The Emperor’s Old Clothes?: Reflections on Thirty Years of the Ethnic Dance Festival

By Lily Kharrazi


Upfront: here is my disclaimer and confession. I owe much to the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival (EDF), which marks 30 years of presenting this June. I have lived on all sides of the equation: joyfully performing in its 10th anniversary show, rendering auditions, serving as program director for nine seasons. Grounded in this experience, I have never stopped advocating for a place at the proverbial table for ethnic dance artists. When I was asked to look back on the festival’s 30 years, I saw much to praise, and much I found disturbing. My confession? Thirty years on, the whole concept of this festival is troubling and needs to change. Let me explain why.

Thirty years ago, when the idea of an EDF was born, it was a politically charged proposition. With its mission to stake out a claim for culturally specific dance, those first performances at the Herbst Theater were something like a political occupation! Ethnic dance sat along side well-funded, establishment neighbors: the symphony, opera and ballet, claiming its space. The energy was palpable, raucous crowds showering the performers with exhortations to give more and more. The festival was birthed out of the identity politics of the time. Today’s festival format—a string of beads, one disparate dance following another—evolved as more and more artists sought to participate, becoming the festival blueprint, making and remaking the festival’s main statement: celebrate diversity.

Of course we want to celebrate our diversity, especially where it has been problematized; in a place like the Bay Area, our more progressive attitudes can be a beacon light in a troubled sea. The EDF has raised the profile of culturally specific dance for decades, providing a beautifully appointed stage, technical direction, publicity and marketing that is only possible through a collective effort. But paradoxically, this format unintentionally obliterates cultural uniqueness by lumping everything under a “brand.” The uninflected sequence of dance offerings can become monotonous, a blur, a festival monoculture. As so often happens, the thing we set out to embrace—diverse cultures’ value and right to coexist—has become a limitation. If there is a monster here, I confess, I helped to create it.

On this anniversary, it’s time to pull back and consider the larger implications of the messages broadcast through the EDF. The packaging of culture is a critical issue everywhere we look today. If in gazing at the Festival’s face we see only the “festive and colorful” costumes, we run the risk of being mesmerized by the Emperor’s Old Clothes and fail to see the nakedness. What does it mean to be “ethnic” or “other” in this society? How do we look at this fascinating laboratory of 30 years and learn something about the way in which we want others to see us? How do we wish to project ourselves? What does the whole package say about the producers who make choices about the overall aesthetic statement? What is this representation all about?

My discomfort turns on the kind of repertoire predominating most ethnic dance companies. You know it when you see it: dances of the village, dances of the harvest, dances of war and celebration, and so on: nostalgic backward glances. This legacy has a lineage. It is modeled after the celebrated work of Igor Moiseyev, a choreographer who researched regional styles of dance in the former Soviet Union. His self-named dance company brought to the stage stunning pieces of character dance that toured the world when cold war politics and superpower rhetoric were at an all-time high. It spawned the viral idea of state-sponsored dance companies as cultural ambassadors to the world, packaging the public face of culture. Today, Moiseyev’s offspring are found on every continent, state ballet companies around the world serving as training grounds for new talent. The Bay Area has benefited, with many alumni of this system making homes here. A short list of luminaries include: Naomi and Zakariya Diouf (Liberia and Senegal), Jose Francisco Barroso (Cuba), Marcelo Pereira (Brazil), Alseny Soumah (Guinea) and Vladimir Riazanstev (Russia, in fact a soloist with the Moiseyev Ballet). These master artists have toured the world. Indeed, for some, it was touring the United States that provided an exit out of their homelands.

With their arrival, things have changed. It is exactly because of this rich talent that the festival can lead in charting a future course for world dance presentation. In the past, most aficionados of ethnic dance had to be satisfied with tableau or slice-of-life theatrical presentations. It was often the only way to experience other cultures outside of imagining dance while listening to a collection of scratched and overused Nonesuch LPs of field recordings from the villages of Bali or mountains of Macedonia. But today, audiences are more sophisticated and less gullible. Possessing the ability to access firsthand the cultures of the world through travel, immigration, the web, or through visiting artists from abroad demands that we promote more than caricatures of complicated lives and histories on stage. The challenge is to create and present work rooted in tradition that explores complex lives and complex identities: not gazing into the rearview mirror, but fearlessly forward, into what can only be imagined.

We live in interesting times, surrounded by images of conflict and language that sorts people into “factions” (Iraqi chaos on the nightly news) or dismisses complicated situations as “tribalism.” We sadly have come to recognize the phrase “ethnic cleansing.” It is important to insure that a platform like a cultural dance festival tells a different, deeper story now. We need to connect the threads of representation, to use our humanizing capacity to make art to see past the Emperor’s Old Clothes to the stories of dislocation, disconnection, resilience and recovery that speak our truths today.

The Festival has fulfilled its original goals. If proof is needed that world dance presentation is here to stay, note that the 30th anniversary season expands from three weekends to four. Touring the festival to other locations is on the table as well as host of other services to support communities and artists. It is a labor of love, and apparently the artists think it is well worth it, as each January the auditions have steadily supplied over 100 hopefuls, and they have been lining up for decades now. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the EDF is that many companies who began there have grown sophisticated enough to produce their own home seasons, bringing more depth and context to their artistic vision in an evening’s work. To pick just one example, Patrick Makuakane, director of Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu was able to test drive many pieces at the festival in the 1990s. These artists are well-equipped to take up the challenge of renewing tradition in light of current realities, and I am excited to see how they do it.

Congratulations to the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival on three decades of work. Now to the future.

This article appeared in the June 2008 issue of In Dance.

Lily Kharrazi is the program manager of the Living Cultures Grants Program at the Alliance for California Traditional Arts where she has had the privilege of meeting and working with many of the communities whose portraits helped to inform this essay. A dance ethnologist by training, she has worked in refugee resettlement and was formerly program director at World Arts West, producing nine seasons of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. She serves as a consultant to both local and national projects involved with arts and culture. A first generation American, she is trying to figure out if it’s family folklore or truth to say that she is the first one in her family to be born outside of Iran in 14 generations.