Blesok no. 46, January-February, 2006
Interculturalism in Dance
Interculturalism in the theatre involves or, more precisely, is equal to interculturalism in dramatic expression. The research carried out by Barba, Turner and Schechner perhaps encompasses different genre forms of the theatre of the East which is characterized by syncretism, but it definitely does not concern European dance. In his study Anthropology of the Theatre, Franco Ruffini writes: “Eugenio Barba, director and founder of the Odin Theatre, focuses his exploration on the identification and formulation of theatre studies and the study of acting, which he himself calls ‘anthropology of the theatre’” (Ruffini, 1998:86). Although Grotowski at some points came close to and used certain dance, i.e., movement techniques (the Dalcroze method), he nevertheless placed the stress on the definition of acting. As he himself said, “I believe that the actor’s personal and stage technique is the core of theatrical art” (Grotowski, 1976:15). Richard Schechner came closest to and tried to follow modern American dance production due to his personal circumstances but he, too, remained within the framework of dramatic performance. However, theatre and theatrology are certainly not limited to their perhaps most dominant form of expression, the drama, but also include all forms of stage performance. The object of this text is to shift/revise at least to some extent the stereotypical position by demonstrating that ballet, that is, modern dance, has also dealt with culturalism, i.e., with various aesthetic and kinesthetic codes.
It is not our intention to analyze the general rules defined by Barba, who demonstrated that different forms of performance manifest shared regularities. In our examination of dance we would like to discover and explicate the basic ways in which the dance theatre of a particular cultural system (in this case, the Euro-American) approaches the different types of performance of other cultural systems (Asian, African). The manner of integration of this type of material (which consists of different dance forms) into ballet and the approach to it have not been studied in detail, but it is evident that this tendency in European ballet continues. In ballet, the belief that one’s own system of expression should be confronted with a dance concept that is dissimilar/different as the result of a different socio-geographic, religious and cultural context has a long-standing tradition.
Such tendencies towards integration have been present for centuries and go as far back as the 17th century. In the beginning, it was the need for and fascination with the exotic. The first attempts were quite specific. Performances from this period did not establish a link with the dance material; instead, the connection was made within the supporting system of a performance, for instance, in the areas of stage and costume design. The development of the lexical foundation and rules of creation led to changes and the integration of the dance forms of ethnic groups which originated from different cultural system began. In certain authors, the interest in the study of, familiarization and comparison with that which was different/the other became an obsession.
The treatment of the different cultural (dance) concept
Several different approaches can be seen in the way in which this, completely different, material (transposed/imported/borrowed as a finished model) was shaped in relation to the standard system of ballet expression. Two shaping techniques were applied to the borrowed dance model; these were to a large extent imposed by the historical and social conditions characteristic of the period when they were created.
Stylization The traditional ballet of the 18th and 19th centuries showed the greatest interest in the dance culture of the East. The superficial knowledge of it and the general view of the society of the non-European states/territories influenced the way in which this type of dance material was used. Jean Geroges Noverre’s Letters on Dancing and Ballet (1760) is, in this regard, highly indicative: “I believe that the Turkish and Chinese festivities would not be quite liked by the French if we present them without any modification… the precise copy of what we see in the dance of these peoples would not be interesting and is not likely to suit the taste of the audience which applauds only when the dancers are very cautious in their expression of emotions, measure and taste” (Noverre, 1965: 275). In these lines we can read the attitude of the colonizers to the cultural tradition of the ‘other’, where that which is different is interesting, but must be run through the aesthetic filters of the European theatre which, “as a rule” and “without exception” is the best. The principle of stylization was followed by most choreographers of the 19th century. The masterpieces of classical ballet do not allow the expression of a different kinesthetic aesthetics. The homogenization of the entire material and intervention in the original was the only way to create stylistically ‘pure’ performances. This was one of the prevailing features of classical ballet performance. Defending, as he himself puts it, “old ballet”, Andrei Levinson, one of the leading critics of the early 20th century, claims that the search for “ethnographic” and “archaeological” truth and the destruction of the already postulated function and shape leads ballet to ruin: “There are certain ballets, like Don Quixote or The Little Hunchback Horse by Saint-Leon, which are fully founded on the national tradition, but which do not disturb the duality of ballet which consists of dramatic action and classical dance” (Levinson, 1918: 64).
The technique of accumulation and transformation applied to ballets was confronted with the new method of interpretation and treatment of dances taken over from other cultural contexts. The use of the ‘original’ assumed the fragmentation of the stylistic homogeneity and the creation of a stylistic collage.
