By Cécile R. Ganteaume
On October 6, 2012, a new exhibition opens at the National Museum of the American Indian–New York, to be on view for five years. Through the presentation of ten social and ceremonial dances selected from throughout the Americas, Circle of Dance presents Native dance as a vibrant, diverse, and above all meaningful form of cultural expression. Each of the ten dances is represented through the display of a single manikin dressed in full regalia and posed in a distinctive dance position. The manikins can be seen in the display cases built into the walls of the Diker Pavilion for Native Arts and Culture, a 6,000-square-foot exhibition and performance space designed specifically for dance.
The website accompanying the exhibition features essays by ten writers, each of whom has a deep, often personal, appreciation of the social, cultural, and ritual significance of the dance he or she illuminates. As the essays make clear, all of the dances share fundamental underlying meanings in which people’s close communion with their ancestors and with the natural and spiritual worlds figure prominently. Each of these dances embodies an awareness of a greater cosmic order, and often of the importance of reciprocal relationships in maintaining that order. In other words, life-sustaining concepts are embedded in these dances.
The dances featured range from a Yup´ik Quyana (Thank-You) Song Dance from western Alaska, in which male and female performers use feather or caribou-hair finger fans—said to represent the human spirit itself—to accentuate the fluid movements of their upper bodies and arms; to the Cubeo Óyne dance once performed in the Columbian and Brazilian Amazon by men wearing painted bark-cloth outfits representing animal spirit-beings who enter Cubeo villages to dance among and console grieving relatives; to the Quechua Danza de Tijeras (Scissor Dance), performed at festivals timed in accordance with the Andean Highland agricultural calendar and Catholic feast days, in which male dancers form teams with violinists and harpists to perform spectacular dances involving dynamic gymnastic movements requiring great dexterity and physical ability.
Correspondingly, dance outfits range from a Yup´ik parka made from several furs, including Arctic squirrel, land otter, wolf, and wolverine, and decorated with glass beads; to a knee-length Cubeo bark mask painted to represent forest spirits known as takahédekokü, seen only by Cubeo shamans; to a brightly colored Quechua Scissor Dancer’s baggy trousers and fitted jacket richly decorated with metallic embroidery, gold and silver fringe, and colored sequins and beads.
Absolutely essential to the presentation of each dance in the exhibition is the creation of ten custom-made manikins upon which the culturally rich dance outfits are displayed. From the outset of the exhibition planning, designers Gerry Breen and Susanna Stieff, NMAI–NY deputy director for exhibitions Peter Brill, and I knew full well that the impact of the manikins would be key to the success of the exhibition. Early on much time went into researching commercially available manikins that might be used. The manikins had to meet two essential criteria: They had to be flexible, so that they could be posed at dynamic moments that would capture the essence of the Native dance movement vocabularies in each of the ten dances and reveal how varied the dance styles are. Second and equally important, the manikins had to be made in several sections so that the dance clothing could be placed upon them without causing any stress to the garments. In addition, we hoped the manikins’ faces would achieve the look we were striving for.
NMAI mount-maker Shelly Uhlir was central to this thought process. A veteran and master mount-maker with over 20 years of museum experience, Shelly was the person with the greatest understanding of what would be required of manikins that were to be dressed in elaborate dance regalia—clothing, headdresses, and accessories—from the museum’s collections. In the midst of our evaluations, a visit to the fashion-design exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute excited the designers even more to the idea of displaying a broad range of Native dance clothing so often deeply integral to ritual performances—and to the potential of manikins to help create stunning visual impact.
At first some of the commercial manikins we considered for Circle of Dance appeared to be strong possibilities, because they could be posed dynamically. Over a period of weeks, if not months, however, commercial possibility after possibility was dismissed, for a wide variety of reasons. This period came to an end when Shelly, having demonstrated much patience with the rest of us, announced that if we wanted manikins that could express a range of dance movement vocabularies, could be dressed in clothing from the museum’s collections, and would have the faces we wanted, she would have to make them. Asked exactly how she would do this, she responded that she would figure it out, that she had some ideas and would start doing tests.
