Repertory Dance Theatre is the only dance company to receive a grant from the (currently) embattled Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and at the time (2011) the Company took some hard hits from Utah’s congressional delegation, two of whom argued that, especially during a recession, funding from the Federal Government to a modern dance company–even one as celebrated as the country’s premier repertory dance company–was an example of government waste.
Long before that tempest in a teapot, RDT had dedicated itself to its Sense of Place Initiative, commissioning works that embody, celebrate and examine our human connection to the land which we all rely on and the ethic to find sustainable means to protect it. Water and land are critical issues here in America’s Mountain and Southwest regions, sparking a resurgent “sagebrush rebellion” of late with locals and, especially, politicians angling to wrest control of public lands from the Feds.
As part of a years-long association with New York City-based Zvi Gotheiner, RDT is again commissioning a new work through an ambitious project that involves bringing Gotheiner and his company, ZviDance, to Utah to join RDT at the newly-proclaimed Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. The development of the project begins in May, and the premiere of the first of two works to emerge from the project will be in October 2017 in Salt Lake City.
But “Sacred Lands/Sacred Waters,” the working title of the project, isn’t looking for a fight. Instead, with its partner Utah Dine Bikeyah, the new work is designed to honor and celebrate the unprecedented convergence of five American Native tribes which for 10 years have been advocating for the preservation of their sacred lands from extraction (mining) companies, development and the arguably harmful effects of ranching. Most Utahns agree with the newly-announced protections through the Antiquities Act of 1906 of the 1.35 million acres, says author and photographer Stephen Trimble in the Los Angeles Times:
“The president acted on behalf of our children and grandchildren, on behalf of the last canyon treefrogs singing in Slickhorn Gulch along the San Juan River, on behalf of the Navajo medicine man gathering herbs on the forested mesas of the Bears Ears. His action will be a boon to Utah’s rural economy.”
Where does a modern dance company fit into all of this? What can dance bring to the conversation about public lands where indigenous populations have lived for centuries but also where white settlers in the 19th Century made their homes, where, today, recreationists and tourists thrill at the sights, the hikes and the climbs (while spending money), where environmentalists see the wilderness as a kind of ballast to our over-developed cities?
RDT is operating under a collective premise that most people, in the Southwest and beyond, agree with: our lands and our waters have a sacred character to them. They are our sustenance. They literally ground us in the world of which we are only a part, and they call to a deep and abiding place within us: the notion of “home.” Bears Ears and all of our protected lands and waters epitomize this impulse to protect and preserve.
“For the first time in conservation history, the primary advocates for this new national monument were Native American tribes. In October 2015, the Navajo, Ute Mountain, Hopi, Zuni, and Ute nations presented the Obama administration with a proposal to preserve and co-manage public lands they consider sacred. The full membership of the National Congress of American Indians supported them. Remarkably, given the history of Indian people and the United States, the government listened.”
Two commissions choreographed by Gotheiner will emerge from “Sacred Lands/Sacred Waters.” One will be housed in the repertory of ZviDance in New York City, the other, close to the Bears Ears here at RDT in Salt Lake City. The project entails more, however, than just new choreography. Five public events, including 3 with Trimble, will be staged between May and October when RDT’s work premieres, 4 of those events in the state capital and one in Bluff, near the Monument.
It is the Bluff gathering on May 11, 2017 that will embody the spirit of the “Sacred Lands/Sacred Waters” project. Representatives from all five tribes who formed the coalition to propel Bears Ears to monument status will assemble with RDT and ZviDance. The public is invited and the event is free. Together they will share, through word, music and dance, why this land is sacred to Native Americans, and, in an evening titled “Healing through Motion,” will celebrate the coming together of, at times, fractious tribes to achieve a common goal. It’s a convergence of nations that possibly marks the trail for the increasingly divided country of the United States to do the same. It’s clear from the tribes that this land is sacred to more than those in the region. It is a gift to all of us–Americans as well as visitors from abroad.
It is our sacred lands, and our sacred waters as well.
Jonah Yellowman, spiritual adviser to Utah Dine Bikeyah, and Navajo elder from Monument Valley, reacted generously to the designation of the new Bears Ears National Monument, and in the spirit of the occasion extends his thanks and prayers not only to Mother Earth but to all people for whom these lands and waters will be preserved.
In addition to attending the concert in Utah this October, which we hope will include traditional native dances on stage with RDT, you can donate to help make the project happen.
Celebrate and honor the Bears Ears National Monument and help heal divisions among all of us through dance.
David G. Pace is the Director of Development at Repertory Dance Theatre.