Borders and Borderless was an ensemble piece done through a grant from The Native Cultures Fund of California for which I invented a basket like apparatus that metaphorically served as a bridge from the past to the present. The apparatus served as a context for a story dealing with the rich tradition and mythology of basket-making Indians of Northern California including the Hupa, Yurok, Kuruk, Tolowa, , Maidu, Pit River, Painte, and Washo tribes. Consistent in each of their mythologies is the belief that baskets fly around the world at night, carrying the spirit and laughter of the women who make them. Much like the magic toys in the nursery, when morning comes, the basket is back in its place, with only secrets of where it has been.
My script, direction of the piece, and creation process was based on interviews with Juanita Samuels, a 75 year old Yurok/Tolowa elder, and Melanie Lowry, a 19 year old Pit River Indian both of whom come from a long line of renowned basket makers. They appeared in the piece as themselves as well as representatives of specific Native issues. I got the chance to hear from them what it is to be Indian; what is the tactile sense of it, what does it feel like psychologically.
We concentrated on Melanie's experience of being "too white for the Indians, and too Indian for the whites" as she was entering into her junior year of college and was challenged by how to place herself as both traditional and non-traditional. We concentrated on Juanita's view of how to get back to tradition; how to feel it in one's skin, and connecting to land. I became the spirit of the basket by creating at 15 foot long wooden and metal truss, shaped in an upstage to downstage arch tapered from 2-4 feet width that I could walk on, (very carefully) and dangle off the end from a harness
The apparatus, which Juanita named "The Jumper", was my first exploration of building an apparatus that did not require ceiling rigging. The tress moved about on a rolling A-frame balanced in combination with my weight and weights made of water jugs on the other end. We decided to fill the weights with water from Trinidad Head Bay, right on the Pacific Ocean, near to where Juanita, and her tribe lived, fished and gathered for centuries. The water made wonderful sound. When the tress moved it had squeaks and moans, which reminded people of whales. No hardware was used to fix the tress on the rolling A-Frame; it was done completely through the balance of weight. The tress moved through the space, controlled by my Technical Director, Andrew Brown. Andy could not only push the apparatus about the space, but by pushing and compressing the back end, he could lift me fifteen feet up in the air and down to the floor again in a split second. With some effort, he could keep me hovering above the actor's heads.
The apparatus was like a live aerial version of a Japanese Buanraku puppet. I wanted Juanita to wear me as if I were a burden basket, I knew that I needed accuracy in being able to land on her back and not put any weight on her 75 year old body and then take off to the sky again. I knew that an act of such a thing had to have certain physical articulation that could incorporate something holy and mythic. The basket character had to be both trickster and sacred. It had to be observing and at the same time involved. It had to start action, end action, and protest, almost in the style of Groucho Marx, who was similar to the trickster figure that appears in many Indian mythologies.
I was entrusted with myths, both personal and historical. The aerial tasks were geared toward telling Melanie and Juanita's story. The apparatus was what we all had in common; this huge thing that was a partner for everyone. As a result, the apparatus served as a canvas for telling the story, their story. It gave both Melanie and Juanita a context for their stage relationship and individual personae which was truthful and filled in where their lack of acting skills could not. The apparatus allowed their own personal myth to stand together with the myth of their people. We referenced baskets that were made by Juanita's mother and Melanie's grandmother and brought them back to life.
The apparatus brought a variety of Native folks from various tribes out to see the show. Native people who do not necessarily leave the reservation, let alone go out to see theatre, came to Borders and Borderless because they were just plain curious as to what in the world this "aerial thing" was. Ninety five percent of the audiences were Native and all shows were sold out.
In many Northern California tribes, basket making traditions are prominent and serve as a link to the natural world and the human psyche, as well as a sad documentation of a people who have lost this link. True stories mingle with myth, in many Yurok, Hupa, Maidu, Kuruk, and Pit River memories. Many Native audience members told me that they felt the basket come to life again due to the aerial elements, and with that, something in them was re-established and reborn.
In closing, Borders and Borders was a response to a community, an affirmation of place, and the illustration of what aerial work does very well-creating myth time within real time. It gave voice to two individuals who represented something larger than themselves. In order to do so, Juanita Samuels, a 75 year old Yurok/Tolowa elder (the oldest Yurok elder in the U.S) and Melanie Lowry a 19 -year old female Pit River college student decided to train with me and fly. I flew with them. To this day, nothing really compares to the power that culminated in this creative experience.
Written and created by Mara Neimanis, Featuring Juanita Samules, Melanie, Lowry, Mara Neimanis, Andrew Brown, Sculpture by Dan Stockwell with Mara Neimanis