The evolution of 'Spirit'

Native American culture gets the 'RiverDance' treatment in a new production that began as a music CD.

Dance

October 31, 1999|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Sun Staff

For a theatrical production concerned with ancient Native American traditions and values, "Spirit: A Journey in Dance, Drums and Song" has a thoroughly up-to-date ancestry that includes equal parts "RiverDance" and public television pledge drives.

For "Spirit," which opens a six-day run at the Lyric Opera House Tuesday, it's a fitting pedigree. The musical production marries Broadway flash and dazzle to music and images from Native American culture to tell the story of a man who finds his way out of the madness of everyday modern life by embracing lessons of the past.

The show's producers believe it's a story that anyone, of any ethnicity, can relate to.

"The interesting part for everyone is to try to connect our everyday life to our foundation of the past," says Wayne Cilento, "Spirit's" Tony Award-winning director and choreographer.

"Spirit" is an often mesmerizing production. Think "RiverDance" and "Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk" gone Native American. The show at times puts more than 50 performers -- many of them Native Americans -- on stage. The music includes everything from ancient tribal instruments to electronic keyboards.

For composer Peter Buffett, the medium is a big part of the show's message. He hopes "Spirit," now touring nationally on its way to a Broadway debut next spring, reaches as many people as possible.

The message is that "we are not separate entities," he says. "We all come from some tribe, some place. We are all connected at some level."

First created as a music CD called "Spirit Dance," it was developed into a stage production in Green Bay, Wis. Its debut in Green Bay was filmed and later became a PBS special before making its latest incarnation.

It all began when Buffett and a Native American musician, Chief Hawk Pope, produced the "Spirit Dance" CD, released in 1997.

Buffett, who has long studied Native American culture, wrote a portion of the score for the 1991 movie "Dances With Wolves." He also has composed music for seven albums.

Chief Hawk Pope, vocalist and music collaborator, is principal chief of the United Remnant Band of Ohio, a Shawnee tribe

In 1998, Buffett and Hawk decided the CD could be transformed into a staged production for PBS, which was interested in broadcasting it nationally, and brought Cilento in as director/choreographer. Cilento won a 1993 Tony Award for best choreography for "Tommy."

The people behind the "Spirit" production invited booking agents to Green Bay to see what might come of it. Despite rave reviews there, though, "We closed and thought that was that," Cilento says. "I was disappointed because I thought we would never do this again."

But after the PBS show aired in March, the phone started ringing.

Buffett, whose interest in Native American history goes back to childhood, says he's been amazed at the continuing evolution of "Spirit."

"I grew up in Nebraska and I got history like everyone else," he says. "But in my late 20s, I started reading Native American history. And it struck me, here is a culture that was looked at in the past tense, yet holds such relevance to what is going on today."

Native American culture has been "overlooked or destroyed," he says. There had to be some way, he thought, of bringing that traditional history into the present.

"Most of what I've done is from the gut," Buffett says. "I had a background in this. I didn't want it to be overly researched. If I did [that], there would be no end to political correctness, and I did not ever want to go there."

Cilento has heard that some people would prefer the show to focus on traditional Native American culture. But he says that isn't the point of the production.

"It is a very contemporary take on Native American culture. We're translating it into our everyday life, today's rat race. We honor the Native American tradition, then weave it and the contemporary both together," Cilento says.

The soul of "Spirit" is its music and dance.

Among the featured performers is Robert Mirabal, a flutist and drummer whose flutes have been displayed in the Smithsonian Institution. He has been described as an "alternative rock musician" whose music blends his Native American background with contemporary sounds.

When he was first approached to work with "Spirit," Mirabal was hesitant.

"It is a little bit Hollywood," he allows. But he believes getting the message of "Spirit" out justifies a commercial presentation.

"Hollywood is what we have to compete with," Mirabal says. "And if we need some sort of 'Hollywood' behind it ... if we need beautiful people in there. ... We have to compete in the marketplace."

He hopes "the show will reach enough people to begin to get our stories out. Our stories need to be heard, and if it comes in this fashion, let it be."

Buffett realizes there will be many comparisons to "RiverDance" and "Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk." That's fine.

"Without shows like that, "Spirit" wouldn't be accepted in the marketplace," he says. "I have no problem with saying, 'Thank you.' "

Entertaining 'Journey'

What: "Spirit: A Journey in Dance, Drums and Song"

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: Nov. 2-7; show times are Tuesday-Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: $15-$49, available from Lyric box office and Ticketmaster locations

Call: 410-481-SEAT or 410-752-1200

Online: Clips and music from "Spirit" can be viewed and heard at www.backrow.com and www.spiritdance.com

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