Seven Questions for Pico Iyer: Dance as a Window on a Very Foreign Culture


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:  Can you compare the crisis of home—identity if you will—with the relevance of arts in the future education of our nation’s children? How can we build and transmit the connection of body, mind, and soul through dance and utilize its power to heal and open windows onto creative thinking?

A.  My home is the English language, not any country or tribe or religion; that is the force that has kept me company every moment of my waking life. And my other home is my body and my heart and mind—those passions, convictions, values, and friendships that I carry around with me wherever I happen to be. More and more of us, I think, carry our homes around with us as snails might; home has less and less to do with a piece of soil, these days, and ever more to do with a piece of soul. And if we define ourselves in terms of the music that transports us, the dances that move us, the heroes that give us something to aspire toward, perhaps we can move a little beyond the sometimes crippling divisions of nation-states and the past. When—as often happens in Sydney, London, or Toronto—an Indian dances with a Pakistani, Partition is dissolved for a moment and they are reminded that they have more in common than apart.

So for me, the “crisis” of home—and identity—is in fact an opportunity. Like any new chance, it is a challenge, and if one does not consciously rise to the invitation of defining who one is and where one belongs, one can fall between the cracks, and feel one belongs nowhere, neither here nor there. But one thing that inspires me is the fact that when we teach students dance or literature or music today (in Miami, in Montreal, in L.A.), we’re inevitably teaching many of them about cultures not their own. A Vietnamese kid is learning hip hop; an Ethiopian is being instructed in classical Western ballet. When you walk along the Bund in Shanghai, at dawn—as futuristic an urban landscape as exists today (in a city with 7,000 skyscrapers that makes New York look old-fashioned)—you see elderly Chinese couples ballroom dancing to  Strauss and other tunes that come from their boom boxes.

To study dance today is to gain a window on a very foreign culture often (when I was growing up in England, all we could learn was the foxtrot or the polka). And this itself moves children to think of home in a much larger, perhaps more invisible way, and to see that their home is what they love, what they feel comfortable with, what they understand, sometimes for no reason at all. Half a century ago, many of us might have felt a strange, inexplicable sense of connection with India, say, or Egypt, or China, or Japan; all we could do was follow those cultures from afar, and maybe visit them once or twice. Now, thanks to technological innovations and a new mobility, we can actually live in these secret homes that once we could only dream about. I have been in Japan for 23 years now, on a tourist visa. I don’t work there, I don’t speak the language well, I would never claim to be Japanese; but I have the rare luxury and blessing of being able to spend most of my time in a country that makes more sense to me, feels more curiously familiar, than any of the houses in England or California where I’ve lived. Globalism is allowing some of us to follow a logic deeper than geography and to make connections much truer and more intimate than the kind associated only with planes and phones. Home is something chosen and evolving for many of us today as it could never be before.

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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