Prototypes began to appear. The designers were opposed to the manikins’ having a hard fiberglass finish. Shelly suggested making the head and face from a wire frame covered with cloth. The head was modeled with wire mesh to suggest not just a profile, but also the jawline and cheekbones. The technique gave us the sense of definition we wanted without being too detailed, but more experimenting with different materials was needed. Shelly next showed the exhibition team a fabric dog made for a previous exhibition. It had been coated with a gesso-like product to allow for the smooth application paint. We were impressed with the figure’s lifelike qualities. In addition to having a soft fabric finish, the designers knew that they wanted the Circle of Dance manikins to be painted a neutral grey in order not to distract from the clothing; they wanted the manikins to have a strong physical impact not to dominate the clothing, but simply to animate it. And the manikins needed to be able to take paint.
After consulting with some of her colleagues, Shelly proposed using a soft fabric that could molded around the manikin’s core and painted. The pliable fabric—essentially a synthetic felt that, after steaming, can be molded to hold a shape—offers great possibilities in Shelly’s hands. Shelly typically sculpts torsos and limbs for displaying clothing from polyethylene foam, but in earlier exhibitions the foam has always been fully covered. In Circle of Dance, we knew, parts of the dancers’/manikins’ bodies would be visible. And so, each manikin in the exhibition is custom-made by Shelly by first sculpting the torsos, hips, and upper and lower limbs from foam; joining those parts; and then covering exposed areas with fabric that she molds into human form and paints.
Shelly decided that the manikins' hands and feet required special treatment to make them look lifelike. She achieved this by casting the hands of a few conservators and collections staff (who graciously volunteered for the job) and her own feet, and molding the pliable fabric with those lifelike casts. The hands of the manikins are especially important, not only because the gestures of the arms and hands are essential to expressing the upper-body movement of the dances, but because several of the manikins hold things: a Tlingit Raven rattle, a pair of Yup´ik finger fans, a Mandan eagle dance fan, a Lakota beaded dance staff, a scarf, and juniper sprigs. The manikins’ hands have to look good and be functional. Again, Shelly has created a substructure that can securely hold a museum object, then covers the mount with fabric she has shaped over casts to create, for example, a hand lithely flourishing a caribou-hair fan.
Thanks to Shelly’s resourcefulness and technical and creative expertise, Circle of Dance will feature ten unique figures that show male and female dancers, adults and children, performing distinct Native dances. Some figures are posed in spiraling dance movements with shoulders, chests, and hips turning one way and the other. Other manikins have quiet middle bodies and subtly undulating arms. Some crouch. Some step nimbly, while others step with high-speed energy. All seem to move—forward, laterally, or with leaps up into the air. And all have expressive head and hand gestures.
All, I should say, except one. Due to missionary efforts in the 1940s, the Cubeo Óyne dance from the Amazon we are featuring is no longer performed. Because of this, and because of the particular construction and relative fragility of the painted-bark dance outfit, Shelly suggested that we deliberately use not a fully articulated, animated manikin for this figure, but a basic support mount.
The Óyne dance mount is a haunting reminder that missionaries and government agents in countries throughout the Americas tried to suppress Native dancing, and actually outlawed it for years, in their efforts to impose assimilation. In striking contrast to this sad fact of history, however, the dynamic manikins Shelly has created for Circle of Dance to express an impressive range of dance styles and movement vocabularies truly help convey that unique forms of social, ceremonial, and ritual dancing maintain a vital place in contemporary Native life in many Native communities.
Cécile R. Ganteaume is also the curator of the exhibition Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian, on display at NMAI–NY, and the editor of the book of the same title. She is a recipient of a 2011 Secretary of the Smithsonian’s Excellence in Research Award for her work on Infinity of Nations. Photo by R.A.Whiteside, NMAI
Circle of Dance will be on view at NMAI–NY from October 6, 2012, through October 8, 2017.