‘Four Moons’ tells Native ballerinas’ stories, showcases Cherokees
“Four Moons” Director Lena Gladkova-Huffman, far left, poses with the cast of her reimagined production during an April 8 preview at the Armory Municipal Center in Tahlequah. The production tells the story of Native American ballerinas Yvonne Chouteau, Rosella Hightower, Moscelyne Larkin and sisters Maria and Marjorie Tallchief known as The Five Moons. BRITTNEY BENNETT/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Cherokee Nation citizen Natalie Walker, left, and her partner perform a dance honoring the younger and older versions of Yvonne Chouteau during a preview performance on April 8 in Tahlequah. Chouteau was a citizen of the Shawnee Tribe and a famous ballerina. BRITTNEY BENNETT/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Cherokee Nation citizen Hadley Hume portrays an older version of Rosella Hightower during an April 8 preview performance of “Four Moons” in Tahlequah. During her career, Hightower studied at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and directed several major ballet companies in Europe. BRITTNEY BENNETT/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Young ballerinas from the “Four Moons” production pose in traditional dress after a preview performance in Tahlequah. Encore! Performing Society Vice President Dayna Hume was responsible for costuming, but said she received help from Cherokee National Treasures, including Tonia Weavel and Noel Grayson, when it came to accurately portraying traditional Native American dress. BRITTNEY BENNETT/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH – The Encore! Performing Society on April 8 previewed its reimagined production of “Four Moons,” which highlights the careers of five Native American ballerinas.
“The history of the five ballerinas was always interesting to me because they are so unique. There’s only a handful of Native American ballerinas in the world,” “Four Moons” Director Lena Gladkova-Huffman said.
The production features 12 female dancers, nearly all of who are Cherokee, and uses digital backdrops with archived footage, pictures and interviews to showcase the life and careers of Yvonne Chouteau, Rosella Hightower, Moscelyne Larkin and sisters Maria and Marjorie Tallchief.
The group became known as the Five Moons and rose to prominence in the mid-1900s during a time when ballet was largely considered a Russian art form. The women represented the Cherokee, Osage, Choctaw and Shawnee tribes.
Four of them danced together for the original 1967 production, which occurred during the Oklahoma Indian Ballerina Festival. It was titled “Four Moons” because the Tallchief sisters were highlighted together.
“When we picked up this production, the girls had to do a lot of research and find out who each ballerina was. So they come out of this production with bigger knowledge of the world in general, and hopefully our audience will too,” Gladkova-Huffman said. “There were these five amazing women who, from children, decided to dedicate their life to art.”
She said her fascination with the Five Moons and the original performance sparked the need for a reimagining featuring her choreography.
“They met and danced, and it was a unique occasion because everybody danced, with the exception of Maria Tallchief, who was retired, and then nobody video recorded them. So from then on everybody that has recreated this play has used original choreography,” she said.
Gladkova-Huffman studied ballet in Volgograd, Russia, and though she pursued a career as a doctor after immigrating to America, she’s “closely connected” to directing and choreographing.
Many girls featured in her reimagining come from her dance studio, though each “handpicked” ballerina had to meet select criteria. They also vary in age from elementary- to college-aged students to highlight the Five Moons as younger and older versions.
Cherokee Nation citizen Natalie Walker, 19, studies at Northeastern State University and is dancing as the older Chouteau. She said she and her younger partner unfurl a ribbon during their dance as a nod to the Cherokee people and Chouteau’s heritage.
“There is a part in my dance where we pull a white ribbon and it separates the stage, which is supposed to represent the Trail of Tears,” she said. “It separates us from our Cherokee heritage, as well as the younger and older versions of (Chouteau).”
Walker said the dancers have rehearsed on weekends for months to prepare.
“We all are very good about taking criticism from Mrs. Lena very well, which I think helps us improve in dancing and for the production,” she said. “It has taken many, many practices since then to get ready for this, and I love dancing in front of people.”
CN citizen Lacy Ullrich, 13, portrays the younger Marjorie Tallchief.
“I didn’t really know much about it the first time I did this, but it sounded fun,” she said. “They’re all very interesting, and they’ve accomplished a ton of really cool things throughout their lifetime. All these girls come from different tribes, and one of them is Cherokee, and they were all born in Oklahoma, so it’s fun to get to dance the Cherokee variation.”
Portraying Hightower is CN citizen Hadley Hume, 17, who will attend the University of Arkansas at Little Rock this fall to major in performance dance. She said audiences should expect to see a mix of traditional ballet and Native American aspects. “You’ll see us dancing on point, on flat, but we’ll also have one girl come out in a traditional Cherokee dress. It’s just really amazing to be able to bring all of their tribes together, and it’s just a really cool way to say, ‘hey look, we’re all here.’”
Her mother, Dayna, is the vice president of Encore! who secured the rights to composer Louis Ballard’s music from the 1967 production. She also designed the traditional costumes.
“All of the coral dresses that you’ll see and the ribbon work, I’ve done,” she said. “I tell (the girls), ‘I create it, you bring it to life. You make it come to life when you dance.’ We’ve also had some various local Cherokee National Treasures that’s worked on other pieces.”
The preview was held ahead of scheduled performances in Washington, D.C., for the annual Cherokee Days on April 13-15 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.