Voices From Across the Globe
Born in Taiwan, lives in NYC and Taiwan
Guest artist, Martha Graham Dance Company; co-artistic director, LAFA
Interviewed by Emily Macel
When I was 11, I started studying a Taiwanese-style folk dance. I was not very good with grades in school. I wanted to hide in the corner until I found dance. Ross Parkes, my teacher in college at the National Institute of the Arts in Taipei, changed my life. Most of my professional dance training is in Graham technique. In 1994 I carried my two suitcases and came to New York. The culture shock was good. Most people here have more confidence. In Taiwan you’re taught what to think, how to make your choices.
In university, I studied Chinese opera. You talk through your body, eyes, hands, fingers. That affected my dancing. When I learned the Graham ballets, I tried to translate it into a story so that I could understand it for myself.
My stage was in New York, but my life is in Taiwan. In 2006 the Graham Company toured to Taiwan. My biggest dream was to make the two come together.
Most people in Taiwan are a little scared to go into the theater. They want the choreographer to tell them what the dance is about. We never trust how we think. Every time I go back to Taiwan to perform I like to encourage the audience: Take off the pressure. Don’t judge every detail, but enjoy every moment.
Born and lives in Lyon, France
Artistic director, Compagnie Käfig
Interviewed by Elena Hecht
The people who practice hip hop are often people who are originally from other countries than the countries where they live. I was born in Lyon, but my parents are from Algeria. I like French people, French music, French food, but I also like food and music from North Africa. It’s my life, my culture.
My dancers are black, Asian, Arabic, and French people. I like to mix street dance with contemporary, circus, and theater. And I think the audience likes this mix. What we find in the American suburbs or in France or in another country is very similar: You have problems with racism, with exclusion. With hip hop you can try to evolve your position in a society. It’s a universal language because you find it all over the world. When I dance in Mexico or in Africa I can meet and speak with another culture. I want to continue to create links between communities, between cultures, because like this we can progress. It’s how we begin to understand “the other.” When I understand another culture, I understand more about what I am and about my own culture.
Born in Mysore, India; lives in Somerville, MA.Artistic director, Aparna Sindhoor Dance Theater
Interviewed by Elaine Stuart
I learned Bharata Natyam from my mother, but I studied with Venkatalakshamma—a superstar in the field—for 15 years. I had my professional debut at 17, but soon lost interest. After the Indian independence movement, the notion of Bharata Natyam changed to a “pure” art form: You don’t show anything impure, including sensuality. So I started creating my own pieces.
In 1996, I moved to the U.S. The University of Massachusetts, where my husband was a student, produced The Incident and After, a work based on a short story about rape. Bharata Natyam dancers in India got upset with me, saying it as an insult to the stage. I said, Indian mythology isn’t shy about violence; why can’t we talk about it in dance?
When I create new work I often feel something that has to be expressed, but the classical vocabulary can’t make it happen. New movements and new influences provide answers when I’m lost. Bharata Natyam and yoga blend beautifully, and I’ve used a martial art form called kalari payattu to fulfill my expression to completeness. Aerial dance came up in my last production, Story and a Song. It’s based on two folk tales: an Indian tale about a woman becoming a flowering tree and a Native American story about a woman with the power to become a corn plant. Even thousands of miles apart, people have similar imaginations!
Born in Israel, lives in England
Artistic director, Jasmin Vardimon Company
Interviewed by Wendy Perron
I studied ballet, Graham, and improvisation in a local kibbutz school, then for five years I was with the Kibbutz Dance Company. But I wanted to do smaller projects to work more in character. I was interested in physical theater, and that’s not something I could find in Israel.
In 1995 I moved to France, then Geneva. In London I found freedom and started to create my own work. London is a multicultural city. I have eight dancers, and only two of them are British. When we tour the U.K., people think my work is very British. But I don’t see it because there are many different voices in British dance.
Moving here, I could look on the culture in which I grew up in a completely different way. The British are far more restrained, and Israelis are more expressive and direct—sometimes to the point of what you would call rudeness in England. Here you would ask, “Would you be kind enough to do that and that.” In Israel you would just say, “Please do that,” or, “Do it.” From a distance of 500 meters I can recognize Israelis just by how they move because they are very physical in their expression. Maybe that’s why a lot of them are very good dancers.
