Rosy Simas, wearing an old-fashioned white dress, dances to the sounds of rushing water and whispering voices. Eyes closed, she steps carefully along an invisible path trod by many before her, including her grandmother Clarinda Jackson Waterman. Simas uses her slowly unraveling movement to reach back into time while still performing in the present, in this case in a short program on a recent Sunday afternoon at All My Relations Gallery in south Minneapolis.
The Minneapolis-based choreographer’s latest project, “We Wait in the Darkness,” is a personal story framed by the sweep of historic tragedy, one that pushes her to look back in time while contemplating the future. Simas delves into the collective memory of her Seneca kin as well as significant events that transformed their lives, specifically the breaking of a 1794 treaty signed by George Washington that condemned 10,000 acres of the Allegany Reservation in western New York to make way for the Kinzua Dam in Pennsylvania during the 1960s. Ancestral lands were flooded and some 700 Seneca people lost their homes.
It is possible to heal the past using movement, Simas says. Her grandmother, descended from the 18th-century Seneca chief Cornplanter, knew much tragedy in her life, including the killing of her father by her grandfather, a childhood in Indian boarding school, and the dam’s destructive swath. With “We Wait in the Darkness,” Simas responds to these events through an exhibition of maps, memorabilia and family artifacts at All My Relations as well as a solo contemporary dance performance at Red Eye Theater opening Wednesday.
Simas, who moved to Minneapolis from Washington, D.C., when she was 6, much later dug into her family’s past. She knew quite a bit about her grandfather, but not her grandmother. “I started doing genealogy research and history research and following oral stories from my mom about my grandmother and asking questions and connecting with people out East who may or may not be related to us through my grandmother’s side of the family,” she said.
Soon Simas was traveling to New York with two collaborators, photographer/filmmaker Douglas Beasley and composer François Richomme, to collect images and sound recordings for a new dance and installation project. “We Wait in the Darkness” premiered in Montreal earlier this year and will tour to Chicago, Los Angeles, Maui, Washington, D.C., and Duluth.
Ironically, Simas herself now has a sense of what it’s like to lose land, thanks to an ongoing dispute involving the theft of a tract owned by her grandparents. “When I discovered that my grandmother’s inheritance from Cornplanter was taken, it was very sad to me, because we are a matrilineal people and we get our tribal identity through our mother,” she said. “I feel cheated myself in being physically separated from that because our inheritance was taken from us.”
Creating this piece presented a different experience for Simas, who has tended not to directly address her American Indian heritage through her choreography. Her previous work has been in the abstract modern vein, with themes varying from Celtic poetry to nature. “I’ve been making work for 23 years, and I have been encouraged during my whole career by other people in the field to make work about being Native,” she said. “I have avoided that subject matter, although I feel it is always inherent in my work.”
Far from shunning her own identity, Simas has been an outspoken critic of work on local stages that she thinks has inappropriately used Indian motifs and rituals. In her own work, she said, she has sought to avoid being pigeonholed as “the Native choreographer.”
During an interview, Simas gestured toward the vintage tourist pennants hanging on the gallery wall depicting the Kinzua Dam and related sites. The pennants all feature an image of an Indian man in full headdress. This sort of nostalgia promotes an odd sort of reverence for a Native population, especially those cheated out of the promise of a treaty, she said, adding the Seneca didn’t even wear headdresses, but it’s a typical depiction of a Native person by the predominant culture.
For this and many other reasons, Simas is excited about touring “We Wait in the Darkness” to the State University of New York at Fredonia, just minutes from the Cattaraugus Reservation, where Simas also has family roots. She views it as a chance to connect with her roots.
“I don’t want the audience to come in with this idea that they’re just going to have this voyeuristic Native experience,” she said. “In thinking about, making and presenting this work it was really important to me that it be accessible to the Native community and that Native people, my own people, shared that.”
Caroline Palmer writes about dance.