Dispersing the Diaspora: Excerpts from the CounterPULSE Blog

By In Dance

November 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Edited by Maureen Walsh

Traversing personal and cultural borders are two topics that the Performing Diaspora artists, staff and audience are talking about. I’ve sifted though the CounterPULSE blog, selecting compelling excerpts from Prumsodun Ok, Sri Susilowati and Adia Whitaker. These snippets highlight their trials and triumphs in bridging cultural boundaries of gender, identity and creative innovation. I hope these encourage you to join the discussion currently in progress at http://counterpulse.org/blog.

By Prumsodun Ok
Neang Sovann Atmani
MAY 20, 2009

A Cambodian classical dancer, when practicing her moving meditation developed over a thousand years ago as a ritual prayer, displays a serpentine grace that is hypnotic and sublime. Her form is supple, her gestures fluid, and she floats in curvilinear paths across the stage.

When referring to “her,” I am speaking of an ideal embodied most by the apsara – celestial dancers, the ultimate feminine beauty and grace seen in Cambodian culture and art, the role most young girls in America strive to perform – that I am obviously not. I am a young man performing male and demon roles that are traditionally performed by women. I am a child of peasant farmers practicing an art developed and nurtured in the royal palace (in its more recent history). I wasn’t even born in Cambodia. But I am actually not that different from my predecessors.

The physical and cultural ideals of man and woman have a powerful presence in Cambodian classical dance. They are embodied by the movements, illustrated and passed on with each gesture executed and performance delivered. I used to ask myself as a teenage boy, distraught, “Why do I love this thing that brings me so much pain? How can I ever successfully be something not myself?” Many questions like these made their home in my head and heart, always bringing with them an overwhelming loneliness and making my pursuits in Cambodian classical dance seem meaningless and nonsensical.

Approaching the Feminine
AUGUST 20, 2009

I practiced the male and demon roles assigned to me along with the female roles I observed during open rehearsals and on the television screen. The hair on the back of my neck rose and goosebumps formed on my skin at the thought of the kru (the teacher spirits) who should strike me down for my transgression at any given moment. The sensation of fear was strongest when I executed a movement – male or female – that was not of my own, that which eliminated my identity most.

I began to understand the differences between male and female, questioning them through these solitary rehearsals shrouded in fear of the kru who seemed to be watching so close by, ready to drop the sky upon me should I let down my guard. As the cultural-physical expectations became more clear, I found myself thinking: all men don’t move this way nor do they have to and I have known plenty of wonderful women who cannot be reduced to thin-framed, demure princesses trapped to play in a tame and fragile garden. I certainly was not a man of Cambodia’s royal court and decided I could not fully understand its ideals. I began to bend and break the form, pushing each gesture and pulling every movement a little more and more in a manner that felt so very right inside of me.

[From an email responding to my inquiry about relating his process to the upcoming performance.]
OCTOBER 1, 2009

I kept pushing harder: bending fingers back just a bit more, pulling legs further back past the waist, smiling into that mirror until it was just right. And it wasn’t until years later that I understood that these coded movements were more than just oppressive social expectations and fragile gender identities. Robam Tamng Buon, a suite of four dances, is perhaps one of the oldest works of the Cambodian classical dance canon. It is performed during the buong suong ceremony, functioning as a prayer in dance and music for the deliverance of rain, peace, and well-being. It may surprise most people that during this dance suite – part of a crucial act and ritual in which the survival of the Cambodian people rests – none is depicted but a courtship between the men and women of heaven. Dressed in their finery, they dance blissfully in matching pairs of god and goddess. When this happens, according to scholar Paul Cravath, there is a “regeneration,” a force and power that is borne of the harmonious union of male and female energies that sustains life. In other words, the health and order of a divine existence, ingrained in the art – in each turn of the wrist, in each note of the music, in each pattern of a costume, in each choreographed formation of the dancers – is successfully delivered to the people and land after the ceremony’s execution in the human realm.

This ritualistic mixing of male and female energies is again exemplified in Robam Buong Suong Yokorn in which a pream (brahmin), dressed in white to allude to Lord Brahma’s white beard (and the same white as the costume of Mera, mother of the Cambodian race, which is symbolic of her transcendent purity). This being, half-male and half-female, appears at the height of Cambodian dance ritual to serve as a messenger to Preah Prum.

