With all the differences in language, movement and storytelling between the vast number of Alaska indigenous groups, Raven stories are one major commonality.
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Perseverance Theatre began exploring the similarities and differences in Raven tales last fall, when Artistic Director PJ Paparelli and Outreach Director Ishmael Hope gathered 500 to 600 Raven stories during a tour of Kotzebue, Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, Anchorage, Hydaburg, Craig, Klawock, Kodiak, Nome and Fairbanks. Eventually, the research will culminate with a full-length, mainstage play, documenting the storytelling.
(All events except Saturday afternoon's free performance at Celebration are pay-as-you-can)
7:30 p.m., Thursday, June 1, at Perseverance Theatre - The festival will look at Native music, as the guest artists of Raven Odyssey share their songs and dances. Duane Aucoin, Sharon Shorty and Sam Johnston, guests from Teslin, will also perform.
11 a.m. Saturday, June 3, at Celebration at Centennial Hall - The cast will perform "Raven Odyssey" on the main stage at Celebration.
7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 3, at Perseverance Theatre - The night will include a repeat performance of the "Raven Odyssey," along with additional storytelling from the cast.
For now, "Raven Odyssey" is being workshopped, so that the writers, director and cast can become better acquainted with the different cultures. A summer session, focused on movement and dance, started May 23 and will include storytelling and theater this week as part of Beyond Heritage and Celebration. A fall workshop will take a closer look at language.
"It's such a new thing right now," Hope said. "How do you bring in all these traditional knowledge bases and look at it through the lens of Raven? Someone in Tlingit might look at him as comparable to a religious figure, a creator. Up north, they ended up telling these funny stories. Sometimes Raven was a rascal rather than a figure from the cosmos.
"Just about every single tribe has the story where Raven steals the daylight and brings it to the people," he said. "Here, it's a bentwood box where the sun and the stars and the moon are kept. Up north, it's a little balloon bag. What's interesting is what that tells about the people, what that tells about the land."
The workshop participants include: Theresa John, a Yup'ik dancer and teacher in Bethel and an actress in Perseverance's 1984 production of "Yup'ik Antigone;" Martin Woods, an Inupiaq dance leader in Kotzebue; Richard Atoruk, a ninth-grader and apprentice in Woods' dance group; Henry Alameda, a Haida language apprentice from Ketchikan; Georgianne Waska, a Yup'ik dancer from Bethel; Travis Kaningok, a Siberian Yupik dancer from Gambell on St. Lawrence Island; Allan Hayton, a Gwich'in Athabascan and Perseverance veteran living in Juneau; Sky Dunlap, a Tlingit high school student and actress in Juneau; and Austin Tagaban, a Juneau Tlingit last seen in the Perseverance Theatre Young Co.'s original play "Welcome to Social Disorder Camp!"
"It's always wonderful for me to see the other indigenous groups present their own culture in their own style," John said. "This project gives us the opportunity to put them on the stage in conjunction with the songs and the content of the movement, and the language and the history and the culture."
Teslin performers Duane Aucoin and Sharon Shorty and elder Sam Johnston will observe the workshop and perform their own storytelling on Thursday. Aucoin and Shorty have a comedic piece where they star as elders named Charlie and Susie.
The workshop includes Tlingit, Haida, Yup'ik, Siberian Yupik, Athabascan and Inupiaq. Kaningok has made one of the longest treks to be part of the cast.
"Language really identifies culture and defines how you express themselves, but I can understand Siberian Yupik," John said. "They're isolated out in the sea, and more intact with their traditions than we are. But a lot of our base words are very similar."
On the first night the group convened, May 23 at Sandy Beach, the cast took turns telling Raven stories around a fire on Sandy Beach..
"Every culture had a different approach," Paparelli said. "Some, Raven was a troublemaker. Some, he was trying to get with a woman. Some, he was very sacred and brought water and light to the land."
The goal for me is that the audience sees how different all the cultures are," he said. "We don't want them to think it's only one Raven story with one indigenous people."
"A lot of the people in the group are very much interested in bringing back the language and the history and the culture, and they want to learn more through this project," John said. "This will also allow them to go back and learn more about who they are, where they come from and who their ancestors were. I'm meeting some people that are related to people I know, from Savoonga to Juneau to Hydaburg. It's just a very enriching experience."
Workshop director Ruben Palindo is the artistic director of the New York-based Theater Mitu, an 8-year-old ensemble that examines ancient traditions, rituals and mythologies from all corners of the world. He and Paparelli have known each other for years.
"I'm a little bit of a geek, so I did tons of research, which was both useless and completely helpful," Palindo said. "We are products of our environments, and it's very interesting to see that each of the terrains where these different groups are from actually affects the dance. In places that are very much in the tundra and in very frozen lands, the dance tends to be much more contracted. You go into the southern groups like the Tlingit and Haida, and it tends to take up more space. It's a little bit of couch anthropology, but it's still part of the tradition."
Saturday's presentation was still being written at presstime, but the structure should revolve around the story of Raven and Man. The performance will begin with each performer thanking their ancestors for sharing stories. From there, it will move into a Yup'ik story about the birth of Raven and a Tlingit story on the birth of Man. Raven will journey to different parts of the state, and the cast will tell an assortment of stories, include how he brought spots to the loon and how he first dealt with the death. The end will be a Haida story, where Man and Raven wonder about their origins.