Spirit?A Journey in Dance, Drums, and Song
October 12-24, 1999
Reviewed by Nancy G. Moore
Spirit is a misleading title for this highly amplified, multi-media extravaganza that attempts to bridge the gap between traditional Native American values and contemporary urban life. “Team spirit” is certainly present in the enthusiastic delivery of its many strong dancers, drummers, and singers. It remains to be seen how this visually dazzling show intended for a Broadway audience can elicit a timeless, immaterial world of the spirit. For a truly far-out display of Native American music and dance, one would be better advised to visit Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History; only if this production inspires its audiences to make such a visit will it earn its eagle feathers.
As conceived by Peter Buffett, who wrote music for the film, Dances With Wolves, Spirit dramatizes the psychological journey of “Everyman” (a white man played by Angelo Fraboni) back in time to his earlier incarnation as an Indian boy. According to the program notes, Everyman searches for his Native American ancestors to “redeem the past” and escape “the blistering cacophony of modern life.”
Broadway choreographer Wayne Cilento renders this modern life in jazz terms while an eclectic assortment of classical, rock, and Native American musicians provide the urban soundscape. The musicians, positioned in tiers on Scott Pask’s striking multi-dimensional set, occupy the entire upstage area and both wings; their acoustic output, amplified to rock concert levels, monopolizes the imagination as well as the stage. As a result, there is little modulation between the “cacophony of modern life” and the fantasy of what came before.
The conflict between the modern and the ancestral worlds of Spirit becomes especially pronounced when Native American dancers begin to perform within its electronically manipulated auditory environment. After Everyman sheds his suit jacket and returns bare-chested to his improbable past, he meets a shaman figure, who in real life is Marty M. Pinnecoose, an Apache, member of the American Indian Dance Theatre, and the United Iron Workers. Pinnecoose burns sage and purifies Everyman with its smoke. From the darkness above comes the ancestral advice: “If a man lives where he cannot draw a long breath, he must look beyond the circle that is his life.” This is the voice of Buffet’s principal musical collaborator, Chief Hawk Pope of the Shawnee Nation.
Pinnecoose begins to dance with slow, weighted steps. The rhythm of the surrounding electric orchestra is not quite his. He gives a little kick back with one foot, looks over the opposite shoulder, then repeats this phrase on the other side but not exactly as before. The rock concert in the wings surges on in predictable crescendos, its engineers apparently oblivious to the vagaries of the dancer’s fragile, nearly forgotten steps. One strains to hear the dancer through the din, to “look beyond the circle” imposed by modern theater technology. Somehow Pinnecoose prevails. Everyman sees a vision of a better world and the audience delivers a standing ovation.
Spirit has also been shown extensively on PBS stations during holiday pledge weeks.