Once upon a time, there was a hungry waterfall (Niagara Falls), under which lived the Thunderbeings, who demanded appeasement. So every year a beautiful Indian maiden was thrown over, to assure peace and good crops.
Or was it that the beautiful maiden came to the waterfall to commit suicide over a hopeless love?Don't expect either tourist myth when you see "Maid of the Mist," the Repertory Dance Theatre's newest work, which it is undertaking as a collaboration with New York's Buffalo State College Performing Arts Center and a team of Native American artists. The project's financial backers include the Lila Wallace-Readers' Digest Arts Partners Program and Meet the Composer Grants. Performances are scheduled in Buffalo, and in Utah in November.
The dancers are in residence at Snowbird, learning a dance conceived and choreographed by Raoul Trujillo and Alejandro Ronceria, which will bring the lessons of the myth into a dreamlike context, poised between imagination and reality.
Trujillo danced with the Alwin Nikolais Company and was for a time co-artistic director of the American Indian Dance Theatre. But he found that the theater's focus was too traditional for what he wanted to achieve. "They are powwow dancers," he said.
So he has shifted to a career in films. He appeared in "Scanners II" and is now working on a French-Canadian film that deals with last year's Mohawk uprising in Canada.
Trujillo is an Indian of the Jenizaro tribe, a people descended from the Navajo, Apache and Ute tribes who were enslaved by the Spanish. He lived in Los Alamos, Taos and Espaniola, N.M., while he was growing up.
"The Iroquois `Maid of the Mist' myth has to do with the creation of Niagara Falls and the lessons people learned there about the great power of natural forces, and how men tested themselves against it," said Trujillo.
"A young woman comes to the falls to commit suicide. The Thunderbeings come out of their cave and show her that it is not good to hate, or despair, or be negative. They are benign creatures: They manifest themselves in human form to teach people what they need to know.
"Many people come to test themselves at the falls, and because of their wicked ways, the Thunderbeings retreat into the Cave of the Winds, then disappear altogether. But when people hear the thunder of the falls, they are reminded of the great lessons these creatures taught, lessons that are applicable today.
"My protagonist is a young man who lived in the modern world, fought for human rights and was shot down in the Mohawk uprising - which lasted 73 days, longer than any other standoff since Wounded Knee, S.D., of Sitting Bull fame," said Trujillo.
"He dies and enters the spirit world, where the Maid is his alter ego, the feminine nature that serves to heal his wounds - the earth goddess, the matriarch. Unfortunately, men no longer embrace that gentler part of their being.
"The young man is in a state of transformation. The effect is dreamlike, surrealistic. The dancers will wear serene masks on the back of their heads, to represent themselves as Thunderbeings, then turn their faces to show their dark natures, the vices that people should overcome. One problem in the world today is that people don't understand the full value of evil as a teacher. We learn very powerful lessons through our encounters with evil."
Co-choreographer Alejandro Ronceria is a Colombian Indian who has made an intensive study of Indian dance and customs, ranging through South America and North America. Trujillo and Ronceria agree that, although the dance is based on an Iroquois myth, colloquial Indian dance is not necessary.
Instead Ronceria has devised a composite movement, "pan-native" expression as he calls it, based on archetypes found in sculpture.
The actual Iroquois legend is a much more earthy version than that fed to tourists at Niagara Falls, said Trujillo. It has to do with the invasion of the maiden's body by a snake, which kills her husbands one after another. Her horror and guilt drive her insane.
"The point is that she needs help. People must help each other, share their knowledge and pain, not stand alone," said Trujillo.
"In the dance, my young man is healed, he is convinced that he did not die in vain, he aided human understanding in the world. We hope the dance will teach people something about our common humanity. For me, to have set to dance the literal, touristy legend would not have been a challenge. I want to find the metaphors, the archetypal images that give people in general a better concept of self and encourage them to be a community together."