyond.
He has met dancers and musicians, drummers and bands — for this performance they have reached out to groups like Northern Cree and Young Bear and asked to perform to their music.
He chose his form of dancing in gatherings like these, when he was a boy. He liked Fancy Dancing for the high energy and speed, he said, and expression in the movement.
Fancy dancing is not part of the Navajo culture, says Dominic Pablo. Shirley agreed. His dance comes from the southern plains of Oklahoma and represents the agile tensile sprint of a horse, a mustang running in canyon country.
His mother danced a Fancy Shawl Dance, he said, as Laryn Oakes, Navajo and Plains Cree, will ahe Pillow, inspired by the movement of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. His family brought him into dancing from his earliest years.
But to learn the Fancy Dance, Shirley taught himself from old VHS tapes, he said. In their grandparents generation, and even their parents’, families and communities have kept the tradition alive any way they could, against intense pressure.
The U.S. banned Native traditions — stripped away dances, music, languages — tried to enforce the removal of their ways of living, from faith and culture to everyday conversation, celebration and family.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Native people were arrested for dancing, for singing, the artists say in the performance — “Through dance we were able to survive.”
And so, in 2014-15, Shirley founded Indigenous Enterprise to teach future generations, to hold their culture within them and to skate on the cutting edge — technology, streetwear, Instagram, and a viral music video that crosses 9,000 miles from Arizona to Australia at the speed of light.
“(It’s empowering) to know that what we do can translate into a more modern time for dancers and Indigenous youth to see,” says Adrian D. Thomas, speaking from the Pillow Lab. “We’re creating a pathway to make dancing an outlet for them.”
He opens the performance playing a Cree wooden flute in high runs, rising and falling.
“This is how history is built,” Rosa-Salas said — “through story and testimony and recording what has happened. Dance is like a book, or any documentation — dance does that work. (Indigenous Enterprise’s practice) is deeply rooted in engaging culture bearers, doing what they know is right in executing these dances and also bringing in influences from hip hop, social media …”
They are artists alive in their contemporary world, she said, making new work from their own lives and experiences, and bringing their communities with them wherever they go.
At her opening performance this summer, Red Elk told her listeners in that quiet room that anywhere she travels, she will find a place outside to perform her dance, so the land can feel it. The rhythm and touch of her feet on the earth will become a part of that place, and everywhere in the world she touches becomes a part of her.
“For me, a way to understand Acosia’s performance and its contemporary implications — we are always in need of healing,” Rosa-Salas said. “It’s contemporary. Time is not linear, and dance exists (always).”
The dancers speak of healing in their art, in many ways. Their dancing calls to a good feeling that runs deeper than the pleasure of the physical movement, Tyrenn Lodgepole says from the Pillow Lab. Like Shirley, he is Diné from Phoenix, Ariz., and he performs as champion chicken dancer, invoking the movement of a prairie chicken in the sunlight, uplifting.
Every dance has an origin story, a symbology, Shirley said. Jorge Gonzales-Zuniga, a champion hoop dancer from Salt River Pima on Phoenix, Ariz., spins his hoops lightly, weaving them around his body and forming sacred shapes connecting to creation, cycles of life. The dance has roots in cliff-dwelling people of Taos, N.M., the dancers say as they perform, and a feeling of connection the energy of the living world around them.
The Grass Dance comes from the Great Plains, from dancers creating clear spaces for gatherings and celebrations by stamping the grass down, says Nathaniel Nez as the dancers perform. He is echoing the movement of tall grass in the wind, smooth, low to the ground, sliding, and he is keeping his family close, literally. His sister made the beadwork in his regalia.
Shirley feels the importance of these stories, he said, and these connections with community and the land, just as he feels the importance of contemporary music, innovation and digital media. He wants to help people in his community to strengthen their sense of identity and build a future that belongs to them.
Speaking from the Pillow Lab, he recalls a visceral discomfort when he saw photographs of Ted Shawn choreographing and performing a dance taken from Hopi ritual and ceremony, without permission, without talking with anyone from the community.
But he sees The Pillow now uplifting Native voices in tangible ways, he says, opening ways to bring the dancers here for a residency and bring their culture here, and he finds his time here powerful. Performing here outdoors on a summer night will have immediacy, and a shared excitement, here and now.
IF YOU GO
What: Indigenous Enterprise performs their new work, "Indigenous Liberation," bringing songs, stories, and dances led by champion powwow dancers. The work will highlight Men’s Fancy War Dance (Ponca), Jingle Dress (Ojibwa), Hoop (Taos Pueblo), Chicken Dance (Blackfoot), Flute (Cree), and Grass Dance (Omaha), in a celebration of what lies at the heart of these powerful traditions
When: 6 p.m., Aug. 4
Where: Henry J. Leir Outdoor Stage, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, 358 George Carter Road, Becket
Tickets and more information: 413-243-9919; jacobspillow.org/events/indigenous-enterprise-2022