Seven Questions for Pico Iyer: Cutting Through the Screen of Words


This summer, we are greatly excited to have an amazing travel writer and philosopher at the Chicago conference. While Pico Iyer may not seem a typical choice for the dance field, over the next seven days, we will unveil a little about his thought process, and why he is exceptionally relevant to us as we move toward the next decade. Members of the Dance/USA Board formulated seven questions for Iyer to ruminate on. His responses over the next week are truly thought-provoking and inspiring. We hope you will join us in Chicago to continue this conversation.

In addition, we have asked several members of Dance/USA and the Board to provide their personal take on our four program envelopes at the conference: Management, Artistry, Technology and Audience Engagement. In coming weeks these articles will help get you ready for our conference.

Q: Many of us view dancers as cultural emissaries in bridging boundaries, fostering friends, speaking through universal languages. How does dance compare to other art forms as a cross-cultural “language”?

A: Writers like myself are unapologetically envious of dancers because dance (like music) is one of those arts that stands outside time and beyond language; whoever you are, you can understand a baby’s cry, a lover’s gasp, the body folded over upon itself in grief, or what lies behind the longing to leap. Every traveler, in fact, becomes a dancer of sorts as soon as words give out, and we find—in Mongolia or Mexico (or Chicago)—that we can say everything we need with gestures, shrugs, hands, and laughs.

Words so often confuse, divide, and blur; they throw up at least as many screens as they remove. Dance cuts through such lines in the head to reach some human and collective level where we can feel more than we can say and catch even those sensations that arise when meaning and emotion subside. I’m in Paris right now, and just yesterday afternoon was visiting Peter Brook’s theater in a wild and colorful multi-cultural part of town. When Brook took his play, The Conference of Birds, around Africa in the 1970s, he found that it could communicate to everyone he visited, because everyone can understand a jump, a fall, a smile, a hand on the shoulder. That’s why, having mastered Shakespeare and conquered British classical theater, Brook decided to move toward that much deeper and more instinctual language where divisions collapse and we speak, as dancers or mimes can, from our clearest and most universal selves.

I’m not a dancer myself, but I’ve tried to grasp many of the cultures I visit—from Tahiti to Nepal and Bolivia to Oman—through the dances that I watch. My words, I know, are always going to get lost in translation, even if (sometimes especially if) I share a language with someone else; but my silences always seem to communicate clearly to the Japanese people who live around me, and I feel I can understand them (they’re so good at listening) even though I have the Japanese of a two year-old girl. We become dancers abroad, sometimes, as we try to communicate without words, and then put on all our defenses and artificial selves as soon as we’re back in our own tongue.

Dance, official or otherwise, is the way we cut through the screen of words and even ideas, at times, and speak in a way as urgent as tears, and as hard to turn away from. “The meaning and purpose of dancing,” as Alan Watts once wrote, “is the dance.”

Born in Oxford, England, to parents from India, Pico Iyer was educated at Eton, Oxford, and Harvard, while officially growing up in Southern California. He is the author of seven works of non-fiction, including Video Night in Kathmandu (cited on many lists of the best travel books ever), The Lady and the Monk (finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in the category of Current Interest) and The Global Soul (subject of websites and theatrical productions around the world). He has also written the novels Cuba and the Night and Abandon. For a quarter of a century, he has been an essayist for Time magazine, while also writing constantly on literature for The New York Review of Books, on globalism for Harper’s, and on many other topics for venues from The New York Times to National Geographic. His most recent book, The Open Road, describing more than 30 years of talking and traveling with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, came out in a dozen countries, and was a best-seller across the U.S. He has been based for the past 20 years near Nara, in rural Japan, though he is still often to be found making stops everywhere from North Korea to Ethiopia, and from Bolivia to Easter Island.
Photo: Pico Iyer at the Dalai Lama's temple in Dharamsala

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