Dancers soar for skywalkers

NEW YORK – Mohawk high-steel workers were honored here recently in a dance/theater piece called “Eagle Spirit.” Because the ironworkers walk through a space which belongs to feathered beings, the program’s theme was affinity with eagles.

Tom Porter, a Mohawk elder, opened the program, saying the idea that Indians are ironworkers because they have no fear of heights is a mistaken stereotype. Porter said he himself is “one Indian who fears heights.” That did not stop him from joining his father to do ironwork when he was a young man. Having only done farm work, he left upstate New York to learn the trade with his father in Indiana. Within the first few hours on the job, a cable snapped and the person he was working with fell to his death.

Both traditional and modern dances portrayed experiences in an ironworker’s life. Traditional dances were performed by the Thunderbird Dancers, whose members come from many tribes, the Onondaga Nation Smoke Dancers, the Haudenosaunee Singers and Dancers and the Mohawk Singers and Dancers.

Most of the contemporary dance pieces were done to a combination of music and narration. One modern piece mimed ironworkers tightening rivets and welding. “Poignant Reality” was a dance of grief and introspection. The narration went: “Under the photo of three ironworkers in a 1969 Look magazine, the caption read, ‘Unfortunately, 15 minutes after this picture was taken, one of the workers fell to his death.’ That was my dad. I was three days old.”

Many ironworkers live a good part of their lives away from their families and community. “Swirling Voices” expressed the loneliness and worry of wives left at home. There is always news of someone falling or being injured, and the families must live with an emotional pendulum from worry to relief when their husbands are able to return for all-too-brief visits.

One woman, in the narration, said she feels like a single mother.

A man talked about how his culture gives him the strength to do dangerous work. He said people look up and think they see crazy ironworkers running along a girder, but “we’re not running on the girder, we’re trying to move very fast off it, or at least to a more stable area, when it’s shaking.”

Modern dance pieces about eagles led up to a traditional feather dance, in which the dancer must pick up a feather on the ground with his teeth without using his hands. The program ended with traditional “social” dances.

The modern pieces were choreographed and performed by dancers, many associated with Lotus Music and Dance, under Jaan R. Freeman’s direction.

The program was presented by Lotus Fine Arts Productions and the World Music Institute. Both organizations are dedicated to celebrating the diversity of ethnicities through the performing arts. Future Lotus programs may be found at www.lotusarts.com.

– Karen Moy (kmoy@pww.org)