Rosy Simas' dance pieces don't tell a story. They have no obvious narrative arc. But they are built with stories.
Stories of her grandmother, stories steeped in her Seneca history. For her newest creation, "Weave," the acclaimed Native American choreographer had her diverse cast of performers dig into their own histories, unearthing movements that Simas then wove together with images and sound. It was tough, taxing work.
"There are political and social issues that actually make bringing people together in a room quite difficult," Simas said. "People who are sensitive are impacted by what is happening in our country and locally in our communities.
"It affects how we treat each other, the level of stress we live with."
The resulting show, honed over months of workshops and open rehearsals, is Rosy Simas Danse's biggest yet. The Ordway Center in St. Paul co-commissioned the piece and will host its first performance Saturday night before it begins a national tour.
" 'Weave' asks people to listen," said Heid E. Erdrich, an Ojibwe poet and writer who has collaborated with Simas since "Skin(s)," a visual art, dance and film project. "I think that's the main thing I got out of working with Rosy: What does it truly mean to truly listen?" She added: "It's an invitation to true inclusiveness."
Unlike past pieces, Simas herself won't be onstage. That nods to the piece's broader perspective, but mostly a practical reality: She has no time to dance.
"It isn't physically possible," she said during an interview at Minneapolis coffee shop. With this piece, "there's literally four times as much administration and managerial work."
Sometimes, she secretly longs for the tiny Red Eye Theater in Minneapolis. "No, really!" she said, laughing. "Because it feels like there's less emphasis on creation and more emphasis on managing."
Simas sharpened her aesthetic in that theater, which was razed last year. An enrolled Seneca from the Heron clan in western New York, she dives into Native American histories and identities in much of her work, projecting old letters and images of nature onto blankets and set pieces.
After the Ordway, "Weave" will visit the Poarch Creek Indian Reservation in Alabama along with dates in Birmingham, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Hawaii.
At each stop, Simas and her team will meet with Native children and elders, put local artists onstage and tailor the performance to venues big, small and, in the case of Poarch Creek, an auditorium more suited to hosting meals.
Simas won several grants to not only perform this work, but to host conversations around it, a practice she began years ago.
In 2015, she won a $54,000 Guggenheim fellowship that she used to create and tour "Skin(s)," a multimedia piece that aimed to make Native people and their diversity of identities more visible. It was that fellowship, after decades as a choreographer and dancer, that allowed Simas, now 51, to quit her job as a body worker and become a full-time artist.
She used some of that time to investigate the lack of diversity among the artists who are chosen to receive private funding, presenting foundations with pie charts.
"If I want to continue making work in the field, then I have to help change the field," she said.
"Just to be honest, white artists don't have to do that. ... Because the world is oriented toward supporting them already."
Listen first, dance later
The dancers began each rehearsal by talking, by listening to each other.
"It doesn't look like rehearsal. It doesn't look like practice," Erdrich said. "It is building a vocabulary of movement."
During one workshop, in Florida, Erdrich and her daughter got onstage. They listened to the score, moving with their eyes closed. Even in the darkness, they could sense the presence of other bodies, Erdrich said. They explored the stage without bumping into one another.
Simas felt strongly that the piece not include "any moments of hostility or violence or inequality." In contemporary dance, especially Euro-Western forms, she sees "elements of manipulative violence that are hetero-normative, in a way," she said. Dancers might bring them into a work unconsciously, because it feels or looks cool. "But really, it's this guy pushing a woman onstage," she continued.
"I think artists have a deep responsibility to our audiences to be provocative — but also to be part of making life more livable," she said, then chuckled softly. "Do you know what I mean?" She looked up, ready to listen.
Simas speaks slowly, picking her words carefully, mirroring the deliberate, meditative movements she brings to the stage.
"Weave," like Simas' past pieces, is much more than dance. It builds upon a score, full of resounding reverb, created by her longtime collaborator, the French composer François Richomme. It layers the voices of the performers, including Erdrich, who has corralled a host of writers to respond to the work with poems and prose.
Then there are images, projections. Of water, mostly — textured, moving and abstract. Simas filmed rivers in Alabama, New York and Minnesota, where she moved when she was 6 years old.
Many people don't realize that the visuals, "those are actually Rosy's creations," Erdrich said. The installations and projections "are meticulous and incredibly time consuming," created over many months, if not years. Like the stories, they feed the movement in ways that may not be obvious. But although the layers might not be visible to the audience, Erdrich said, they add richness and depth.
"She's someone who has utterly attained the peak of her work," she said. "She can only go forward from here."
A new old friend
Alongside the performances of "Weave," Simas has been hosting open rehearsals, putting on community performances and convening conversations with artists.
On Monday night, Simas sat alongside five fellow female, Native American artists on stage at Augsburg University. Her smile softened her dark, blunt bangs. The panel started with the acknowledgment that "we are standing on Dakota land" and settled, slowly, into a discussion about shared history and storytelling, about feminism and gender fluidity.
The moderator, choreographer Ananya Chatterjea, then asked the group: How do you define excellence? In response, several of the women told stories.
A few years ago, Simas began, she created a solo dance piece based on her grandmother's life. Like much of her work, "We Wait in the Darkness" had no clear narrative, no clear plot. "My work is very abstract," she told the crowd.
She was excited that for one performance in New York, "the closest venue to the [Seneca] reservation I could find," a family friend of her grandmother's era would be attending. But Simas wasn't sure what the woman, now in her 90s, would make of the piece.
Afterward, though, they held hands.
"She understood everything," Simas said. "This completely abstract work, she completely related to everything about it."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • Twitter: @ByJenna