The first Saturday of every November is usually the day of the Austin Powwow, which I have attended every year since the early 2000’s. I go to honor my Native American ancestors and to support the culture. I go to see other people, especially with Cherokee and Choctaw blood, in one place. I go to feel the drums and voices. They vibrate in my very core, so I am moved to dance near them during the All Tribes Blanket Dance. It’s fitting that it’s always on the same weekend of Halloween/Samhain and Dia de los Muertos, other days for honoring ancestors and recognizing the spirit world. So when a dancer from my graduate school art program in Berlin, Claire Elizabeth Barratt ( http://www.cillavee.com/cillavee.html ) asked me if I wanted to collaborate that weekend when she was traveling through Austin on her dance performance tour, I said yes, but the project would have to pay homage to those traditions that I would be missing out on celebrating as I normally do. We had worked together before, with me on video and her dance, but I am a dancer as well, so planned to do both…
I wanted the event to be interactive. Being from Texas, where Mexican culture permeates our state with color and flavor, I thought of ofrenda (offering alters). I also lived in Thailand for two years, so naturally I thought of Thai spirit houses, which are in front of all businesses and homes to offer recognition and thanks to the previous inhabitants of that particular piece of land. Things that are included in these are photos or statuettes of people or animals, flowers, incense, food, and other objects which symbolize things they enjoyed. I decided to make a spirit house from fallen sticks in our yard woven together with mustang grapevines growing along our fence. My boyfriend Todd and I had almost finished it at this point:
Years ago, a Wiccan friend of mine had a gathering for Samhain where everyone held hands under the moonlight and talked about those who they missed. I found it to be a cathartic experience to vocalize my appreciation and love, in that setting, for my great-grandmother who had died recently. I was unable to attend her funeral, but this somehow seemed far more meaningful than any funerals I have gone to. So, I wanted my guests to share stories about their loved ones who have passed away and to bring something to place in the spirit house. One of the drummers performing at the gathering sited the memories of his grandmother’s hands making tortillas for inspiring his the love for and skill on drums. A guest spoke of the tragic loss of a dear cousin to the heroine epidemic, and of the talents and good qualities passed down from ancestors. Keepsakes guests brought were photos, a pet cat collar, a drawing done by a dear aunt, and a piece of jewelry given as a gift. Everyone took their mementos home that night, but here’s the spirit house with Todd and my mementos still on it. Photos of loved ones, some of their costume jewelry, and trinkets.
Most people who have lived in Austin for a long time are true music lovers. The wire tree that the spirit house sits on was inspired by the massive escarpment oak behind Central Market. The long limbs are made of wire twisted with guitar, mandolin, and sitar strings strung with an eclectic array of beads that I’ve collected from around the world. Most of the musicians I know in town are paid performers, so aren’t available or interested in playing for other reasons. Luckily, I found out from my coworker, Audra Tillman, that she and her teammate Michael Lopez, are community percussionists, meaning they regularly attend drum circles for enjoyment and/or healing ceremonies such as sweat lodges. I was planning to create a studio piece playing from speakers for the dance performance part of our event, but they generously agreed to drum for it instead. Michael has a large collection of percussion instruments and agreed to bring extras so that guests could join in. He brought several including an ocean drum, heard in the Water (Summoning) video below and a thunder stick, heard in the Fire (Magnetism) video. This way there would be full audience participation from adding to the spirit house and sharing stories to adding the sound piece for the performance. I had loosely planned arrangements for the music and during our first practice, another drummer, Bob Collier, let me know that his friend Robert Bingham, a seasoned Native American flute player, would be joining us.
Finally, I wanted to do the performance under the massive Pecan Tree in our side yard. Full with growing pecans, it’s branches drooped to the ground like an escarpment oak. It’s far reaching arm extended in the perfect spot in the grassy performance space and was at the perfect height for the billowing fabric symbolizing the veil between the earth dimension and the beyond. It is said to be thin at that time of year, so our dance personas, representing the material and immaterial worlds were performing outside and inside that “veil”.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Another tree gave of itself for material for our drapery. I wanted to braid a willow ring like I have for dreamcatchers, and is traditional. It is too hot for willow to grow easily here. However, there is a water reservoir next to my workplace and a big storm brought a few large sections of it down to the ground. I carried it home and Todd and I wove it into a ring to hang the mesh from. On the night of the gathering, the weather was absolutely perfect. The temp was just right with a slight breeze to ripple the veil~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Below is a collection of videos and photos taken on various cameras, some during the performance, some reinactments and constructions. As much as I wish I had a full video of that night, I really wanted the attendees to enjoy themselves by participating with instruments rather than documenting. I also didn’t want to inject a roaming camera person and special lighting into the performance space. Still, thanks to shutterbug enthusiasts Raphael Umscheid, Todd Rychener, and myself, there is enough documentation to share the story in an A/V format. Additional thanks to guests who attended, improvised with instruments, and shared stories at the Spirit House: Jodi Brooks, Scott Jones, Ayanna Spears, Gil, Emily Summerfield, and Jeremy Simon. If we decide to do this again next year, I will definitely make sure to get photos of guests.
Before Claire arrived, I had designed four movements from 1) airy/abstract choreography and music transitioning into 2) watery movements, symbolic of summoning, followed by 3) the percussionists creating a circle of sound by playing from left-center-right as a video of silhouettes walking in a loop would be projected onto the curtain (https://vimeo.com/311101181). After whirling around and around, Claire’s character, “The Medium”/Material and I, “Walker Between Worlds”/Immaterial would finally sense each other between the thin veil…our hands magnetized to each other. 4) The last movement was to embody the material plane with a deliberate dance rhythm and African-inspired action as the Medium pulled me out from behind the veil, removed my pale cloak and handed me a drum to play as I lead the guests to the Spirit House altar, ending our night with stories of loved ones.
After Claire arrived, she added the missing pieces that would tie the story together by adding distinct characterization of her part as Medium. She would be Animal as Medium and wear her cat suit as she did the magic of the natural world. She also brought beautiful flowing fabrics to dance with that made it clear through visual queues of how the fabric was activated, and which color it was, that it represented one of the four elements.
With no further ado************************************
Water (Summoning and Hypnotism)
When we harvested three big grocery bags full of plump and tasty pecans this winter, it almost felt like the tree was giving thanks to us for honoring it.