By Dawnell Smith
The Atwood Concert Hall filled with a rare but sought after symphony crowd Sunday afternoon--long-hairs and no-hairs, ball caps and dreadlocks, pierced lips and broaches, suede jackets and dress slacks-all to see and hear the orchestral clash of cultures in a composition by Randall Craig Fleischer, conductor of the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra.
Yes, "Triumph" prevailed, all right, and though the symphony's program included Rameau's "Ballet Suite," Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake, Op. 20a" and an exulting performance of Ravel's "La Valse," only "Triumph" will take root in the slippery soil of my mind.
Why? Because it melded the movement of music with dance, enveloped several art forms and cultural canons, and very simply thrilled the audience. Even its very creation manifests one of its message--that humanity's revelations about, among, within and between cultures is the wisdom and beauty of art.
And, frankly, the performance rocked.
Metaphors abound in this piece-the story of colonialism in America, the collision of European and Native American cultures, the tension between industrial and natural forces and the essentially hopeful notion of synthesis and understanding--but nothing quite reached an emotional peak like the sight of three men performing simply as themselves: Klee and Clayson Benally doing the Diné (Navajo) hoop dance with their father, Jones Benally.
The final movement sounded and looked stunning with Jeneda Benally singing and rapping a drum from a high platform behind the orchestra, and the symphony musicians' and Randall Fleischer in black, and the hoop dancers in hide and fur as they whirled at the front of the stage next to modern dancers in black leotards. Here, generations, cultures, art forms and music collided, conversed and astonished the crowd.
After the last note, the audience paused as if bewildered, and then stood and clapped wholeheartedly, gasping "Wow" and "Awesome!" to their neighbors, ratty-haired teenage boys and gray-headed grandmothers alike.
Heck, "Triumph" makes buying a season ticket to the symphony an outrageously lucrative investment in soul. Fresh and dynamic, the piece radiates the spark of new life and takes all the risks that go with it.
The score interweaves orchestral music with tunes from Dine songs, and relies on the differences in instrumentation and dance to carry its story. Cultural tension and reflection rise out of the instruments themselves, the natural sounds of hand drums, skin drums and the Native American flute (here played by R. Carlos Nakai) bumping up against the rarified notes of traditional symphony woodwinds, strings and percussion.
The same cultural underpinnings show up in the dance component, with modern choreography full of abstract gestures and the Dine dances in line with rhythm.
In the end, only the modern dance element seemed distracting to me, not so much because of the choreography as the smallness of its presence. As the music grew dissonant and overwhelming, the lone couple appeared thin and out of place, not at all the force they seemed to represent.
Yet, I appreciate how even the clothing conveyed something about the piece, with the modern dancers and symphony musicians in black, and the Benally family in fur, hide, feathers and beads.
"Triumph" certainly says something about culture, but also about the environment and the struggle to hold onto wisdom about land and the natural world when caught in the industrial, technical, digital one. If you ask me, any performance that can do all this without going over the top, even when teetering close to the edge of it, deserves its namesake, "Triumph."