Born in Ubundu, Democratic Republic of Congo; lives in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo
Artistic director, Les Studios Kabako
Interviewed by Will Rawls
Seven years ago I decided to go back to my country. I had been away—in Kenya, in Europe—and then I said, I need to go home. I was born a Zairean. Ever since my country’s name was changed in 1997, there is this obsession about history. How did we get here? When I try to look at the history of Africa, I get to points where I am stuck. Because the only well-documented part of Africa’s history is very recent—maybe 150 years or so. And therefore what can I turn to? Maybe the body. The body can move, it can sing, it can scream, it can be shaken, it can dance.
I live in a context where our daily life is our grandmothers’ stories and the Internet. We are a mixture, a daily mixture of the Internet and the mud hut.
I started a project called Studios Kabako in Kisangani in 2001 to create a network of three art centers in the city. It’s about the spaces that we can unclog in our own heads and hearts, spaces where it is possible to still be in the Congo today and construct something. I believe that the deeper I go into the local, the greater chance I have of reaching a universal. It is like digging deep under my feet until I reach that common pool of water that could link us all.
Born and lives in Beijing
Soloist, National Ballet of China
Interviewed by Emily Macel
Translated by Emily Wilcox
When I was little, I studied Chinese ethnic dance. When I entered the Beijing Dance Academy in middle school, I started to study ballet in the rigid system brought over by the Soviet Union, and later, modern dance. In modern dance, I don’t even think about where my arms go because it’s more about the weight and the floor, how you feel your body, your breathing. In ballet class, I have to pull up in my chest, but in modern, I’m supposed to be releasing that. And with Chinese ethnic dance there’s a completely different way that your body is held.
Dancers in China like to combine Chinese cultural elements into their work. Partially because when we learn modern dance, we feel like we’re learning something western. Every time I’ve competed internationally, my contemporary piece has had Chinese elements in it.
In the National Ballet of China, Raise the Red Lantern and Red Detachment of Women have obvious Chinese elements, and when we perform abroad, the audience is extremely enthusiastic. They clap for a long time (as opposed to the Chinese audiences) because they’re seeing something new from China.
Myung Soo Kim
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Lives in NYC
Myung Soo Kim Dance Project
Interviewed by Anna Pillot
The process of transplanting myself here opened up my own cultural heritage. Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism reemerged. I didn’t realize such things were buried within me. I have felt isolated and considered that a disadvantage. Now I feel the opposite way because I was able to maintain and create my own dance.
What I observe in NYC is the blurring of different dance traditions. I’m developing the Myung Soo Kim technique, which I hope to make accessible to both westerners and traditional Korean dancers. Although in Korean dance you have layers and layers of costumes, I talk to the audience with my body movement.
If you deviate from your traditional technique in Korea, they will look askance, whereas over here you can move between different genres and techniques. In the next five years I want to create a contemporary piece, and I want to pass on my knowledge of Korean costumes and music. Things my teacher’s generation has done may be misread by the next generation, so I want to be the bridge between them.
Born in Baghdad, Iraq, lives in Amsterdam
Interviewed by Elena Hecht
When I was in Iraq, all I knew was that there was modern dance and there was ballet. My group was the only group making contemporary dance. But when I went to Egypt five years ago, I saw butoh and tried to be a butoh dancer. I was influenced by not just the form but also the soul, the beauty. Later on I found that I wanted to create my own dance.
In Europe there are so many people working on different levels, and that made me excited about dance and about my work. When I first came to Amsterdam with Crying of My Mother, which is about the violence in Iraq, I didn’t know if the western culture could feel it or not. But I found that people here could respond to the performance as well as Iraqis.
I want to start a new life and a new career here in Holland and to tell all of that through my dance. I dream about what happened to me in Baghdad. I try to translate the fears I had before in dance. I have to tell people here, through my art, that this is the life I had and that these are the issues I feel now. Then the Dutch people can understand what I lived before.
Yvonne von Mollendorff
Born in Germany, lives in Lima, Peru
Artistic director, Yvonne von Mollendorff Contemporary Dance; principal choreographer, National Ballet of Peru
interviewed by Wendy Perron
As a teenager, I studied classical dance at a conservatory in Munich. Love brought me to Peru years ago. All around in this city you have pre-Columbian temples, and you feel the presence of history everywhere; we breathe through it. It has changed my notion of time. In my choreography I started to work on the suspension of time and became very charged with mysticism. The pre-Columbian presence lets me look beyond my own life. Currently I am working with a group of 10 folklore dancers from all over Peru to create a fusion with 8 of my contemporary dancers.