(Lord Brahma) – the god and energy and force of creation, from whom I was given life (Prumsodun can be translated as “borne of the breast of Brahma”). Imagine how much hatred and suffering would be rid of in this world if the people who embodied both the masculine and feminine inside their bodies and personalities were accepted, were valued for their political and spiritual potential and abilities. Furthermore, I cannot help but think of how much humans have strayed and digressed when encountering this quote from the Rigveda, “He, who is described as male, is as much the female and the penetrating eye does not fail to see it.”

Armed with this enlightened idea, equipped with the power of the pream of Robam Buong Suong Yokorn, propelled by the ritualistic function of Robam Tamng Buon, I appear on stage – painted completely white, gendered woman with one item of regalia – with a quiet knowing. I dance not for nation state; I dance not for the continuity of a race’s historical narrative. My dance is not borne of ethnic pride nor is it exotica for cultural consumption. I draw upon the sacred vocabulary and choreography of Cambodian classical dance, upon the ideas that have informed and given life to its practice throughout the years, as a means of making a right society. The tradition of which my art takes life is one of peace and order, health and harmony, truth and well-being – this is my culture.

Rooted in ideas and rituals developed long ago is of clear and utter relevance, a voice that tells me that it is so very okay to be who I am – reminding me of my responsibility in the sustenance of all life and my duty to share this art-religion-science-magic-philosophy with the world. We, as living beings, have all we need to realize truth and it is this state – ageless, divine, expansive – that I hope my work embodies.

By Sri Susilowati
Traditional Dance Does Not Put The “No” In Innovation
JUNE 2, 2009

Dancers from all sorts of traditions that are not well known get pigeon-holed as ethnic because of their technique. The expectation is often that they work in preservation mode, repeating their classics over and over again. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with preservation, it is very important, but it is a starting point. It is a starting point where dancers and choreographers can master techniques that takes years to learn, and technique is the departure point for expression. Many choreographers such as myself perform classical dance, but infuse their own choreography so it’s not classical like preservationists would understand it. Nor is it modern or post-modern as people generally understand the terms and the meaning of modernity.

Of course, a challenge is that for audiences not familiar with the tradition, they don’t understand the structure of the tradition and so anything that has elements of the tradition cannot be innovative. Sometimes promoters and producers of traditional dance do not want anything that has a tinge of innovation in it. As a result, many world choreographers market their work as squarely traditional (for those who want it to be so), and then turn around to market the same piece as modern/post-modern (for those who want that).

I am a world choreographer originally from Indonesia and trained in the classical and traditional forms of Java, Sunda, and Bali from when I was a child. My interests, however, go beyond the set traditional and classical pieces to developing new choreography, using traditional and classical techniques to explore current issues. This interest forms a natural continuum with my native tradition. For example, in my original culture narratives from the Mahabharata have long been adapted in Wayang (shadow puppet theater) to explore issues of family planning, tolerance, and democracy. The essence of the aesthetics of Indonesian dance, particularly from the islands of Java and Bali, can be explained through three words: wirama, wiraga and wirasa. Wirama means the harmony and internal rhythm of the movement. Wiraga is the intensity and fullness of the movement, not in terms of its external power, but more along the lines of being filled with chi (in Chinese) or prana (Sanskrit). Soft and delicate movement can be wiraga while movement that is seemingly strong and powerful can lack it altogether. Wirasa is the feeling of the movement. The word feeling here is used not in the sense of emotion or passion, but in term of the sensation when emotion and mental construct are set aside.

[From an email responding to my question, “What would you like the audience to know while watching your performance?”]
OCTOBER 3, 2009

Part of the challenge for traditional art forms is to remain fresh and relevant while at the same time being true to their roots without simply repeating the classics and relegating the art form to dry, museum pieces. In my view the way to meet and overcome this challenge is not to reject new technology, viewing new methods as corrupting the art form, but rather to think clearly about the core, underlying aesthetic principles of the tradition.

There’s an emphasis on mastery of technique in Indonesian dance. I want to preserve that emphasis while at the same time become open to new ways of using that technique. The Performing Diaspora process is very valuable as it creates the opportunity for feedback, support, and disagreement in a supportive atmosphere.