Replication The beginning of the 20th century brought about an evolution in the manner of expression and breaking of traditional patterns. ”In group dances, Fokine was different from Petipa, he did not give folk movements an academic form, but took from the Spanish dance those elements which were close to the forms of classical dance” (Krasovskaya, 1971: 467). These words were written on the occasion of Fokine’s production of the ballet Jota of Aragon in 1916. The gradual inclusion of original material which is different from the standard ballet aesthetics opened room for the use of authentic dance texts which were, at first, based on most characteristic national European dances; they were later expanded through the inclusion of other forms of expression (religious performances) that were radically different. This resulted in a rather bold connection between completely different dance and theatre forms. The modern tendency for the weakening of Eurocentrism has also contributed to a change in the attitude to the other, i.e., to ‘primitive,’ ‘exotic’ and ‘non-European’ cultural products. Maurice Bejart has expressed many times his fascination with Indian dance: “If you dance, allow your dancing to be your yoga. Shiva the God of the World is also called Nataraja, the King of Dance” (Bejart, 1989: 209).
Regardless of the technique and the approach the choreographer chooses in the exploitation of various national dance concepts, we can define/detect three basic models: polycultural, intercultural and metacultural.
In the second half of the 19th century, the period which we define as the ballet renaissance, there was a notable interest in the study of various types of stylistic and national poetics and their integration in a single scenic/choreographic structure. In contrast to the then relevant creative tendency, where the ballet scenario customarily dealt with exotic elements, i.e., where it posed a specific stylistic frame for the performance, a need emerged – independently of the libretto – for the creation of a divertissement which bore evident national characteristics. It was initiated primarily with the score, i.e., the composer’s concept. In the works of Delibes, Tcahikovsky and Glazunov the music contains units which carry melodic motifs from different national cultures. In music theory, this specific type of connection between independent parts and clearly defined content which originates from specific national tradition is known as character suite. In Swan Lake, his first ballet written in 1877, Tchaikovsky wrote a mazurka, and a Neapolitan, Spanish and Hungarian dance as a character suite; later, on the request of the choreographer, he added a Russian dance. In his last ballet, The Nutcracker, written in 1892, he went a step further and expanded his interest in national dances which are not only European (in this case, Russian and Spanish) but also Chinese and Indian. Although one can hardly speak of the authenticity of the melodic and rhythmical material, especially in the music of the last two dances of the character suite, this ballet is not limited to just one type of choreography. The principle of integration, however, does not impose rules on the conception of the material; rather, it depends on the author.
An examination of the structure of the works (in this case, the national music/choreographic collage) reveals a tendency for detachment in the sense of isolation/independence, where the music units transposed in various dances on the stage are presented in a sequence, one next to the other. We define this model as polycultural. The basic idea of a polycultural choreographic text is to show various dance forms which characterize specific national dance cultures in an isolated/independent form regardless of which technique, stylization or replication, has been applied. In contrast to the intercultural model, the polycultural model offers no possibility of interaction of different dance material.
Synthesis of differences
Towards the end of the 19th and especially at the beginning of the 20th century the evolution of ballet aesthetics brought about a new approach. We define this model as intercultural, a term we have borrowed from Eugenio Barba. In the application of this model, a close connection is established between material of different cultural, semiological and phenomenological origin.
Depending on the concept of the author, the integration of the material takes place in a variety of ways. In choreography, there is a tendency towards integration of the most prominent and stylistically most familiar elements in a single choreographic texture which unites, links and eventually ‘reconciles’ or exchanges the values of the different kinesthetic concepts. The connection/synthesis can take place on a micro and macro level.
La Bayadere, first staged in 1877, is an example of choreographic inclusion of a different cultural concept for which we can make a valid assessment, since the choreographies for the ballets from the 17th and 18th centuries, and to some extent those from the 19th century, do not survive. In La Bayadere, the exotic India, i.e., its most characteristic kinesthetic idioms, are in unity with the codified language of classical ballet. In contrast to the integration which takes place on a macro level, in this ballet, in one dance score, the different kinemes (the most characteristic postures, positions and poses of the body) are combined with the language of classical ballet and accumulated and absorbed into it.
