Pico Iyer Remix: Seven Questions and Answers

Pico Iyer, travel writer and philosopher, spoke this morning at the Dance/USA Chicago conference. From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s eJournal, is re-releasing Iyer’s inspiring Q&A from earlier this summer.

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.”


Q:  What is on the horizon for communication through art in the global community?

A: I love the fact that we live now in places and states of passage—in rainbow combinations—that humans have seldom known before. Turn on your radio on your way home from work today, and you may hear a sitar player collaborating with a singer from Mali, say, or an oud and guitar duet—in a form (world music) that barely existed 30 years ago. Stop off for dinner and you may well find yourself eating green tea crème brule, or French-Mexican food, say, as the mingling of cultures has brought us fusion cuisine never tasted before. Pick up a book once you get home, and it’s likely to be written by Jhumpa Lahiri or Amy Tan or Isabel Allende, whose themes are those of movement and mixtures and the expanded sense of home that so many in the world can enjoy these days.

A whole new tribe of people is arising in the fresh young century who define themselves in ways much more complex and fluid than in our grandparents’ days. Young people today are likely to have one home identified with their parents, and another associated with their partners, and a third connected with where they happen to be right now (Queens, Toronto, San Francisco, Chicago)—as well as a fourth connected with their secret homes, the places they dream of but haven’t seen yet. And my sense is that every time a half-Korean, half-German woman—in Paris, perhaps—meets a half-Thai, half-Canadian young man, they realize that they have more in common than apart; their questions are the same, their possibilities are the same, and they belong to the same tribe, in effect (a tribe whose metaphor—and vehicle—now is cyberspace).

Quite often, they’ll fall in love—and maybe move to New York City. And when they do, the little girl who arises from their union will be even more international than they are, partly French and partly Korean and partly German and partly Thai and partly Canadian, and much more. Everything about the way she sees the world, the way she speaks and thinks and dreams and dances, will be different from most of the ways we’ve seen before.

I savor the globalism of the heart, the imagination, and the conscience that we see all around us today, and that to me are much more important than the global markets and global communications we hear so much about. Humans are defining themselves in more spacious and imaginative ways than ever before, and the result is that our cultures are exploding all around us; what used to be somewhat monochrome is now much more vibrantly colored. The safest city in North America, Toronto, is also the most multi-national city in the world, according to the U.N., and the first major metropolis where the majority of citizens were born abroad, often far away. And the London that was so grey, dull, and even xenophobic when I was growing up is now one of the youngest, fizziest, most open, and most international places around, as people from everywhere stream into it and create new fusions (and confusions).

This isn’t always a good thing—it raises complex questions about identity and belonging—and the more internationalism there is in the world, the more nationalism there will be, too. Humans seem to have a need for tribes, and even for divisions But compared with the world of 50 years ago, it’s very much a step forward. The more we see of the Other, the harder it is to fear or demonize him or her; and the Other is now in our neighborhood, our backyard, sometimes even in our bed and in ourselves. The global community arising all around us has forged whole new forms of art and creation, and they in turn have helped to sign into being a new sense of community. Watch the kids of Osaka dance salsa (as they love to do), listen to Norah Jones or see how the girls of Beijing are dancing Swan Lake, and you see people literally going places they haven’t gone before. And though the numbers that belong to this tribe may still be small, they’re rising with each interaction across cultures, so that soon it may be the person who belongs only to one nationality, religion, or race who is the exception. The horizon, which once looked so uniform, is now changing with each new moment, invigoratingly.


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.


Q: You have spoken about how dance offers spaciousness, clarity, and focus to lives that feel continually congested and rushed. What is your response when we live in an instantaneous and demanding world? One that requires us to stream video, tweet, fill in Facebook pages, etc., about our work. Is there a way to weave these two dichotomous visions together?

