Above: Rulan Tangen. Photograph by PauloT.
RULAN TANGEN IS the founder, lead choreographer, and creative director of Dancing Earth, a contemporary indigenous dance-theater company. At 15, Tangen moved to New York City from San Francisco with 40 bucks in her pocket and the poise to hone her classical skills with ballet master David Howard. During the decade she was there, she found an article about the Taos Earthships and knew that one day New Mexico would be her home. She moved to Santa Fe in 1998 and started her company in 2004. Since then, Dancing Earth has become a mainstay in the dance community, cultivating talented new generations of dancers with a variety of heritages that span Indian Country, including Ohkay Owingeh, Diné, Mvskogee (Muscogee) Creek, Jicarilla Abaachi (Apache), and Cherokee, to name a handful. Tangen harnesses the dynamism of dance theater to embody themes of environmental sustainability and cultural exchange. A force in defining the genre—regionally, domestically, and globally—Tangen was recognized as a 2018 Kennedy Center Citizen Artist fellow.
Coming out of New York, I wanted to reconsider everything about theater. I had the extreme experiences of the finest in international dance. But I also had experiences as a powwow dancer, and they were so different. There didn’t seem to be good and respectful interchange between the two.
I didn’t have aspirations to be a choreographer, but I had aspirations to move in a certain way that felt like it was coming from my bones and my marrow. There was something else that was trying to emerge. I wanted to express something ancestral or deeply human.
I’d go into the theater and have this ritual of transformation in this dark space and a transfer of energy. So I was going into every single point of theater dance, and questioning, Well, why do we face the front toward the audience?
The reason I’m in Santa Fe is to spend more time in collaboration and in conversation with the elements. I’m seeing less of a binary between the “civilized world” and the “beautiful natural world.”
Maybe it has to do with light and dark. People won’t necessarily need to know what the genesis of the work is, but they’ve been informed, number one, by lived cultural practice and, number two, by cultural exchange, which is a big negotiation. That’s pretty much a huge part of my work.
The title of my next work is Between Underground and Sky World, or Btwn U.S.; recognizing that this earth plane is between the two, which is how I sometimes find myself being experienced culturally and socially. I’m one of those people who, most of my life, didn’t fit into anyone’s particular orbit because I wasn’t enough of this or that in my set of facts as a mixed-heritage person. In terms of cosmic reality, when you’re between two places, that is the liminal place, the place of possibility.
Antlers and their relationship to branches; branches and their relationship to river patterns: That’s always been imprinted on me and thematic in my work. The way branches beckon in from the constellations and then route their way down and the branches are reflected in roots. The roots are reflected in underground water systems.
My last work was very much driven by the elders. For this new work, which is about futurity, I’m interested in what a younger generation is bringing forth. Especially within my company, they’re very clear in what the elders have invested into them. No matter what I have to say, they’re going to be in charge at some point. Here is an opportunity to ask them: Where are we going?
What I am able to contribute is a map. That’s the energy that I’m bringing into the creative process, so that there’s room for people to be able to share their stories. And stories aren’t always with words.
I received the Citizen Artist award from the Kennedy Center, and the five qualities that were mentioned are service, freedom, justice, courage, and gratitude. Dancing Earth reflects those values. Then I thought: The people I’ve met in New Mexico reflect those values. And I feel those values are practiced daily by Pueblo people, Tewa people. Their imprint on the land impacts every migration of settlers who come. If they come in with another set of values and try to dominate, they can’t. The Pueblo people’s bones are these mountains.
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For information on winter events, including dance and Indigenous Futurity workshops, and open rehearsals, visit dancingearth.org.