Interweaving Cultures in Performance: Different States of Being In-Between

Making Differences Productive
In European countries, it was an aesthetic community that, in the course of the performance, came into existence between actors and spectators. However, this aesthetic community was markedly different from the one brought about by the Japanese performances in Paris and Berlin at the beginning of the century. Whereas there, despite the obvious differences, the community was based on a kind of emotional union as well as on supposedly related aesthetic principles, here the differences were emphasized – not only the differences between the Asian performers and European spectators but also among the Asian performers. The Japanese actress who played the Fool in a realistic style differed most from all the other performers; however, by European audiences she was received within the frame of their own tradition. So the community that came into being did not abolish or blur differences, nor did it need the feeling of oneness. Instead, it celebrated itself as a ‘third space’, a state of in-between, in which different identities are possible side by side.

Of course, this kind of a community also has its political implications. For if such a community can emerge in the space of theatre, why should it not be feasible in other places? And if, for the time being, it is in fact only possible in theatre, then theatre is to be regarded as a laboratory. Here, different ways are invented and tried out in interweaving cultures productively, and in exploring how to turn a crowd of individuals with very different cultural backgrounds into members of a – even if only temporary – community that does not demand that they hide or even give up their differences, and that does not include the one and excludes the other, but is able to render their differences productive for each and everybody participating.

Interweaving Multiple Modernities

Up to this point, I have deliberately avoided the terms ‘intercultural performance’ or ‘intercultural theatre’ commonly used to describe performances that combine the texts, acting styles, stage spaces, or scenic devices from different cultures. Mostly, the fusion occurs between Western and non-Western cultural components. Two assumptions, which I do not share, underlie the use of these terms. Firstly, they presuppose the feasibility of clearly recognizing the cultural origins of each element and distinguishing between what is ‘ours’ and what is ‘theirs’. This implies the notion that a culture is essentially monadic and self-contained. However, processes of exchange between cultures have been going on at least since the onset of modernity and, as a result, cultures permanently undergo change and transition. This situation renders any attempt to draw a clear line between ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ futile. Yet, this is not to say that differences between cultures do not exist. The differences are simply not fixed and given once and for all; they are permanently generated anew.

Until recently, research on intercultural theatre largely neglected this situation. Even very recent approaches based on the hybridization of cultures seem to some extent to ignore this fundamental insight. For ultimately the notion of the hybrid which is transferred from biology assumes that we are dealing with elements that do not belong together ‘originally’ or by their very ‘nature’ but have been linked arbitrarily. So I am avoiding the terms ‘intercultural’ or even ‘hybrid theatre’ in order to circumvent such notions and connotations. Instead, I refer to the idea of the ‘interweaving cultures in performance’, as introduced here. In my view, the term’s implication that the nature and generation of new differences is processual seems more appropriate in this context.

Secondly, it is interesting how the transfer of non-Western elements into Western theatre is dealt with in the main body of research on so-called intercultural theatre. It seems that here, implicitly and partly explicitly, non-Western elements imported into Western theatre are given a different emphasis than the use of Western elements in non-Western theatre. While in the first case they are celebrated as bold aesthetic experiments, in the second they are generally seen within the purview of modernization, which is largely equated to Westernization.

I agree with sociologist S. N. Eisenstadt’s critique of modernization as a process of Westernization. Eisenstadt instead emphasizes the existence of multiple modernities.11 As a normative, relational, and historical concept, modernity today is a contentious subject. Bearing in mind the decade-long critique of unilateral, simplifying, and glorifying theories of modernity, my focus in approaching modernity rests on the notion of diversity. With regard to contemporary performances – that is, performances of the last thirty years – the obvious choice would involve identifying issues of particular relevance to their times, such as processes of differentiation, diversification, and fragmentation; a heightened sensibility towards (self-) reflection; or globalization as facilitator of communicative exchange.

  1. Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, Comparative Civilizations and Multiple Modernities (Leiden: Brill, 2003); and The Great Revolutions and Civilizations of Modernity (Leiden: Brill, 2006). []


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