This article traces the impetus for inter-cultural collaboration in dance and its impact on society in Canada. As several world dance forms converge in Canada’s multi-cultural society, the need for understanding the notion of inter-culturalism in artistic practice as a tool for understanding the ‘other’ is central. Understanding ‘interculturalism’ in dance has to be investigated through the lens of Canada’s official government policy of multi-culturalism which has formed the basis for working in and through different cultures. Embracing and accommodating diversity and ‘difference’ is one of the tenets of this policy and while this policy has promoted the celebration of a smorgasbord display of cultures, it has also unwittingly led to the ghettoisation of culturally specific artistic practises. What I mean by that is that early settlers of the first wave of South Asian immigrants had fiercely protected a nostalgic view of dance and music rather than exploring a common search for a Canadian sensibility in the work that is performed. For many choreographers, the quest for a work that is based in their current realities is fraught with challenges as they straddle the worlds of old and new, negotiating new ways of making the tradition fresh with new meaning of the here and now.
I ARGUE THAT INTERCULTURAL WORKS SUGGEST THE CREATION of an original, organic whole that transcends linguistic and aesthetic variances, while multiculturalism presupposes the celebration of distinctive qualities of individual cultures. Intercultural performance practise implies a respect for and an equitable sharing of aesthetics, space and identity as well as examining national culture and national identity through the semiotics of performance. It also demands a commitment to a deeper investigation of the socio-cultural and artistic ethos of the dance traditions that come together. Thus dance and the body become sites for experiencing cultural differences and commonalities and allows for the uncovering of the interplay between dominant and minority cultures.
Referring to my works, B2 and Samvad, I will briefly illustrate the artistic impetus for creating intercultural dance works. B2 was a commissioned work by the Malaysian dancer of Indian classical form, Mavin Khoo, for collaboration between Sampradaya Dance Creations and the Canadian company, Ballet Jorgen, in bharatanatyam and ballet. In this work, we hoped to create a new space to be able to identify and discuss issues and concepts of interculturalism, cultural exchange and globalisation in relation to the collaboration. Each of these phenomena has created an environment where inspiration from diversity of world cultures and pluralism are confronted with hybridism, with homogenisation and appropriation. We intended to move beyond superficial revelations to reach the honesty, trust and understanding necessary for deep exploration and profound work. We were convinced that we needed to go beyond show-and-tell fusion works that had become the norm.
Let me first create the context for this argument. In Canada today, our art lives at the crossroads of cultural convergence in a time of evolving traditions. As we negotiate our dreams and realities in this state of rapid flux, borders and differences dissolve to create new definitions. In this paradigm-shifting dynamic, new meaning is revealed in how tradition, once held as pure and unchanging, finds resonance in contemporary expression. For me, the human body becomes the site for this new language, a new ground for experiencing differences and discovering new truths.
The official policy of Canada’s multi-culturalism has been seen as a positive development intended to accommodate difference and encourage the appreciation of artistic diversity. Yet, in practice, it has, for many diasporic groups, implied the ‘mere song and dance’ of Canada’s cultural smorgasbord, unintentionally exoticising and fetishising diverse heritages and cultures. There is general agreement that multi-culturalism has served more as an ideology than a realistic model of locating culturally diverse expressions within a dominant Eurocentric landscape.
As diasporic communities in Canada have matured and settled, the development of their artistic traditions has seen a very strong growth spanning a full spectrum of community dance and professional dance. Training institutions have created dancers of commendable skill and artistry, many of whom have embraced the best business practice in setting up professional organisations. There are, however, many dialectics and tensions that the form and its practitioners face.
As with any diasporic immigrant community, traditional art forms are valued as symbols and transmitters of values and ideals of a particular cultural ethos. Often, the definitions of ‘authentic’ and ‘traditional’ are linked to fixed representations of heritage, and therefore, sacred/pure and not to be tampered with or altered. For the teacher and practitioner of this art, the responsibility of preserving a cultural idea, often based on nostalgia of the first wave of immigrants, lies heavy on their shoulders. The challenge lies in nurturing the art form while revitalising it, giving it new meaning and resonance in a culturally diverse society like in Canada. Investing one’s work with contemporary and innovative impulses, extending the parameters of its technique and performance is also balanced with a deep commitment to protect its essential aesthetics and movement syntax. For an art form that is associated so pervasively with tradition and ethnicity, it often finds itself at a disadvantage in the arena of professional, mainstream dance where the classic dichotomy between what is viewed as cultural artefact and an art form and/or artistic performance comes into play. It begs the question—is it then imperative that classical dance forms such as ballet and bharatanatyam must transcend, or even abandon their moorings in classicism, to be seen and appreciated as modern, contemporary art forms?
