Osage Dancers To Perform Original Ballet For Pope Francis

Tuesday, September 22nd 2015, 11:17 pm
By: News On 6

A group of Osage dancers are off to Pennsylvania this week to perform before Pope Francis.

The honor hit their small dance company like a lightning bolt, but you could say it was a surprise hundreds of years in the making.

In the heart of the Osage Nation stands one of the most historic Catholic Churches in Oklahoma.

“All the stained glass windows, the big ones, were commissioned from Germany, and they were finished during World War 1 and they had to hide them,” said Parish Priest, Father Sean Donovan.

Known as the Cathedral of the Osage, Immaculate Conception embodies a relationship between the Catholic Church and the Osage people, which stretches back more than 300 years.

“A lot of, even the Osage language is very catholic. Like the word for Friday, in Osage, means the day we do not eat meat, which is a very Catholic tradition,” Donovan said.

The famed window that memorializes the connection between tribe and church required the blessing of the pope himself; because along with the saints, stand real-life members of the Osage tribe.

Donovan said, “The young girl in the front, she's the grandmother of one of our parishioners. And the largest bell in the bell tower is named after her.”

But the next chapter of the church's history with the Osage is being written in a very different place.

A few blocks away, in a small, simple building, a group of young dancers prepare for the honor of a lifetime - one expressed through another rich tradition of the Osage, ballet.

Osage Ballet Director, Randy Tinker-Smith said, “When I first started producing the ballet, every person from another tribe said, ‘ballet?’ but I never to this day had an Osage question why we're doing ballet.”

The passion dates to the mid-1900s and two Osage sisters, Maria and Marjorie Tallchief. They were part of the famed Five Indian Ballerinas - Oklahoma dancers known worldwide for their extraordinary grace and talent.

Their legacy left an indelible mark on the Osage people.

Osage Ballet Director of Dance, Jenna Smith said, “Everyone here, even the guys, have taken ballet at some point because that was the thing to do.

She has spent the better part of her life in ballet; and four years ago, she and her mother began a collaboration to tell the story of the Osage people, through dance.

“I started talking to the elders in the tribe, over 50 elders in the course of a year, to get permission to tell the story,” Tinker-Smith said.

“I just happened to be with her as she was putting the storyline together…and I ended up choreographing it, and seeing it as she was saying it to me. It just kind of happened,” said Smith.

The result was a full-length ballet called Wahzhazhe, which they performed in the nation’s capital in 2013.

Seven weeks ago came word that the company was chosen to perform part of the dance - the opening prayer scene - in Philadelphia, before a worldwide audience that will include Pope Francis.

Smith said, “I never in a million years thought that this ballet that I choreographed would be on such a huge stage. It’s really incredible."

“And we're representing Oklahoma. I think we're touching a lot of people, and the state is proud we got invited, and we're really honored that we were invited,” said Tinker-Smith.

One of the adult dancers who is joining the group, Roman Jaskinski, whose mother, Moselyn Larkin, was one of the five Indian ballerinas.

He said he knows his mother would be proud he's part of this endeavor.

The group will perform at 6:00 Saturday evening as part of the Festival of Families in Philadelphia. They're told to expect an audience of up to a million people with 40 jumbotrons broadcasting their performance.