A: I feel that most of us have all the stimulation, date, speed, and connectedness that we could want; what we crave most of all these days—and we can feel our bodies and souls crying out for it—is silence, stillness, and spaciousness. The average American now spends eight hours a day before a TV screen; the average American teenager sends 70 text messages a day. Even computer companies, such as Intel, are now experimenting with enforced “no e-mail Fridays” and four hours of obligatory “Quiet Time”—no telephones, computers, or screens—every week. We have moved, rather quickly, from having too much information about the world to having too little.

So I am a great believer in carving out a little time in every day—and year—to do nothing at all: just to sit quietly in a room, to go for a walk (without the i-Phone, BlackBerry, or laptop), simply to return to that quiet space without which we can’t begin to make clear decisions, hear ourselves think, be humans with something to offer to those around us. We spend so much time working on our bodies—I go to the gym every day since my doctor recommended it to me—but so little on our minds. And our minds are much more essential to our well-being than our bodies are (since if we’re buff and toned, but our minds are weak, we’re in real trouble; whereas if our minds are clear and strong, we can often survive, even flourish, although our bodies may be  weak).

My own response to the bombardment of data so many of us face these days is to live in rural Japan without high-speed Internet, a television I can understand, magazines or newspapers, or car or bicycle. And after I noticed, many years ago, that I had accumulated 1.5 million miles on United Airlines alone, I started retreating four times a year to a Catholic monastery, even though I’m not a Catholic or a monk. I don’t recommend these particular measures to everyone, but I do think each of us has to find a way to keep ourselves steady, centered, and clear, and able to see the wood from the trees. It may be running every morning, or doing yoga or tai-chi, or in fact dancing; but without this anchoring discipline and exercise, we’ll be lost in a wilderness of flashing bytes.

So when I think of dance these days, I think of it as a kind of meditation as well as a kind of action; a way of collecting oneself and one’s feelings, or instincts or impulses (as much as one’s thoughts). So many people I know dance, as amateurs, as a way to ground themselves, to clear their heads, to begin their day (as a cousin to tai chi or yoga, say). It becomes the way we gather and collect ourselves for the often frenzied movement that will follow. For many a professional, dance is a home; but even for the rest of us it can be a sanctuary, the way we take stillness to ourselves, to prepare for the day’s many movements.


Q: How do you see the current trend to continually market new work and constantly send out information instantaneously with the opposing desire to live a more balanced life? If one does not follow the current need to be “of the moment,” do you run the risk of living a balanced life but one without work?

A: I think one has to step outside the moment in order to understand it. When one’s caught inside a traffic jam and horns are blasting, people are shouting, nothing is moving, the only way to see the larger picture is to get out of the car, step up onto a hill nearby and see what’s going on and where one needs and wishes to go. Even as the world has so wonderfully opened up to us in terms of space, we have often imprisoned ourselves within an ever tinier sense of time, so that we’re completely hostage to the moment, and the tyranny of Right Now.

I, though a journalist, try to follow the news first-hand and not to take in any media at all; I follow what’s going on in the world not by watching CNN or reading my local paper, but by reading Shakespeare or listening to Handel or saving up my time and money so I can visit Beirut, North Korea, Haiti, Yemen, Cambodia in person and see them at a human level, in some way deeper and more complex than through the labels and boxes of the headlines.

And in terms of creative work, I think we can offer the most by sitting—or dancing—away from the moment. I used to try to write ahead of the curve, about what was coming next month; now I try to write against the curve, about what we’re forgetting as we accelerate toward tomorrow. And dancers, I think, can do this even more gracefully and fruitfully. Most of us attend dance performances in order to step outside the moment and the world and to enter some timeless, ancient place that answers to some place inside ourselves.


Q: We’re facing some rough economic and political waters in the arts. In the face of such rough waters, shall we: A) focus on changing our structures/organizations/support systems for dance in order to protect the art itself from needing to adapt; or do we B) support the art in adapting to our current realities?