This dialectic often marginalises the art form as well risks eroding the core values of the form. I believe that it situates the art form and the artist in the crossfire of the dialectics of tradition and contemporary and divides them into mutually exclusive categories. Aggravating this dialectic, the generally held view is that funders support contemporary works over classical, and therefore it encourages artists to “jump on the bandwagon” of experimental/fusion work that lacks rigour and a commitment to a deeper level of investigation of the form.
The B2 collaboration between Ballet Jorgen and Sampradaya Dance Creations involved the commissioning of this work by London based choreographer Mavin Khoo. The artistic director of Ballet Jorgen, Bengt Jorgen, and I came together to explore questions about the definition of classicism as it related to bharatanatyam and ballet. We probed questions such as: What relevance does classicism have in today’s world? Do classical art forms like ballet and bharatanatyam need to change to be relevant for contemporary audiences? How do we account for the cultural roots of classical arts? What do we mean by “authenticity?” We felt the need to address these issues from their positions within their respective forms and from the experiences of the collaboration in B2.
We asked ourselves what we meant by classicism. I asked, is it the aesthetic, or a deeply rooted socio-cultural history, or an art form practiced by and for a particular social class? Is it an established pedagogy that demands a rigour, discipline and commitment? What and where is the ‘soul’ of the art? As we deal with the globalised practice of bharatanatyam, its diaspora far removed from the source culture, who can lay claim to authentic bharatanatyam? It is the prerogative of every dancer to explore its beauty, its ‘soul’ with honesty, authenticity and complete surrender. With that privilege comes the responsibility of studying the grammar and architecture of its syntax, the music systems that are the bedrock of the classical tradition and, most importantly, the inherent philosophy that is at the heart of the art form. Only then can the creative energies take wing, carrying the art and artist to new frontiers. We asked ourselves, what could we do as choreographers to make the classical forms continue to have relevance and inspire and transform both the performer and the audience.
Bengt felt that the artistic investment needed to reinvigorate the art form could turn out to be something different than an aesthetic focus on the look or physique of the performers. Re-contextualising classicism, he felt, requires us to reconnect with the essence of the dance form, to create the unity by the way our dancers move, not by their size and shape. It is precisely when we transcend the obvious that our imaginations come alive.
Our discussions also revolved around the paradoxes that exist around the terms ‘tradition’ and ‘contemporary’ and how the intercultural investigation of these terms could be done through the creation of B2. The investigation we embarked upon with our companies was part of a process to better understand connecting points of classicism independent of the specific cultural origins of our respective art forms. As in the case of bharatanatyam and ballet, classical dance forms have evolved over long periods and have stood the test of time and developed a movement vocabulary with infinite potential to be stretched, challenged, re-interpreted and re-energised. Unquestionably, it has been proven that they are not unchangeable monoliths of tradition.
I argue that I do not believe in setting up an arbitrary division between traditional or classical and contemporary. If one accepts that tradition and modernity have been part of a continuum in the evolution of an art form, then the benchmark of excellence is the drilling down to fundamentals: a distinctive DNA that prescribes a certain aesthetic, technique and principles of space, energy and time. These are the signposts of the discipline that must not be diluted or compromised. My challenge or preoccupation, not unlike many of my peers, is how to revitalise those fundamentals to bring a fresh and accessible interpretation.
Bengt believes that there are many levels to the issue of classicism in the daily lives of those who work in ballet. The number one question—what is classical in ballet?—is also complicated by the fact that there is by no means a definitive standard on which we all agree. Handed down from one performer to another, it is to some degree an evolving standard that can be influenced by strong-minded individuals. Even though ballet is perceived as a classical art because of its set forms, codified vocabulary and history, many times the way it is approached and used (its expression) may actually be less classical than, for instance, modern dance forms such as Graham or Limón.