Indonesian dance has an aesthetic that may be new to some of the audience. Javanese dance, in particular, has an aesthetic that developed over centuries with influences from Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Europe. I hope that the audience will be able to key into the precision and subtle energy as opposed to looking for flashy movement.

By Adia Whitaker
“Ampey!” Line, Circle, He(r)art
JUNE 24, 2009

At first, I thought this process was all about “the concepts that shape tradition,” but it’s bigger than that. It’s as big as, “the concepts that shape the people that shape our relationships to tradition and the culture that shapes them.” Something as simple as the way we communicate about our form is an incredibly important part of how we are going to carry on these traditions.

For example, if you ask a circle to explain itself, but the circle is only encouraged to communicate in the language of a line or box, will you ever really understand how that circle works or what it’s made of? And, if the circle is only allowed to explain itself in line or box language, how can an audience of observers begin to understand the principles by which the circle maintains its shape? For that matter, how can the circle ever reach its fullest potential if it’s never even heard its own voice.

Navigating through the principle to reach the fullest potential of the shape and teaching an audience to speak “circle” so they can understand the “heart” of the work, is the map for my journey in Performing Diaspora.

The Memo
AUGUST 19, 2009

I didn’t get the memo. You know the one that breaks down the ways in which descendants of enslaved Africans have a different, but just as post-traumatic-stress-disordered psychosis than the descendants of colonized Africans. To be fair, I looked completely different when I’ve traveled abroad before (I had long hair), and there is no pronoun for “he”or “she” in Ghanaian language. Word. My bad. Yet and still, I was expecting some kind of Haiti-ish/Southern American Negro/Caribbean stratification based on class-ish thing, where everyone called me white. Right. And that kinda played out the way I thought it would in the whole gray area surrounding the use of the Twi word “Obruni.” Ghanaians use it to describe English speaking foreigners, but, I feel, there was a little extra stank on it when it came to me, mostly because I was not falling in line with the homogeneous nature of their culture.

When I’d pull their card about it (the whole “Obruni” thing) they say, “Ohhh nooo! That’s just how we describe foreigners.” They would then introduce me as, “This is Adia! She thinks she is black!”

I found their constructs of “black” and “white” completely different than the ones in the U.S. In Ghana, because my skin was not dark brown, I was considered white. Well not white-white, but a version of it. One man at an internet cafe said to me, “Well we are confused because we can’t tell sometimes the difference between a black American and a white American. It seems as though you all have the ability to turn yourselves white if you want to. Beyonce? Michael Jackson?”

My gender was also questioned frequently, because I don’t wear earrings. At first, my hair was cut into a fade and then I shaved it bald because it was causing too much trouble. In my mind I thought Africa would be the perfect place to grow it out. No pressure to look like a rock star and all that. Big mistake. Big, big mistake.

Nowhere in that did I anticipate the level to which my physical appearance would cause such disruption in the daily lives of Ghanaians. They really, absolutely needed to know whether I was a boy or girl to continue any interaction with me. At home, I’m this exotic, bald-headed, queen honey bee. In Ghana, I was the sick, skinny dog walking down the road that would confuse people and cause hysteria. I made a list:

Adia’s hair in Ghana = black man

Adia’s hair in the U.S. = bald-headed lady (I guess there are so many in Brooklyn and the Bay nobody trips.)

Adia’s skin & nose in Ghana = white

Adia’s skin & nose in the U.S = light-skinned, black, possibly bi-racial, with a white nose

Adia’s speaking voice in Ghana = woman

Adia’s speaking voice in the U.S. = woman

Adia’s body type in Ghana = small boy (Because I have “small breasts,” they said.)

Adia’s body type in the U.S. = woman of small stature

Adia’s carriage in Ghana = woman, sometimes “boygirl”

Adia’s carriage in the U.S. = woman

Adia’s dance in Ghana = African woman

Adia’s dance in the U.S = black woman

Adia’s singing voice in Ghana = African woman

Adia’s singing voice in the U.S. = old black woman

Adia’s name in Ghana = African woman

Adia’s name in the U.S. = black gurl

This article appeared in the November 2009 issue of In Dance.

In Dance is a publication of Dancers' Group.