A: That of course is the critical, and unanswerable, question, now more than ever: how to balance the needs of the soul with those of the world and how to follow one’s dreams without leaving reality behind altogether. It’s so easy to follow one’s art to the exclusion of all else, and end up with mere indulgence; it’s so easy to tailor it to society’s demands and end up with mere compromise.

At the same time, as Cyril Connolly said decades ago, it can be better to have your soul (and little audience) than to have an audience and no soul. If you are an artist—dancer or musician or writer—you’ve essentially committed yourself to satisfying your imagination and not your bank-account, and the only reason to pursue your discipline is to go places you could not go otherwise, and to find and then deepen, challenge, expand your inner world. So for me the first priority with any art must be self-expression; and if that is strong enough or distinct enough—as it can be with anyone—the audience will follow along with it. Whether it’s Virginia Woolf or Picasso or, no doubt, Nijinsky, the artist is the one who travels so deeply into herself that the world finds itself leaving its presumptions behind and entering a similar state of depth and concentration.

In order to live in the world, one has to make sacrifices: to support the writing that I love, I have to write as many as ten articles a week, often on subjects that don’t thrill me. And in order to support my family and those around me, I have to take on assignments that I’d never consider in a perfect world. But I do that always with a view to the fact that this is the payment required in order to pursue something much more substantial and inward; it’s the price of admission to the life of my dreams.

The purpose of dance, of any art, is to offer the world what it does not have enough of otherwise; so compromise, capitulating to the world, makes no sense at all. Do what you can to pay the bills, so that you can do what you love to settle some higher and more invisible account. The most important thing, I believe, is to try to live without regret and to ensure, as Thoreau so memorably had it, that you don’t die feeling that you never lived. If your art brings you fewer resources than another job, live more simply—and find, perhaps, that having fewer needs, as Socrates famously said, is even more conducive to happiness than having more things. And if your art is strong, it will strike the right chord in a stranger at some time, in some life-changing way. Build it and they will come.


Q: As an artist, sacrifices are necessary and excellence is required at all times. When it comes to longevity in the field, how is it possible to reconcile balance with excellence in one’s art?

A: Whenever I meet aspiring writers, I tell them that if they’re hoping to write in order to get rich, to become famous, or to gain more power, they should abandon their ambitions right now; they are not likely to become a Baryshnikov or Jagger or Rushdie. But if they want to lead rich lives, to make sense of their days, to gain powers inside themselves they didn’t know they had, I can’t think of a better occupation. To write—to dance, to make music—is to become incomparably affluent inside and to have a sense of possibility, of freedom, of real power that nothing else can rival.

When I was in my 20s, I was living on Park Avenue, writing cover-stories on world affairs for Time magazine, taking my holidays in Cuba and Burma and Morocco, and not having to worry about dependents or responsibilities. I couldn’t have been closer to my boyhood idea of glamour. But I also noticed that I was living according to someone else’s idea of happiness, and not my own. I was unable to hear myself think. And I was imprisoned, in some ways, in second-hand sense of fulfillment.

So I left my job to go and live for a year in a temple in Kyoto, to restore some balance. My high-minded year lasted all of a week—but here I am, 23 years on, and I still live near Kyoto, and, in fact, in a setting more monastic than the monastery I joined (though less solitary). And I never once miss the life of seeming glamour I once had. My days, without distractions, seem to last an eternity. I have time to take long walks around the neighborhood, play ping-pong daily, read on my terrace while eating sweet tangerines, write long letters to friends. I have to be disciplined in my work, have to return to the U.S. every year to remind my bosses that I exist, have to keep writing even on my birthday or New Year’s Day. But in return I have all the spaciousness and time to dwell in possibility I could want.

It reminds me of when I first went to visit a monastery. I knew that the monk’s code called for “poverty, obedience, and chastity.” So I never guessed that what I would find there would be the ultimate in luxuriousness, freedom, and sensuality, at least within. Maybe that’s the ultimate dancer’s lesson: to blend movement with stillness, the pause before the jump with the soaring leap.

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.


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