Interweaving Dance Cultures

In my paper, I would like to look at dance as an art form within the context of intercultural encounters. Discourses on dance often betray an underlying assumption that dance is universal and can be understood by anyone, everywhere – dance as a global player! But even just a cursory glance at the history and the diversity of forms in different cultures reveals that dance performs culturally specific, regional, and local conceptions of the body, of interaction, and of rhythmic staging. On the one hand, dance performances invite (kinesthetic) identification and an inclusive participation; on the other, they can also induce experiences of difference, exclusion, or transgression. What experience, what specific knowledge is embodied in dance, dance techniques, and choreographic performances? To what extent does this describe a “knowledge of the human being” that can be portrayed only performatively – through body movements, interactions, and space-time-models?

My focus in this paper is to discuss intercultural encounters of dance performances against the backdrop of the dominant theoretical concepts in cultural studies today: questions of cultural transfer, of “third space”1, of “contact zones”2 and of “interweaving performance cultures”3. The global exchange of dance performances revolves around such categories and terms as “traditional,” “experimental,” “classical,” and “contemporary.” These categories possess an aesthetic, cultural, and economic potency. And yet, it has become increasingly clear that these categories are hollowed out, even while they still constitute the framework for producing, looking at, and evaluating dance events. I would also like to pose the question, then, whether it isn’t high time for a critical rethinking of these categories and whether, as the following example might illustrate, dance performances don’t themselves play an active part in deconstructing fixed categories – that is to say, in the way in which dance communicates.

Before turning to an example from dance, I would like to put into perspective the use of a term that allows us to formulate questions concerning encounters between cultures in a way that corresponds to the conditions and problems of our current, globalized world. The term I am referring to is that of interweaving. Allow me to take a moment at this point to draw on my own discipline, theatre and dance studies, in mentioning the International Research Centre on the “Interweaving of Performance Cultures” that was established in Berlin two years ago.

The basic idea of this research centre is to explore the ways in which theatrical cultures were or are interwoven either from an historical perspective or in light of today’s globalization: the international composition of ensembles serves as an example here, as does the collaboration between artists from different cultures, or the exchange and circulation of productions at international festivals. Such instances of interweaving raise the question of the extent to which cultural identity, e.g. traditional forms of theatrical presentation or body concepts in dance, is revealed or interferes in the processes of interweaving, and whether it has a stabilizing or destabilizing effect. The hypothesis of the project is that processes of interweaving do not create homogenization (in the sense of theories of globalization or hybridization), but they create increased diversification. The term interweaving, then, describes a complex kind of interaction4 that permits all sorts of new differences, indeed produces them and makes them visible.

Seen in this way, theatre, performance and dance could serve as models for the general political and social dimensions of encounters between cultures. Processes of exchange between cultures exist and have long existed on many levels, permanent and asynchronous, so that it seems only appropriate to consider the different courses pursued by modernization and traditionalism (in the fields of religion, society, art and politics) as a dense fabric woven from these encounters. Theatre provides a stage for actors and spectators and, in this public situation, is able to address social phenomena, criticize, change, stylize, or also negate them.

How does this manifest itself? What do we do with dissonance? And what influence do technology and media transfers have on social and aesthetic traditions and values?

Let me explain this with the help of an example from the theatre. I would like to stress, however, that the questions it raises are, in fact, relevant not only to art and the theatre, but also to academic inquiry within and beyond the humanities. The example I would like to present here, and which I assume is familiar to some of you, is a dialogue in and about dance, namely the conversation between the Thai dancer Pichet Klunchun, trained in classical Khon dance, and the French choreographer and performer Jérôme Bel. The onstage dialogue continues what began in 2004, when the two met in Bangkok on the occasion of a guest performance: a conversation about their work as dancers from two different cultures.

"Pichet Klunchun and Myself" (2005) © Jerome Bel

“Pichet Klunchun and Myself” (2005) © Jerome Bel.

  1. Homi K. Bhabha: The Location of Culture, London 1994; H. K. Bhabha: “Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences”, in: B. Ashcroft/G. Griffiths/H. Tiffin: The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, London 2006, pp. 155-157; H. K. Bhabha: “In the Cave of Making. Thoughts on Third Space”, in: K. Ikas/G. Wagner: Communicating in the Third Space, New York 2009, pp. IX-XIV. []
  2. Mary Louise Pratt: Imperial Eyes. Travel Writing and Transculturation, London/New York 1992, p. 4; for a more detailed analysis of Bhabha’s and Pratt’s concepts within the context of cultural and performative processes, see Katja Gvozdeva: “Performative Prozesse der Kulturbegegnung und des Kulturkontakts: Hybrider und paradoxer Modus”, in: Paragrana. Internationale Zeitschrift für Historische Anthropologie, Kontaktzonen. Dynamik und Performativität kultureller Begegnungen, Volume 19, No. 2, Berlin 2010, pp. 13-20. []
  3. “Interweaving Performance Cultures” is the title of an International Research Center based at the Freie Universität Berlin and inaugurated in 2008. []
  4. See the studies of Chetana Nagavajara: Wechselseitige Erhellung der Kulturen. Aufsätze zur Kultur und Literatur, Chian Mai/Würzburg 1999; see also C. Nagavajara: Fervently Mediating. Criticism from a Thai Perspective, Bangkok 2004. []

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