With respect to practise and performance, emptiness of form is one of our major challenges, intimately affecting the perception of a work without being immediately apparent even to professionals. We therefore spend a great deal of time developing our dancers’ understanding of the expanded expression that comes from a cohesive balance of a number of factors including shape, line and intonation. It is often difficult to get dancers, especially younger ones, to ‘hold back.’ They often think that the higher the leg or the more turns the better. The schooling is so rigorous that it can take years to develop the maturity to comprehend that the classical in classical ballet is not quantitative but something much more intangible—that the technique is meant to serve expressive, artistic purposes.
There must be a thorough commitment by the artist and the company to understand and improve the classical underpinnings of the art form. It is through the relentless, daily pursuit of our aspirations for unattainable perfection that we gain the requisite understanding and appreciation of classicism to go beyond the steps toward what is relevant to our audiences. But we can also get lost in this struggle, in a world of conventions and shapes that are deadening and of no relevance beyond the studio. The line between convention and a stimulating experience can be very thin. Despite these obstacles, classical ballet remains promisingly alive. Classicism helps point us beyond, to something universal and timeless.
On the question of “authenticity” Bengt explained: “I find there are two choices: you can work within tradition or you can break against it. To break the tradition requires knowledge of the tradition; otherwise it doesn’t mean anything.” He clarified that over the last ten years, as a leader of the organisation, he had invested more resources in understanding classicism, the defining principle of what he does. The result is that even when choreographers come in, whatever they do, the result is that there is a very classical approach to how they rehearse. There is an enormous attention to detail, and to nuances of varying degrees. As a result, the performers have become very strong. It has really provided a foundation for the dancers to connect as a group. The company was thus moving more and more in a classical direction but he did not feel that it was going backwards.
Samvad was intended to be a process-based choreographic exploration on how young Canadians negotiate ‘identity’ and ‘voice’ in their multi-ethnic and multi-lingual lives. On conceptualising Samvad, we engaged three Canadian dance artists of diversity: a Canadian of aboriginal heritage, Nadine Jackson; the Caribbean-Canadian, Shelly Ann McLeod; and the Tamil-Canadian, Meena Murugesan, whose parents were from South India, but having spent her life in Montreal she is completely bi-lingual. The notion of ‘hyphenation’ fostered through the ideals of multi-culturalism often prevents us from forging a common and integrated articulation of being Canadian. It was beneficial to use the theme of the ‘creation myth’ as a starting point for this artistic exploration because creation myths in each of the three cultures hold great repositories of myth, folklore and ritual that are rich with imagery and metaphor. Each of the three young choreographers brought to the process distinct socio-political, cultural and linguistic histories.
Some of the key motivators discovered in this deeply personal and emotional process were: Listening. Building trust. Emotional investment. Intuition. Sense of urgency. Sharing memory. Developing our voice. Going deeper. Removing layers. Forgiving. Letting go. Being compassionate. Supporting each other. Speaking with kindness. Expressing with honesty. Generosity. Structure. Artistic training. Dreaming. Reading. Researching. Improvising. Letting go of ego. Allowing connectivity to grow. Patience. Having faith in the unknown. Egalitarianism. Developing common tools. Balancing individual with collective.
What then is ‘authentic’ today in a world of cross-pollination and pluralistic identities? We had several discussions around the issue of appropriation and the process of sampling, and asked ourselves that if the embracing of concepts, techniques and forms across many centuries meant that intercultural dance is now accepted as a part of the evolution of forms or considered cultural appropriation.
Lata Pada has been honoured with the title, “Order of Canada” by the government of Canada, where she has lived more than three decades. She was awarded one of India’s highest cultural honours, the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award, for her contributions to Indian dance and her advocacy work in ensuring there was an inquiry into the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182, in which she lost her husband and two children, and a new anti-terrorist legislation in place. She holds an MFA degree from York University, Toronto, and is an adjunct professor at York. She is the artistic director of Sampradaya Dance Creations, and she was trained under India’s distinguished gurus, Kalaimamani K. Kalyanasundaram and Padmabhushan Kalanidhi Narayanan. She has performed more than six hundred concerts, including a command performance for the President of India in 1992 and two extensive solo performance tours of North America including appearances at venues such as the Metropolitan Museum of the Arts in New York and The World Bank in Washington.