Thunderbird American Indian Dancers
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
February 5, 2005
We sometimes forget that before we laid down all this concrete and stacked ourselves on top of each other, this tiny island we live on belonged to a small tribe of Native Americans. They are a people whose rich tradition of dance, dress, and storytelling we largely know, sad to say, through old Western movies. This lack of understanding of American Indian culture may explain why the statue in Battery Park depicting an Indian that once lived here in Manhattan is wearing a completely uncharacteristic Plains Indian headdress. So, in an effort to bridge this huge gap in understanding, the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers bring New Yorkers a magnificent slice of their heritage.
The idea behind the Thunderbird show is to cover the dance and, to a lesser extent, the storytelling traditions of Native Americans from all across the continent. They start in Alaska, sweep down to the Northwestern coast and then over to our part of the country, and finally back across to the Southwest for the first one-hour program. Then there is an intermission at which time you are given a chance to wander out into the lobby and sample some tasty traditional foods that are being cooked up right there in front of you. There are also a couple of tables where you can buy some jewelry and other handmade crafts. The second hour of the show is dedicated to the Plains Indians (and their beautiful headdresses). In this part of the program we are invited to come on stage and participate in the Round Dance. This is a simple dance in which we all hold hands and do a sideways two-step in a big circle. I was happy to see that the majority of the audience came down to join in the fun.
One of the most interesting aspects of this show is the narrator, Louis Mofsie, who introduces each of the eighteen dances or stories with some tidbit of trivia and/or detail of what we are about to see. Most of the dances are gesture based. Each movement has a meaning connected to it; for example, a sweeping of the arms into the chest means “breathing in all the creator has given us.” Many dance performances, especially modern dance, leave interpretation up to the audience, but the narrator of this show wants us know that these dances tell stories that are not supposed to be ambiguous but rather are a part of a vivid tradition of physical storytelling. As for the oral tradition of storytelling, there are only two storytellers. The first one offers a fantastical children’s story while the second is an autobiographical piece in which the teller, Matoaka Little Eagle, mixes gesture and words. I really enjoyed the stories. I wish there were more than just two. I also wanted to hear an old story, one that’s been passed down through the ages.
Another one of the most interesting features of the show is the dazzling and intricate garb. I was blown away by all the colors, patterns, and jingling things that filled every inch of each costume. There are incredible headdresses with feathers that explode off the dancers' heads and dangle down their backs; bells and shells clink and clank at their ankles; and dresses called “Jingle Dresses” that live up to their namesake. One of my favorite dances takes place in a dream world and has some large masks with snapping jaws. They are so large that the dancers wear these impressive “masks” on their backs.
While all the dances are interesting some of them are too short. At times, I was barely able to absorb the dance before it was over. Also, not all the dancers have the same ability to use their bodies expressively. I couldn’t help thinking that some of them were more “into it” than others. However, it could be that it is more traditional to dance the steps with little-to-no facial and/or body expression.
At the end of the first half, a dancer named Tom Pearson performs a piece called “Ceremony”. It is a modern dance piece that, as discussed above, leaves most to the imagination. I assume that it has something to do with the plight of the Indians but I really couldn’t tell for sure. I did not understand how this piece fit into the program.
I had a good time at the Thunderbird show. I noticed that a lot of parents brought their kids and I thought that was very appropriate. American Indian culture is something we should all experience beyond old Westerns and reservation casinos. The Thunderbird American Indian Dancers offer us a chance to learn something about the amazing culture that we have traditionally tried to forget.