Three Questions for Rulan Tangen, Part II

By Biborka Beres


This is the second part of a three-part interview with Rulan Tangen, founder of Dancing Earth. You can read Part I here.

Do you have a climate vision? Is there an overall message you would like to convey with your dances?

I started with a creative, intercultural vision. Now I listen for what wants and needs to be spoken at this time. Right now, we’re understanding this through the lens of the climate crisis. People of color across the globe, most particularly Indigenous Peoples, have already seen the destruction of their way of life and suffered cultural devastation. 1492 is a pretty good starting date for that. Since then, we’ve been doing our best to adapt and be resilient. That includes people of the Pacific archipelago, the archipelago known colonially as the Pacific Islands – my mother’s people and ancestors. 

People who are surrounded by water are incredibly vulnerable. On my father’s side, the lineage goes to Norway and Ireland. One could say that in Europe, oppression – in the form of witch trials that silenced women and crushed their intuition – started  even before 1492. What is now the climate crisis comes from these attacks on all these different ways of knowing and being in relation to the natural world. 

Photo by AMT Productions

So, when you ask about my vision, it’s a huge question. What is the overall message? It is pluralistic, adaptive, resilient, and I can see three principles that have come through since we began working.

These principles will continue to move us, even though Dancing Earth is transforming right now due to COVID and the recent calls for social justice that ask who gets to use the term “Indigenous.” We’re transforming to meet these questions in the most responsible way, while honoring the gifts that we all have to give, including my own. Certain things might fall away, but what I believe will continue is the origins of me laying in a hospital bed, hoping there would be three principles.

One of these principles is that all of life is connected. We’re all part of this life force, this ecosystem. We can see it in the first 10 years of our dances, when we were dancing more often in the form of plants or the four elements than in the form of  human beings. This was to deepen our understanding of the life force that is in all. We often get caught in our human stories and our personal stories, which are important, but I was drawn to how we can embody the wind as a force of change, for example, and how that manifests in a human way. I thought I understood that all forms of art and life are connected when I was 20 – and then a year later, 10 years later, 15 years later, that understanding gets deeper and deeper. What you do and why, who’s involved, how you’re involving them…. Understanding that is a life’s journey.

The second principle for making our work is that beauty should be created out of whatever we have. I went into dancing looking for what I had experienced in my career being a full-time, paid dancer, in a grid studio, touring the world. I wanted these opportunities for everyone. With Dancing Earth, it was more like: okay, we don’t have a dance studio, we’re dancing in the parking lot. Or: we don’t have money for costumes, so I’m going to cut up little t-shirts and we’re going to look at forms and designs that come from the dancers, from pre-colonial, pre-Colombian ancestors, and cut up these little t-shirts and paint them in those forms, reclaiming those designs. 

The idea that what we have is enough is huge. It means thinking, “Oh, if only we could have real costumes”, and then starting to understand this lack as being eco-conscious. It was through the water theme, which was initially given to me by Oddish Navi grandmothers, that I found out about the toxicity of the fashion world. I’d been wearing secondhand clothes all my life. I love beauty. I love lines. I love colors. Yet, I aspired for something better. Then I realized that there was nothing better than not producing waste and not being greedy.

The interesting thing about dance is that it’s the one thing you can always do; I was dancing in the hospital bed with just my fingers. Because it’s with your body, it is the most basic, but also the most collaborative art form. It can involve music and poetry, costuming and architecture in the form of set design and lighting. Our dances can include food offerings and interactivity: people make little balls out of clay filled with wildflower seeds that get thrown. These seeds grow into wildflowers that attract butterflies and bees, which bring pollen the next season to create food.

The third very important principle, which is related to the first two, is that diversity is how we can thrive. Diversity and inclusion. They’re big buzzwords right now, and that’s good. Many creatives working at the grassroots level, who were under-recognized before, have now received some recognition. But for years, we didn’t even have food or funds to pay dancers. We met farmers who gave us food and showed us how plants grow together, and these became choreographies we honored the farmers with. The ways that marginalized artist groups create and adapt might become models. I’m interested in what brings us together, what the rhythm is. Whether it’s the rhythm of the moon or the heartbeat. And I am just as interested in what makes us different. The version that I as a choreographer often enjoy of what’s called unison movement is very different from what it is in my trained dance background, which, at its peak, is people of the same height, with the same body type moving at the same moment in the same gesture. That’s incredible and wonderful to see on a big scale. But I’m also interested in seeing the way grass moves with the wind, where it’s a little different with each blade of grass. Sometimes that might look a little messy to someone who is looking for something very precise. 