The creation of a nationally marked choreographic text which was, as a rule, stylized, i.e., adapted to the poetics of the ballet theatre, was very popular in the 19th century. “Between 1840 and 1850, Petipa discovered the Pachita series of Spanish dances, where an exceptional knowledge of the ethnographic material was incorporated in classical ballet. Movements such as balance, pas de burree, and pas de basque were coloured with a “Spanish” pattern in arm movement and bending of the body” (Krasovskaya, 1971:467). Without discussing the quality, i.e., validity and justifiability of the stylization as such, we would only like to make note of the manner of structuring the introduced material, which demonstrates the joining of different performance and dance traditions within the interpretation of a single character. The contrasting and different models of movement combined in a single role confront the performer with a double/multiple cultural and aesthetic content. In such a case, the intercultural is not placed on the level of the collective, regardless of whether it involves the creator or the recipients; it takes place at the individual level, where the dancer, while building his/her role, is confronted with a different aesthetic and cultural substrate. It would be ideal if the dancer could master not only one style (classical ballet, modern dance, kathakali, tai chi, bu to) but use (in a respective project) various techniques. It is almost impossible, and therefore a performance is customarily based on an attempt at an authentic replication of postures and positions of the dance forms of the ‘different’ and ‘other’ culture and their processing through the individual creative filter of the interpreter. The greatest choreographer of the 20th century, Maurice Bejart, was fascinated by the East and created a whole series of ballets in which he used experiences from this region, synthesizing them with modern and classical ballet. He studied various dance models, especially those of the oriental theatre, and approached them in a complex way, not only in terms of their form, but also by studying their context and roots. In his ballets, the symbiosis takes place on a micro level through merging various stylistic kinemes. In Notre Faust, his leitmotif in the port de bras consists of the position of the arms borrowed from the traditional Indian kudiattam theatre and, more specifically, the second mudra, mudrakhayam, combined with the standard position of the legs as it is used in European dance theatre. In Bakhti, Bejart repeats the same technique. “Indian music, Indian deities and classical western choreography are revealed through Indian gestures. In order to avoid banality, I made up the dancers like Shiva and Krishna, and dressed their western adorers in jeans. This contrast holds the ballet together” (Bejart, 1989:170). His comment concerns the subject matter we have already discussed, and that is stylization and stylistic stereotyping or a drastic contrast and editing of the ‘pure’ ‘original’ text. Contrast and the search for roots also inspired Jiri Kylian to confront in his ballet Forgotten Land the dance model of the native Aborigines and European dance, which, in the last decades of the 20th century, represented a substrate of modern techniques and elements from the classical ballet. The contrast, editing and confrontation provided very impressive and even dramatic results which are to be expected in the exploitation of an intercultural model.
In the second type, the connection is made on a macro level, where the bearers/presenters of different cultural and dance codes are linked in a single performance. Eugenio Barba brings together the performers of the kathakali, No, Kabuki and Chinese theatre and those of the European cultural performing context, and all this within a single performance/workshop. Especially popular in the early 20th century was the use of a different style of creation which included a different plastic base. Mikhail Fokine’s attempt at such an approach was the most successful: in his ballet The Firebird, staged for the Russian Seasons in 1910, the classical score included the interpretation of the puanti where the performance of the Firebird, the Beautiful Tsarevna and Ivan Tsarevich was characterized by archaic dance elements. “In the choreography of the dances I used three styles completely different in character and technique… The Tsarevna danced barefoot, with the natural, graceful and soft movements of old Russian folk dances. The dance of the Firebird was based on toes and jumps” (Fokine, 1981:143). Identical steps in terms of an in-depth approach to the merging of different dance traditions and performance by different dancers have not been made to date. Although in some modern dance companies an ethnically mixed cast is obligatory, it does not ensure a repertory of traditional dances and an exchange of experience and techniques. At present, no choreographer has ventured to stage a performance where traditional African dancers, performers of the Asian theatre and modern and classical dancers appear side by side.
The most recent model, also discussed by Schechner in his essay “The scope of stage experience” based on Paul Ekman’s research, speaks of an issue that is beyond all cultural, social and religious concepts. In certain situations, people react identically, regardless of whether they come from England, France, USA, Bashkiria, New Guinea, the Amazon, Patagonia or Burundi. This is especially true of body language and gesticulation, to which the individual reacts instinctively. “This language of emotions is not verbal and primarily consists of facial expression, voices, body posture (still) and movement (tapping, touching, running)” (Schechner, 1992:225). The extreme emotions of fear, inhibition and joy reveal certain general human features. “In moments of mental shock such as terror, mortal danger or exceeding joy, man does not behave ‘naturally’. When a man finds himself in an elevated spiritual state, he uses rhythmically articulated signs and begins to sing and dance. For us, the sign, and not the common movement, is the basic unit of expression” (Grotowski, 1976:17). These body movements which are part of the most intense emotional states are, in fact, body signs that are general and do not belong to any specific cultural context, religious canon, ethical concept or social codex.
