The story Thirza Defoe weaves into her Native American ballet of a young woman walking between two worlds, contemporary life and her grandfather’s traditional world, is not far from her own.
The choreographer and award-winning performer grew up watching films where native women were depicted as shadows hiding behind bushes and tepees, while native men were presented as mighty warriors. But when she looked around, Defoe saw female relatives in the Ojibwa and Oneida tribes of northern Wisconsin who were strong women fighting to keep traditions alive as they raised their families. She decided to show that native spirit in her work.
Defoe, 28, said she was fortunate to have a role model like Kevin Locke, and elders who encouraged her to get an education, without turning away from her culture. She found ways to fuse the techniques she learned in martial arts, dance, and drama at the California Institute of the Arts into a performance art piece with the world-renowned Locke. Through narration and music, the message comes across.
“A lot of people will enjoy the story that is going to be told,” Defoe said. “Normally, for a general audience at powwows, they are not put into a context. For this, it is nice to know what the dances or the stories are about.”
The program, “Drum is the Thunder, Flute is the Wind” will be performed today at the Alberta Bair Theater. Part ballet, dubbed by one reviewer as a “Native American Nutcracker,” and part traditional native dance and music, the program culminates in Locke’s world-renowned dance, “The Hoop of Life.”
“All people have the same impulses, spirits and goals,’’ said Locke, 55. “Through my music and dance, I want to create a positive awareness of the oneness of humanity.”
In separate telephone interviews last week Locke, who was touring in Ohio, and Defoe, who was at home in Wisconsin, the creative team discussed the unique two-hour program.
Locke, who lives on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, has traveled the world, bringing the music and dance of Plains Indians to audiences in Iraq, Turkey, Greece and Thailand, as well as New York City and Los Angeles. He is a preeminent player of the indigenous Northern Plains flute, a traditional Lakota storyteller, and a cultural ambassador. The winner of the 2009 Native American Music Award for his 2009 “Earth Gift” CD, Locke has been praised for using his visually stirring music and dance to make a statement about the human condition.
“The whole idea is to use the folk art and the tribal art to accentuate universal themes,’’ Locke said. “I think it’s the perfect way to celebrate or emphasize the nobility of the human spirit, in ways that are unifying.”
Quoting John F. Kennedy, Locke noted that the Native American is the least understood American. Because of that, he finds some natives who have lost pride in their culture. He said when he tours around the globe, people come up to him to declare their native blood, no matter how little it is.
“But you never hear people from Montana or South Dakota say they are native. They are a kind of novelty, something exotic in the East. Where the native presence is very strong, native people are the lowest on the totem pole.”
Locke and Defoe have spent three years perfecting the program. After receiving the 2008 American Masterpieces dance grant, Defoe said they strengthened the performance and the message. Ten Native American performers, representing almost as many tribes, perform throughout the show on hand drums and shakers. All 10 also sing and dance.
“The amazing thing about working with this cast is they are a triple threat, good at all three. It is a core group that has worked together for a long time,” Defoe said. “There will be contemporary native powwow dances with old traditional steps from many different tribes.”
Locke said the power of his program is that it to exposes audiences to the positive side of the Native American culture.
“I do a lot of interaction. I’ll have members of the audience on stage with me during the hoop dance and the round dance. It’s my life. It’s like breathing or eating or anything else, I wouldn’t know what to do without performing.”