What do I miss from Europe? I miss a little comfort and a political decision to take care of the arts. You are very much on your own here; you start from zero every time. But it makes you strong. And you are absolutely free to do whatever you want.
Born in Sweden, lives in Israel
Dancer, Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company
Interviewed by Carrie Schmelkin
I started dancing with children’s classes and moved on to classical ballet and modern. When I graduated from school, I went to a conservatory in Holland and danced professionally there. Recently I started looking for a job in Israel because I wanted to live there and enjoyed Israeli dancing. After I made the audition for the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, I moved to Israel.
There’s a big difference between the dance mentality in Sweden and Israel. My disposition in dance used to be more Swedish—more polite and diplomatic. People in Israel said that I was soft as a mover when I first started, and I was told to learn strength because I am very lyrical.
I built for six years in Holland and then I left, and now I have built in Israel for two years. It’s constantly a challenge once again to try to establish yourself. It’s a gypsy lifestyle.
Dancing globally is one of the most amazing opportunities in life. It can be scary in the beginning, like throwing yourself from a cliff, but if you find yourself still falling, you can always go back.
Born and lives in Cairo, Egypt
Artistic director, MA’AT for Contemporary Dance
Interviewed by Jen Thompson Peters
As a child I moved a lot with my family, but wherever I was—Geneva, Kuwait, Italy, England—I looked for the dance possibilities. I started with ballet and soon was introduced to Graham, Cunningham, and release techniques. I never studied belly dance, but whether I like it or not, it’s there in me, in the body. It’s part of the culture and the people.
People have preconceived notions about a contemporary dance piece by an Egyptian. They may say, “Why did you choose to become a contemporary dancer and not a belly dancer? Isn’t it too conceptual and European?” Just because contemporary dance was made in the West, doesn’t mean it belongs only to the West. It’s a form of communication.
My company was the first independent contemporary dance group in Egypt. It’s been 10 years now. There are constant challenges, for instance, resistance from the government, a lack of environment where this art can develop. Studios don’t exist; we rehearse in empty apartments. But I want to break these audience expectations and move on to the next level: Let’s talk about the work. This is a much more interesting dialogue that can bring cultures together and not keep us on our own separate sides.
Born in Tajimi, Japan, lives in L.A.
Conducts Body Weather Laboratory
Interviewed by Victoria Looseleaf
I saw a photo of Tatsumi Hijikata, originator of butoh, when I was 19. This awakened in me a feeling of the divine and holy, and I began studying dance with him. In 1985 I worked and lived with Min Tanaka’s company in the countryside of Japan. In 1990 I married an American dancer, Roxanne Steinberg, and came to Los Angeles.
This was changing my life. The diversity was very great here. I have a lot of love and hate of cities, but the land, the literature and the culture here has been a great art support system.
I love the desert near L.A.—its scale, the weather. I thought it would be a great resource for dance—almost like a waste, but how can we use this waste? It’s like recycling imagination. Putting the body into chaos was an adventure, and that was my four-year desert project, Height of Sky.
Another big connection for me here is Anna Halprin. How she stands on the ground is like how I’m standing on the ground—more like a spiritual purpose.
Born in São Paolo, Brazil, lives in Berlin
Artistic director, Vienna’s ImPulsTanz Festival and Venice Dance Biennale
Interviewed by Victoria Looseleaf
I was a dancer of Afro-Brazilian roots when Alvin Ailey discovered me at a competition in Bahia. That is the destiny of life, because I then danced with the company in New York before moving to Germany in 1985. There I had the blessings to work with Marcia Haydée, theater director Johann Kresnik and Ushio Amagatsu of Sankai Juku. I was the first black dancer/choreographer to be appointed as head of Weimar’s National Theater; I was there for four years beginning in 1996.
In Brazil life is being immersed in the moment, and that is where I found my improvisation skills. It’s this spirit I bring to choreographing and performing. My different experiences allowed me to center myself in more than one aesthetic. With Ailey it was my body exploring the technique; in Europe it was more the influence of expressionism.
I hold two passports—Brazilian and German—but I am a citizen of the world. I feel like Indiana Jones because I am always researching what is fascinating, in both people and dance. At the beginning of this century the big question is, “What is new?” If we don’t get contaminated by other ideas, we don’t reach new visions.
In the YouTube age people seem to be more curious about each other. That gives us a chance of getting acquainted with new ideas quickly and to respond quickly. We don’t know where the train is going, but for dance this is an opportunity for great development.