Indigenous dancers explore relationship to fire in ‘Bayal Kaymanen’

female dancers pass torches to male dancers

Two indigenous dance groups — Mirki Performing Arts from Australia and the Northern Pomo Dancers from California — will perform Bayal Kaymanen on UC Berkeley’s Memorial Glade on Aug. 2. (Photo courtesy of Miriki Performing Arts)

Building a bridge across the Pacific Ocean, two indigenous dance groups — Miriki Performing Arts from Australia and the Northern Pomo Dancers from California — are coming together at UC Berkeley to perform on Memorial Glade on Friday, Aug. 2.

Hosted by the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, a group of some 40 dancers ages 7 to 70 will perform a series of stories that explore the relationship of fire between the Yidinji Nation from Cairns, Australia, and the Northern Pomo from the Redwood Valley, Rancheria, in California — two of the world’s oldest living cultures.

The performance is called Bayal Kaymanen, which translates to “Dancing Smoke” (“bayal” means “fire and smoke” in the Yidinji language, and “kaymanen” means “dance” in the Pomo language).

Young male dancer wearing body paint smiling with his arms outstretched

Bayal Kaymanen translates to “Dancing Smoke” (“bayal” means “fire and smoke” in the Yidinji language, and “kaymanen” means “dance” in the Pomo language). (Photo courtesy of Miriki Performing Arts)

Artistic director of Miriki Performing Arts, Pauline Lampton, says the methodology that her company and the Northern Pomo Dancers use is very similar. “We connect our children to our elders, who share their stories — traditional stories, familial stories — with the young people, who then translate them into dances and perform them for audiences.”

After Miriki Performing Arts formed in 2013, Lampton says the company realized it had an opportunity to connect with other indigenous peoples from around the world. In 2017, Miriki visited the Pomo dancers, then invited the group to Australia to create a collaborative project. Through email, Skype and Facebook Messenger, the groups each were able to gather stories from their elders and incorporate them into a performance, which became Bayal Kaymanen.

“We came as visitors, we then became friends, and we left as family,” says Lampton. “And that is what we are. The Pomo and Yidinji are now sister tribes.”

dancers dance in a circle around a fire

The performance at Berkeley will begin at 8:30 p.m., when the sun goes down. In the first section of the program, the dancers will make fire traditionally: The boys will create the embers of the fire, and the fire keepers will create a fire in a pit that the dancers will perform around. (Photo courtesy of Miriki Performing Arts)

And now, the two groups are performing on Ohlone homelands in Huichin (the Ohlone territory that Berkeley occupies), on which the Berkeley campus was built 150 years ago. Although the dancers are not Ohlone, Ohlone leaders will be at the performance to welcome the performers and to give them permission to dance on their ancestral land.

“It’s about bridging the connections between indigenous people globally,” says Caleb Luna, a fourth-year Berkeley Ph.D. student in performance studies who’s helping to support the project. “It’s part of a longer tradition of honoring native sovereignty and building those global networks of kinship for people who continue to endure the colonization of their lands.”

“I feel, as an artmaker and teacher, that we should strive to understand the land we are on and who the original caretakers of the land are,” says Lisa Wymore, Berkeley’s chair of theater, dance and performance studies, who has been working as part of a larger, continued effort to support indigenous arts and dance. “If we don’t try to connect to the communities and the original caretakers of the land, then we’re doing a disservice to our students.”

male dancers of all ages in traditional indigenous clothing perform a dance

“I want our young people to open their minds and think globally … I want them to know that they can go anywhere. It’s about imparting knowledge to them, so that they can become stronger community leaders, no matter where their journeys take them,” says Pauline Lampton, artistic director of Miriki Performing Arts. (Photo courtesy of Miriki Performing Arts)

Lampton says that, for Miriki Performing Arts, which works with youth ages 4 to 19, performing at UC Berkeley is an opportunity for the company’s dancers to see more of the world and to expand their ideas of what’s possible for them.

“I want our young people to open their minds and think globally and not get stuck in our little world in Cairns, Queensland,” says Lampton. “I want them to know that they can go anywhere. It’s about imparting knowledge to them, so that they can become stronger community leaders, no matter where their journeys take them.”

The 45-minute performance at Berkeley will begin at 8:30 p.m., when the sun goes down. In the first section of the program, the dancers will make fire traditionally: The boys will create the embers of the fire, and the fire keepers will create a fire in a pit that the dancers will perform around. (A fire permit was secured for the event.) Dancers will perform men’s and women’s fire dances, followed by a naming ceremony about how fire and smoke are used to bless children when they receive their names, then traditional dancing from both tribes and a finale.

The event is free and open to the public. Limited seating will be reserved for elders, so attendees should bring chairs or blankets to sit on the grass.

For more information, visit the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies’ website.

Miriki Performing Arts and the Northern Pomo dancers pose for a group shot

“The Pomo and Yidinji are now sister tribes,” says Lampton. (Photo courtesy of Miriki Performing Arts)