Theatrical Release

Photo by Jessica CalkinsApensanahkwat, a member of the Menomoninee Tribe of Wisconsin and a Vietnam vet, danced clockwise around a circle of drummers in the grass of the Orange County Fairgrounds. He was adorned in a ravishing costume of feathers and flags and bones and stones. He was followed by dozens of other dancers, ranging from tiny white blond girls to towering men in full ceremonial garb. The scene looked like something off the set of a Hollywood western, except the Native Americans really were Native American.

But one dancer didn't join the circle. He was in his early teens and stood off to the side, near the spectator seats, a couple of steps in front of me. Dressed in a red shirt and khaki shorts, he conducted his own private dance. I couldn't take my eyes off him.

The 34th annual Pow Wow, a three-day gathering of native peoples from across North America, was listed as theater in your local calendar section. But it was not theater—except in the ways that it was.

The obvious difference for anybody raised on Neil Simon and Cats is that the Pow Wow wasn't about entertainment. Yet there were performers, an audience and an empty space. There was music, dance, costumes and a theme. There was spectacle. There was the immediacy of theater.

Most important, there was ritual. In the introduction to Ritual, Realism, and Revolt: Major Traditions in the Drama Trade Paper, J. Chesley Taylor and G.R. Thompson wrote that "our fascination with the theater lies also in the fact that it permits man to represent in concrete terms a vision of the meaning of our existence." That, in an acorn shell, is what this Pow Wow was about. On the broadest and simplest levels, then, this event was pure theater.

That meaning resonated throughout the Pow Wow Arena, the dance circle, the large, grassy area where the dancing, singing, drumming, invocations, blessings and memorials were conducted.

At the center of the circle, a small group of drummers and singers, most of whom looked like they had been doing this for eons, anchored the rhythm. The periphery of the circle was reserved for dancers, their families and friends and other drum circles, including Black Eagle and Red House, a kick-ass, Long Beach-based, intertribal, original-style drum circle. About a third of the circle was made of metal bleachers for spectators. What they saw was a loosely organized procession of dancers, musicians and speakers who rarely stuck to the time line printed in the program. Pace is not an imperative of this production.

The dancers came in all shapes, but the choreography and costumes reflected their tribal origins, age and unique histories. As Leland Running Eagle, a Moreno Valley grass dancer (dancers who dress in outfits adorned with a long, flowing fringe symbolizing the tall grass of the prairie), told me, the costumes and dance steps are handed down through generations, and every dancer's family helps in making the outfits.

Every step, every feather in every headdress, every song and rhythm means something. Some are celebrations of fallen warriors or others who've "moved on to the other side." Other dances celebrate gifts bestowed "on all of us by the creator."

And so it was that the dance of Apensanahkwat and his many accomplices was accompanied by the dance of that lone teenager on the outskirts of the group—the one I couldn't stop watching.

The boy smiled, stamped his feet, pounded his knees, jerked his head back and forth, slapped at invisible insects in the air, grimaced, flailed aimlessly, gestured wildly, and laughed, all the while lost in the pounding of the drum and the spectacle unfolding before him.

But this was no shaman possessed by the Great Spirit or some peyote-ingesting mystic: he was retarded, the Down syndrome molded into his face. But still he danced and writhed and laughed and punctured the air with every conceivable kind of gesture, oblivious to any bullshit sense of propriety or dcor. He wasn't concerned with the right way to act; he was acting. Finally, when a murder of crows burst from a eucalyptus grove on the other side of the circle, he fell to the earth, clutching his stomach, and froze as the dance continued before him.

Something wonderfully real and powerful had touched this kid, something that reinforced a mantra periodically delivered over the loudspeaker during the entire day by one of the arena directors. It was something along the lines of how the whole point of this circle, of this Pow Wow, was "celebrating the overwhelming nature of life, a thing so beautiful and so mysterious that it cannot be expressed in words."

It was a moment of sublime poetry and great theater. And it was real.


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