In fact, we’ll be shifting how we describe Dancing Earth to call it intercultural. This is to include native, global Indigenous, and mixed cultures that aren’t recognized as Indigenous by any federal institution. It is to acknowledge self-definition of peoples with relationships and creation stories connected to land and waters, whether they’re called Indigenous or not, and people who are disconnected from those stories. 

Photo by Paulo T. Photography

You mentioned life force and that everything is life. Is climate change, in that sense, this life force turning on itself? Since there is so much destruction…

Some of it is overproduction. That’s greed-based. How we counter greed is by understanding that what we have is enough. How do we counter overproduction? That’s at the expense of diversity. We want a certain kind of thing. We get rid of all of these trees because we want that thing only. How can we do that if we respect each form of life? There’s scarcity and suffering from some because others have too much. That is a basic imbalance. 

I think there’s power in telling the truths of what has happened to our communities. I remember hearing about fracking, but then a Canadian dancer came in to say, this is what’s happened in our community because of it. Wealth comes, but suddenly people are sick and we don’t have water from the tap anymore. To hear that  moves us from the intellectual sphere, from knowing that this seems wrong, to the heart and the spirit and the body, towards a visceral response. 

Interestingly, that’s not the part Elders want me to share through dance. They’re like, yeah, if the young people need to tell that. But we know that part. We’re living it, we’re suffering from it. What is needed is hope and remembering the beauty, the balance, the way of diversity and respect, the way of kindness and welcoming. We have so much energy for what we are against. But when it’s time to articulate what we are for, it’s harder. That’s where dance can be very, very powerful. 

Photo by Paulo T. Photography

There are so many different strategies of artistic creation, whether or not we use words. And if we do, what languages are they in? I actually love dance because of what it says in our minds. We work in imagery and feeling and sensation. Abstractions and approximations. The minute you use words, it all becomes very precise. In a way, dance is the transmission of energy in everything that’s missing. When you receive through certain kinds of witnessing of dance, it’s like an energy wave goes through you. You search for words. It’s beautiful. 

Then, there’s the power of visual imagery. It sticks with me. I dream about it. It’s imprinting. And when you need something specific, when a very specific theme has been given to you, then you have to use words to translate it. And if you’re with a primarily English speaking audience, you might choose English. Or, with our Southwest group, there were multiple languages. Those languages were integrated into the soundscape, and our bodies became interpreters. We were literally a large embodied sign language moving those images into specific forms for a more focused message.

That resonates a lot with me, with how I found dance. I’ve been moving a lot from words and theory to embodiment, and it’s an ongoing process for sure. I don’t think it’s about losing either words or body, but about their coexistence and incorporating them into each other.

I seem to always think in binary: “I’m in the head too much”, “I’m only in the body, I don’t do this intellectually”… We can pull all those together. This integration, this weaving together is actually a really potent area for new ways of understanding the world.

Even then I feel like I’m only understanding the theory I learned in the beginning of my studies through embodiment. 

There are times when the overall message you want to convey comes from the vision, intellectual concept, or stories that have been shared. Then, there’s this other entity that is hard to describe because it’s beyond words. It is a way of knowing and understanding that actually comes in through the physical process. Sometimes we don’t know what to do with that. We ask ourselves, “How is this even relevant?” What I keep saying is to trust our intuition and to trust our bodies, and we’ll find ways to bring it forth. It often finds its way into a ritual. And a week later in a dream, or a month later, or 10 years later, we find out what that thing was.

Many people around the world have origin stories that trace back to the stars. In recent years, science has caught up to this way of knowing that has been transmitted through beautiful stories – stories that were easy to remember because they were so compelling. All of life on earth comes from the heart of dying stars. We’re literally made from the carbon of stars. That’s another manifestation of how we are all related – through stardust. So, the stories, right? The stories were actually true; they were not mythology. They’re a way of knowing. Now we can say: here’s the science behind them. The stories do not just have to do with the past, but with allowing our bodies and imaginations to be conduits for intuition. Because they may be a way of conveying knowledge that we can’t get from any other source.

In the third part of this interview, we discuss the relationship between dance and science. 

(Top image: Rulan Tangen, Photo by Joe McNally.)


Biborka Beres is a senior student at Bennington College in Vermont, USA, studying dance, drama and philosophy. Her interests and works lie at the intersection of socio-political change and the performing arts. In her interviews for the Artists & Climate Change blog, she is continuing her process of exploring how the arts can create models, practices and imaginary worlds which allow humans to coexist peacefully with nature and with each other.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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