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HomeCultureArts & Culture'Wahzhazhe' celebrates 10 years with a triumphant performance

‘Wahzhazhe’ celebrates 10 years with a triumphant performance

The ballet’s next performance is at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22 during the Osage Nation’s 150th Sesquicentennial Celebration. The Osage Sesquicentennial is a gathering for Osage tribal citizens and their families.

By Sherry Stinson

For the past two years, Mother Nature and a worldwide pandemic did their best to wreak havoc on a performance schedule, but the creative forces behind Wahzhazhe: An Osage Ballet ultimately prevailed. In early August, creator Randy Tinker Smith and choreographer, Jenna Smith LaViolette, mounted a triumphant return to the stage in Branson, Mo., on the 10th anniversary of Wahzhazhe.

Although I had watched and photographed rehearsal a few weeks prior, nothing prepared me for how powerful the actual performance is. As the house lights dimmed, simple sounds of a Native American water reed flute drifted over the crowd where a large screen displayed a scrolling prologue: “… Osages were often described as ‘the happiest people in the world’ … happy whether they had a lot or a little.”

During the three-minute introduction, it provided a short backstory of the Osage – how the Tribe was changing due to the influx of European settlers determined to take their land and destroy their way of life, to treaties negotiated and broken, and murderous conspiracies designed to rob them of their riches and their lives – while touching on pivotal aspects of 400 years of history from pre-contact to the modern Osage.

Sounds of the drum and men chanting begin Morning Prayer. In near darkness, a single dancer glides to the stage, giving thanks to Wakontah, and as more dancers join him the light rises revealing a gorgeous backdrop depicting an Osage village. Painted by Osage artist Alexandra Ponca Stock, she and her team spent weeks hand painting three 50-foot x 30-foot backdrops, each one setting the scene for various segments of the ballet: Pre-European contact in the Missouri hills, removal and survival in the Kansas plains, and the windfall of oil and treachery in the streets of Pawhuska.

The whimsical music that plays during the next few scenes – Morning Prayer, Royalty of the Plains, and Wedding – is joyful and light, giving a glimpse of how Osage life was during the pre-contact days: Happy families gathering together after a Buffalo hunt, young boys playing a game of Stickball, and later, a beautiful wedding.

At the 20-minute mark, the musical tone signaled a change is coming to their way of life. After Spanish Conquistadors took the stage, I felt a sense of foreboding, fearing what came next would be heartbreaking. And it was. The music’s timbre is darker when Treaties begins, and later, grows even darker during scenes when the Osage were forced from their homes in Kansas. The dancers’ demeanor changed as well, as you could see the seriousness on their faces as they danced to the hip-hop inspired choreography in The Notice – the joy of the Osage world was slowly being destroyed.

Act Two brings the grim reality of Boarding School, Pawhuska Oil, and the Reign of Terror to the stage. As children are ripped from their families for assimilation in Boarding School, the light and playful music is in contrast to the horrors they actually experienced. For me, it is unfathomable a child could be forcibly taken from their family and sent to a frightening and abusive school to “civilize” them. Yet for thousands of Indigenous children, this was their reality. Their hair cut, names changed, punished if they spoke their Native language – Boarding School was one of the more difficult parts to watch. In one scene, a little girl made to scrub floors stuck her tongue out at the Nun and I wanted to jump up in my seat and yell, “Way to go, kid!”

Of course, with David Grann’s bestselling novel “Killers of the Flower Moon” and Martin Scorsese’s coming film, most of us know the dark history behind Pawhuska Oil and the Reign of Terror. These two segments introduce a masked villain, played with diabolical genius by principal dancer, Ethan Ahuero. A classic “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Ahuero portrays Bill Hale as the charismatic, yet sociopathic murderer he turned out to be, eventually unmasked by the end of the scenes.

As the ballet drew near the end, there was a gentle segue from the horrors of the past to We Walk in Two Worlds, which showed young dancers from the past lending a helping hand to modern Osage, symbolizing a strong and vibrant Osage Nation rising once again. In the final scene, a lone dancer dressed as a businessman carrying a briefcase walks on the stage. As he looks about, he slowly transitions to a traditional Osage dance as the sound of the drum beat fades.

In the last scene, We Walk in Two Worlds, Richard Lookout RulingHisSun walks onto the stage dressed as a modern businessman. He looks around then begins a traditional Osage dance as the drum beats fade. SHERRY STINSON/Osage News

Although I was there on assignment, there were times I was so caught up in the music, in the stunning performances, in the emotion of the moment that I almost forgot to take a photo! Thankfully, the ballet’s next performance is at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22 during the Osage Nation’s 150th Sesquicentennial Celebration. The Osage Sesquicentennial is a gathering for Osage tribal citizens and their families.

To learn more about “Wahzhazhe” or to pre-order the new high-definition DVD of their latest performance, visit osageballet.com and to learn more about the Sesquicentennial Celebration, visit www.osagenation-nsn.gov/150

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Osage News Staffhttps://osagenews.org
As an independent news organization, we strive to report news and information with fairness and balance. While being the official news organization of the Osage Nation, we base our news judgements on our loyalties to our readers and Osage citizens, and we are not directly beholden to the Executive, Legislative, or Judicial branches of the Osage Nation.
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