Some of these signs, as they are called by Grotowski, are based on new dance techniques, i.e., modern dance, although these structures of movement are not necessarily linked solely with states/moments of mental shock. We define this model which strives to find and reach the forms which are part of universal human reactions regardless of cultural codes as metacultural.
Modern dance relies on basic/general body movements, i.e., on a technique that is radically different from that of classical ballet. This type of performance as a medium is a highly codified and stylized kinesthetic system which strives to cancel natural movement. “All movements of the classical school are futile because they are unnatural: their purpose is to create an illusion by showing that the law of gravity is immaterial to it… The dancers of the future will be those whose body and soul will merge in a harmonious whole, where the natural language of the soul will become movement of the body” (Duncan: 1988:150-154). We should be aware of the fact that the concept of ‘natural’ in Grotowski refers to the subconscious, i.e., that which is not accepted with premeditation or practiced, adopted, exercised and standardized in advance, while in Duncan, it refers to the kinesthetic aspects of the performance where the body is not burdened by the acceptance of certain aesthetic forms given in advance and consciously practiced. Although Isadora Duncan expressed her ideas through her work, she did not succeed in finding a specific kind of movement that would have the basic body impulses as its foundation. Martha Graham was the first to give clearly defined postulates of such performance, where she exploited the basic functions of the muscular apparatus, contraction and dilatation; she also gave a precise definition of the meaning of such body postures. “The contraction which bends the thorax inside and rounds the back focuses the dancer on his/her own centre and is used as an allusion to fear, grief, withdrawal or introversion” (Au, 1988:120). This posture is also characteristic of the subconscious bodily reaction which occurs in such mental states. Modern dance simply augmented natural postures and used them in various dance formulations.
In addition to searching for the basis and principles of human movement, modern dance also defined a number of styles, sub-styles and techniques which quite naturally became characteristic of a certain cultural background, thus acquiring the label of national styles. As modern dance gained in popularity, those communities which had previously marginalized it gradually colonized this type of production and impressed on it the stamp of a particular ethnic community. These dances gradually became part of traditional dances.
The authors of Post Modern dance gave us perhaps the freshest and definitely the most intriguing dance product. The new tendencies in dance formulated in 1970s initiated the cancellation of all accepted and exploited theatre conventions. They negated all know techniques, types of rehearsals, styles and shaping clichés. Yvonne Rainer, one of the leaders in Post Modern dance, has said the following: ”No to spectacles, not to virtuosity, no to transformation and magic, no to glamour and transcendence, no to the star image, no to heroes, no to anti-heroes, no to poor imagination, no to inclusion of performers or audience, no to style, no to factions, no to seduction of the audience by the performer, no to eccentricity, no to movement” (Ibid: 165). Erasing all theatre rules, Rainer unconsciously surpassed all cultural codes regardless of their origin. To some extent, it was due to the cast she engaged in her productions. They did not depend on professional dancers: on the contrary, the performers did not have to be familiar with any specific technique in order to participate in the performance. All ballet types (classical ballet, modern dance techniques, oriental techniques which demand long education) were thus avoided or by-passed. Her productions were staged in unconventional spaces and did not begin at a specifically designated time. In this context, the work of Trisha Brown deserves special mention. In her exploration of space, the performers (we no longer refer to them as dancers) climbed walls and ceilings; in doing so, they used ropes and rings, i.e., the standard equipment of mountain climbers. The safety requirements demanded certain movements which corresponded with the proximal space. By trying to remain in a normal, upright position while their bodies were at a 90º angle in relation to the wall surface, the performers demonstrated identical body reactions which were beyond all cultural contexts and codes. In this extreme example the cultural model as such was cancelled, and the body reaction exhibited certain general features and characteristics.
It should also be noted that such performances avoided the trap of banality and complete merging with real life. These specific productions did not generate forms of reaction characteristic of everyday life, thus remaining in the sphere of the artificial. Their choreographers avoided the danger of transferring/transposing the creative to something utilitarian or belonging to daily life; on the contrary, by using atypical space, they provoked expressiveness.
The artificial, the traditional, the local, the exotic, the collective – all these categories have their specific approach to cultural models and forms of stage performance. The intention of this text was to demonstrate that dance, too, produces its own highly specific but exceptionally interesting creative matrices in which all these categories influence the conceptualization of the material, i.e., the final product. Dance theatre can be especially interesting not only to ballet theoreticians, but to theatrologists in general as well, since it offers material that is endemic and remains completely unexplored.
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