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Native American dance makes debut at Santa Fe Opera's "Dr. Atomic"

by Judith Fein
July 17, 2018
The Santa Fe Opera
301 Opera Drive
Santa Fe, NM 87506
(505) 986-5900
Judith Fein is an award-winning international travel writer, author, speaker, theatre and movement director, and reviewer. Her website is www.GlobalAdventure.us
There are many firsts at the Santa Fe Opera this summer. On July l4, half an hour before the opening of Dr. Atomic, with music by John Adams and libretto/direction by Peter Sellars, a group of Indigenous dancers appeared onstage. They came from the Native American Pueblos of San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, and Tesuque, and had never danced together before. The opera audience grew hushed as the guest dancers performed the sacred Corn Dance, which ordinarily is only done at the Pueblos. Photos were forbidden.

Many people believe the Corn Dances are done to ensure well - being and bestow blessings on the particular Pueblo where they are performed. But Mina Havier, from Santa Clara Pueblo, told a rapt audience before the dancing and opera began, that this is not the case. Their dancing is a blessing and an offering for all people, for all of us. You could hear a sigh ripple through the audience.

For those who had never seen a traditional Corn Dance before, it was a revelation. On their heads, over their lustrous black hair, the women wore turquoise colored tablitas, or headdresses, dotted with white feathers. Their black textile mantas, worn as dresses, covered one shoulder, and left the other shoulder exposed. The women and girls danced barefoot, and the men wore what appeared to be parrot or macaw feathers in their hair. The dancers held and used round rattles made from gourds.

Accompanying the dancers were three male drummers in colorful shirts, and two male singers. A few of the dancers were small children, perhaps three or four years old. It was very moving to see them, serious and focused, carrying on the ancient traditions of their people.

The opera is about the 24 hours preceding the first explosion of an atomic bomb at the Trinity site in New Mexico. Part of the action takes place at Los Alamos, where physicists, under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer, developed the bomb. What is extraordinary about this production is that the distant lights of the real Los Alamos are visible behind the open stage at the Santa Fe Opera. It gives a chilling pertinence and reality to the story.

The libretto of the almost three-hour opera is a rather cerebral affair, using declassified material about the development of the bomb and those who made it. Some of the words are obscure scientific details pertaining to the bomb, and others are drawn from poets and other written sources. Sellars describes the work as a “documentary opera,” but he takes great liberties with the character of Oppenheimer, for example, in dramatizing how much he agonized over the deployment of the “gadget,” as the bomb was called. From what I learned, he agonized much more over the relentless pressure being put on him to produce the bomb; I cannot imagine him rolling around, tormented by the moral, ethical, and human safety issues.

In the second act, there is a dream sequence, and the Corn Dancers return to the stage, dancing in the middle of the swirl of scientists, a weather forecaster, and military brass. They are a sober, strong presence, a timeless reminder of place. And the rhythmic, almost hypnotic, repetitive steps they perform are deceptively simple. The drumming and dancing rhythms are, in fact, quite complex and change with an unpredictable suddenness.

Besides the Pueblo dancers, the opera engaged an award-winning choreographer, Emily Johnson. She is originally from Alaska and of Yup’ik descent; she is currently based in New York City and Minneapolis. I had lunch with her about a week before the opening, and was also permitted to go to part of a rehearsal. She was working with four Indigenous dancers, which emphasized the Indigenous contribution to the opera.

“The world can be a vitally different place than it is, and dance in particular has an incredible capacity and responsibility to usher that forward,” Johnson said. “The first decade of my career, I wasn’t so confident or vocal in saying dance can change and impact the world….Now I’m quite confident in saying that dance and performance is the way we understand each other, our relationship with where we are, and we can feel a kinship to and responsibility for the world.”

She said that as soon as she began work on the opera, she and Sellars immediately began talking about the process of bringing this opera to the land where the bomb was developed and tested. It put Johnson into contact with the Indigenous local people. “This land has been, and continues to be, affected by the nuclear industry,” she said. Many of the Pueblo Indians who worked at the lab were exposed to high dose radiation and experienced abnormally elevated rates of cancer.

Johnson said the process of hearing these stories offstage was part of the work onstage. She heard from Native Americans and from “downwinders,” people who lived in nearby communities that were affected by the Trinity blast; they, too, have experienced high rates of cancer. Like the Native American dancers, some of the downwinders appear in the production.

Johnson says she considers the individual stories, the local food, the musicians and singers as part of the dance. “I see it all as forms of movement,” she explained.

Trained in improvisational dance, Johnson has developed a very specific, repetitive, choreography for the opera. The dancers seem to be elemental—almost parts of the structure of the atom and the universe itself. They dance close to the only permanent element of the set—a huge, aluminum, highly reflective ball that represents the gadget. They come together, break apart, and perform on several levels, both plié squatting position and more erect. I wish there had been more development of the movements, more variation, but if they were, in fact, elements, then the laws of movement would be quite prescribed.

During the rehearsal, there was a mesmerizing solo by Jasper Shorty. I felt as though he was dancing Johnson’s soul. Although the two had never met before, they seemed to be one mind, and he was the perfect dancer to execute her choreography. Alas, in the course of the performance, and with the dancers sometimes dancing around the singers in an extended dream sequence, it was hard to single out Jasper’s presence. All of the dancers were perfectly attuned to each other, and it was a pleasure to watch them.

When I asked Johnson if her work had been inspired by the Pueblo dancers, she firmly said, “No. Not at all. That would be cultural appropriation.”

She clearly takes her work, and the role of dance, very seriously.

Santa Fe Opera's Dr. Atomic continues July 18 & 27 and August 2,7 & 16. For more information visit www.santafeopera.org/operas-and-ticketing/doctor-atomic
DANCERS

DANCERS

Photo © & courtesy of Ken Howard


DANCERS

DANCERS

Photo © & courtesy of Ken Howard


The corps de ballet rehearse “Dr. Atomic” in front of both the prop “gadget,” (what Dr. Oppenheimer’s team called the atom bomb) and the Jemez Mountains where the actual weapon was born.

The corps de ballet rehearse “Dr. Atomic” in front of both the prop “gadget,” (what Dr. Oppenheimer’s team called the atom bomb) and the Jemez Mountains where the actual weapon was born.

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Ross


“Dr. Atomic” choreographer, Emily Johnson, instructs her dancers.

“Dr. Atomic” choreographer, Emily Johnson, instructs her dancers.

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Ross


Dancer Jasper Shorty and choreographer Emily Johnson rehearse onstage for a performance of “Dr. Atomic” at the Santa Fe Opera.

Dancer Jasper Shorty and choreographer Emily Johnson rehearse onstage for a performance of “Dr. Atomic” at the Santa Fe Opera.

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Ross


Reflected in a symbolic representation of “the gadget” (first atom bomb ever made and tested), choreographer Emily Johnson at work for this season’s Santa Fe Opera production of “Dr. Atomic.”

Reflected in a symbolic representation of “the gadget” (first atom bomb ever made and tested), choreographer Emily Johnson at work for this season’s Santa Fe Opera production of “Dr. Atomic.”

Photo © & courtesy of Paul Ross

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