Rosy Simas’s latest multimedia dance project, “Weave,” threads individual Native histories with “the interdependent nature of our world.” The world premiere is at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul in January, followed by an ambitious 18-month tour of residencies and community engagement activities around the country.
During a recent week-long residency at The O’Shaughnessy at St. Kate’s in St. Paul, visitors in the darkened auditorium watched as dancers experimented with movement motifs. In the open forum, Simas shared notes with the dancers about how image, emotion, memory, and body answer together the critical question, “How do I know who I am?” She told the dancers that it is not about remembering a rehearsed move, but an expression of doing. There is integrity in the interaction. The “arc of creating starts with a sensation. You add on and take away. When you get to a point of initial attachment to a sensation, that is something you have to let go of.”
After rehearsal, the creative team got to “hear what other people see,” as Simas put it. One question from a visitor was about the potential awkwardness of practicing in front of an audience. It led to a discussion about how artists gain from being vulnerable up to the day of a show. A dancer explained that it is hard to track the relationship between spectator and performer in a full house. An open rehearsal gives more opportunity to learn from a dynamic that shifts, depending on who is in the room.
The Process of Learning
As with everything, Simas says, there can be a hierarchical approach to dance. Her goal is to create, not in a mechanistic or abusive way of right and wrong, but to have conversations that are as much a part of the process as the movements themselves. One dancer put it this way: “There tends to be a discomfort with learning. We are taught that mistakes are bad, that we should avoid failure, without talking about what that means. This gives us an opportunity to learn.”
For Simas, the cycle of living, as with art, is to start with a sensation (birth), express that as emotion or interaction (life), massage and work it (a form of death), and then release the tension as energy (renewed life).
The January 12 performance of “Weave” is designed to release the expression and tension generated around the country, especially from the Native communities, as energy.
Finding the Threads
Simas and her creative team are traveling the country to develop and share movement and conversation in combination with others. There are blessings by spiritual advisers, Native foods, public workshops, artist-focused discussions, and publicly accessible rehearsals. Community awareness is raised for non-Natives about treaty violations, forced adoptions, and Native women who are missing.
As Simas describes, it, weaving is about combining threads that are shared and made visible as a collective. This grant-funded project is about “weaving together stories from different individuals who are in the work” she says, “as well as people not in the work who are part of the creation in communities — weaving them together from a Native feminist perspective.”
It is important that she connect with Native artists in other communities. “Very few Native creatives see themselves on stage,” Simas says. “That limits their ability to aspire.”
It also is important to Simas that the creative process is shared specifically with Native communities. Dance and theater tend to be created for predominately white audiences, she says. “Native artists are presented in a way in which they are supposed to think of the audience as being not Native,” Simas says. It’s almost a voyeuristic way of presenting a “Native” experience.
By creating alongside and for Native audiences, Simas hopes to offer a more authentic experience that isn’t simply about producing for a white audience. “What is that experience? What does it look like?” says Simas. “It’s an ongoing inquiry for me and my work. I’m interested in connecting audiences to the work” rather than offering something based on thinking only of how the perceived audience is going to receive the work. “When broader audiences are welcomed into that space of creation, alongside Native people for whom the work was created, there is a deepened intimacy, a conversation shared, the universal revealed through the specific.”
Time and Space
For Simas, a moment and a movement is not limited to a particular space and time. It is a culmination of what has gone before. Simas also believes that performance — the resulting culmination of movement — is a form of healing that stretches back in time. In the Native understanding, “I am intrinsically linked to my ancestors.”
When she debuted “We Wait in the Darkness,” in 2014, it was a form of non-linear story to help heal the tragic childhood of her grandmother. She believes that each time a healing performance is done, it can reverse epigenetic flow and repair scarring. “Not just for my grandmother and our ancestors, but for the audience as well,” she says.
Many Native people believe that intergenerational trauma for all people is not simply a psychological concept, but a physical one — that traumatic events in our ancestors live on in our bodies, blood, and bones. That molecular scars leave their story in the DNA. Simas believes the scientific nature of quantum entanglement and epigenetics verifies this Native knowledge.
Seeing healing as a non-linear process — one that “affects us in a past, present, and future” — motivates Simas to “make recurrence movement that generates energy that can heal that trauma. We can change space and energy through performance. Just as storytelling is about passing down philosophy through the act of speaking in repetition, and just as prayer for many is about repetition toward healing, it’s all about trying to shift something.”