Saturday, November 21, 2009

Contemplating the Cambodians...

I took part in “By Gesture By Word” – workshops and presentations on Cambodian Dance with members of the Khmer Arts Ensemble, sponsored by Dance Advance. Here are some reflections:

1 Dancing has the power to lift you out of misery. In daily practice Chamreoun Yin worked adjacent to me as we learned the “giant” role, one of the primary archetypes from Cambodian dance. He had never worked on this role before. He first danced classical Cambodian dance thirty years before in a refugee camp, at the time when his entire country had been subjected to extreme violence and destruction. You could see on his face that doing this dancing was a refuge – a space of equanimity, of serenity, of joy. The power of inhabiting these slow-moving, spatially contained and gesturally detailed forms is, by its nature, one of growing more centered and uplifted and connected to the divine.

2 You can see what is in someone’s mind. I was fascinated to read on the faces of Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, her sister Charya Burt and the two younger dancers from Khmer Arts a quality that is transmitted to the collective: each of them projects an image of extreme dignity, restraint, and (what I read as) fundamental goodness. The half-smile seen on the gigantic faces of the Buddhas at Bayon is on their faces. Their eyes are steady, confident, receptive, awake. None of this appears pasted on, but instead seems to emanate from entering a particular a state of mind, a collectively understood experience. This may be engendered through initially assuming the form, but in time it comes to be a much deeper expression, where practicing the dances seems to shift one’s mind.

3 Small can be more powerful than big. As giants we had some large actions – brandishing our swords, declaring an intent to catch our enemy. But we also had many subtle shifts in the torso, ripples moving from the ribcage to head or from the wrist through to the head. This was even more prevalent in the women’s role: certain actions were so small as to be nearly invisible, vibrations almost, like a beat of hummingbirds’ wings. I love this quality of “resting” on one spot as a very tiny movement animates the body and space.

4 There is a space in between holding fast to tradition and throwing away the past to focus solely on the “new.” Many artists are looking for a way to effectively balance respect for and conservation of what has gone before with an openness to new influences and innovations. Questions about how to practice traditional arts in a contemporary way are paramount for many of the traditional artists who took part in this workshop. And for those of us coming out of the experimental wing of our field, the question is how to effectively embrace, build on and bring along the knowledge and strategies of what has gone before.

5 As an older dancer, it’s completely appropriate to be judicious while putting my body in situations that could result in injury. Being somewhat more delicate and more prone to injury than when I was younger, I am “conservative” regarding how I want to use and train my body. This feels completely correct. Stretches designed to actually alter the shape of the body (like ones to create a hyper-extended elbow) felt awful and I chose not to do them.

6 Devotion to lineage is at the heart of Cambodian dance study. My study as a Buddhist emphasizes this as well. I could feel in my fellow participants a kind of settling into the spiritual aspects of this dance practice, with this one idea as an entry-point.

7 Providing simple frameworks for responses to arise can be more effective than more carefully crafted “assignments” or forums. Our group was asked simply to present some of our work and examine how the contact with the Cambodian dancing is relevant to it. The range of responses was stunning, reflecting a deep connection and thoughtful contemplation. I was very impressed with what practicing and hearing about the forms brought to each of us.

8 Cultures that emphasize the individual are more likely to celebrate the lone-wolf auteur. Cultures that prize the life of the group and community are more likely to hold to tradition. “Conservative,” in the sense of preserving what from the past is of value, is not a dirty word. When we abandon conservation because we so prize the innovators, the named artists who are stars rather than the anonymous ones whose work preserves and builds on what has gone before, what have we lost? Is our sense of societal disconnect and tendency toward isolation bound up with this? This question has nagged at me since visiting Bali in '85. On returning to the U.S. I remember writing a grant application complaining of our collective "cultural bankruptcy." That's one application that certainly didn't get funded!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Honoring Mama Kariamu

photo by Joseph V. Labolito/Temple University

How often does a concert end on a note of such unbridled joy that audience members head out into the night singing? Kariamu & Company: Traditions’ concerts at Temple University celebrating 40 years of Umfundalai technique ended in just this way, with a shared ecstasy and sense of affirmation more reminiscent of a community gathering than a concert in a proscenium theater.

Dr. Kariamu Welsh (Mama Kariamu), head of the Dance Department at Temple, makes dances, but I experienced them in this concert more as vessels into which her dancers pour every drop of their passion and personal power. They address tragedies of diaspora and challenges of urban life with humor, urgency, unity and dignity.

Works from across the years were interspersed with moving testimonies by students who became teachers themselves. C. Kemal Nance, Kariamu’s student from the time he was 8 years old, is today a doctoral candidate and a powerhouse mover. Each of the older dancers who demonstrated their moves was a knockout, having applied her teaching over the long haul.

Honoring the life’s work of those who develop techniques, foster the development of dancers, and provide them with fulfilling performing opportunities doesn’t happen nearly enough. Mama Kariamu, whose Umfundalai technique amalgamates aspects of dance languages from all over Africa, richly deserves this tribute.