Diplomats of Dance: U.S. Companies Step into Role as Cultural Representatives Abroad — Part 1

Fifty years ago the U.S. government was one of the biggest promoters of American dance abroad. Over the past two decades, government funding for international dance tours by American dancers practically disappeared. Guess what? It’s back.

Last spring the U.S. State Department tested its international dance presenting chops. In partnership with Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the State Department sent Urban Bush Women to Latin America, Ronald K. Brown’s Evidence Dance Company to Africa, and ODC/Dance to Southeast Asia.

The State Department recently announced the program has been funded for another year. The DanceMotion USA budget will increase to $1.75 million from the $1.5 million dedicated to the 2010 tours, which means the program will not just continue—it’s expanding.

According to Chris Miner, managing director of professional and cultural exchanges for the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, DanceMotion USA’s pilot year met with great acclaim abroad. Embassy reports described the dance residencies in terms like “extraordinary” and “sublime.”
The high praise made the program’s renewal and expansion possible. The next round of tours is slated to begin in fall 2011 and continue into 2012. The State Department will select regions to be visited by December. Then a panel composed of State Department officials, representatives from next year’s yet-to-be-announced presenting partner, and artists from the companies who traveled on last year’s tours will choose the 2011-12 companies from a pool of applicants. The State Department also plans to add an exchange component this year: one international dance company will be invited to tour the U.S.

A Pilot Program Takes Off
DanceMotion USA took a multi-faceted approach to dance programming, keeping the dance artists busy from sun-up to sundown. Concert performances were an important part of the tours, but they were only one component of a larger goal. In the pilot year of DanceMotion USA, community-engagement activities played a very important role.

BAM Artistic Director Joseph Melillo, who selected artists for 2010’s program and coordinated the three pilot tours, says, “The program at its core was about process [and] communication, not about formal presentations. The emphasis was on building relationships.”

In every country the companies visited, they spent the bulk of their time outside of the theater—in master classes with professional dancers and dance students or in movement-based workshops with non-dancers. Urban Bush Women shared workshops with other companies, who, like UBW, have devoted themselves to working through social justice issues in frequently underserved communities. Among the groups they met were Colombia’s Incolballet and Colegio del Cuerpo, groups dedicated to using dance as a forum to reach young people. In Africa, Evidence conducted intergenerational workshops and worked with dance companies, including the Senegalese company Jant-Bi. ODC/Dance spent its workshop time in Southeast Asia focusing on introducing the history and compositional techniques of the company’s American style to a variety of groups.

ODC dancer Jeremy Smith said he initially feared too much time had been devoted to the workshops, but was pleasantly surprised. “The bulk of these workshops were probably three hours long—pretty lengthy to fill,” says Smith. “They ended up flying by rather quickly.”

Miner emphasized that the workshops were not just about Americans bringing their ideas to international audiences. To engender a sense of cultural exchange, the American artists didn’t just teach workshops. They took them, too.
Miner describes the ethos of these multiple workshops as collaborative, creating, in Miner’s words, a “win/win” situation for the American dancers and people interested in dance abroad.

In Burma, ODC dancers learned a short traditional dance, and then included the dance as the closer on one program. In Thailand, ODC worked with highly lauded classical Thai dancers to learn, in Smith’s words, “fragments” of Thai dance traditions. “It’s more of a history lesson in a way—really kind of feeding that into our bodies in little short snippets,” said Smith.

UBW Artistic Director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar says the dance workshops her company took often reflected one of the most striking aspects of the countries UBW visited: Colombian, Venezuelan and Brazilian people’s understandings of their societies as hybrids of indigenous, African and European cultures. “In Venezuela, we learned how the slaves syncretized their African religion through primarily two figures–one was John the Baptist and the other was St. Benedict—and how these ideas were part of rituals and dance,” says Zollar. “Every time we talked with someone about their history they talked about being a mix of three cultures. It was so striking to hear that repeated.”
The ties between dance and cultural history also forged connections when the American companies performed. Such ties were especially strong for UBW and Evidence, both primarily African American companies working with a movement vocabulary heavily influenced by African and Afro-Caribbean dance.

UBW’s performances of “Walking with Pearl . . . Africa Diaries,” one section of the company’s evening-length tribute to African American choreographer and anthropologist Pearl Primus, resonated with South American audiences. Zollar says the work’s movement and its reflections on the connections between Africa and the Americas highlighted North and South Americas’ overlapping diasporic histories.

According to many of the artists, audiences seemed almost desperate to connect with the American dancers. In Burma, Smith said there were rumors the government might cancel the performances until moments before curtain. According to the State Department, approximately 1,400 people filled the audience. ODC dancers had to pick their way through people to get onstage. In Indonesia, the dancers often found themselves still in the theater an hour after the show, as audience members lined up to take pictures with the performers.

Melillo, who traveled with Evidence and ODC for portions of their tours, says there was resounding proof that dance works as a form of diplomacy. “Dance communicates; it connects,” says Melillo. “It defines diplomacy in just pure, practical applications of getting one dancer to communicate a dance movement, a vocabulary or a phrase to another culture. It’s a beautiful thing when you witness it.”

Zollar says the structure of the residencies allowed dance to really work as a diplomatic tool. “It was a beautiful way that it was done—really letting us know about one another.”

Clare Croft is a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Michigan’s Society of Fellows and an assistant professor in the Department of Dance. She is writing a book on U.S. State Department sponsorship of international dance tours as a form of cultural diplomacy. Croft’s writing about dance has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, and Dance Magazine, among other publications. Croft recently completed her PhD in the Performance as Public Practice program in the University of Texas-Austin’s Department of Theatre and Dance.


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