A Labyrinth of Cultural Histories: Exploring the Legacies of the 2015 Panama–Pacific International Exposition

By Rob Taylor

January 1, 2015, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the Panama- Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), which was held in San Francisco on 625 acres of landfill that would later become the Marina District. In our current era of instant communication and unfettered online exchange, the idea of an international exposition seems somewhat quaint, although I was surprised to find that they are still held on a regular basis (see you in Milan 2015!).

Expositions and world fairs like the PPIE were a product of a pre-globalized era when experiences were unmediated by technology, and large-scale events were required to popularize trends and discoveries. These massive year-long series of events are a pre-requisite to globalization and facilitated the process through the introduction of new international cultures, arts, foods, and—most important of all—trade to the west. Expositions left indelible imprint on the cities where they were held, and the 1915 PPIE was no exception.

photo by RJ Muna
photo by RJ Muna

As part of a number of celebrations held throughout San Francisco in 2015 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of this particular exposition, Dancers’ Group and World Arts West are programming their monthly, free Rotunda Dance Series at San Francisco City Hall with companies that reflect or re-frame the cultures and contexts of the 1915 exhibition. The series begins February 20—the exact date of the PPIE’s 100th anniversary— with performances by Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, Balinese company Gamelan Sekar Jaya, and a Swedish folk dance performance. To understand how these companies reflect the Exposition’s legacy, some context is necessary.

The PPIE has remained particularly vivid in San Francisco’s collective civic memory—I don’t think the 1894 Midwinter’s Exposition or 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition receive nearly as much retrospective attention. Part of the reason is that the PPIE left San Francisco with one of its most iconic landmarks in the Palace of Fine Arts, although it’s often forgotten that the building now called Bill Graham Civic Auditorium was also built as an off-site venue for the Exposition. That these are the only physical remains of this monumental event is surprising, although other buildings lack the romance of the Palace of Fine Arts. If they had survived, I doubt couples would be lining up to have wedding photos taken at the Palace of Food Products or the Palace of Education and Social Economy.

Over the span of 9 months, more than 18 million people (a number that represented more than 20% of the entire US population at the time) attended the fair which featured over 80,000 exhibits and the participation of over 40 countries. The PPIE was formerly intended to be a celebration of the prior year’s completion of the Panama Canal, and it’s fairly well known that the exposition was also meant to display San Francisco’s full recovery from the 1906 earthquake that had leveled the city. But most importantly, the PPIE celebrated the burgeoning imperial ambitions of the United States, and positioned the building of the Panama Canal and the many neo-colonial excursions the country was taking as natural extensions of the “Manifest Destiny” policy that had guided US growth in the prior century.

The PPIE was held at a time when America was beginning to display its military power on an international stage, beginning with the Spanish-American war and the resultant occupation of the Philippines which would continue until 1946. In July of 1915, the US would invade and begin a 19 year occupation of Haiti. And in 1915 the former autonomous kingdom of Hawai‘i had been a formal US territory for 16 years, in the midst of a slow path towards statehood. One of the most popular exhibits at the PPIE was the Hawaiian exhibit, where Americans familiarized themselves with their new colonial acquisition.

As part of the exhibit, a group of Hawaiian dancers performed outside the lagoon at the Palace of Fine Arts. In Beyond Isadora, her indispensable history of Bay Area dancing from the time of Isadora Duncan through the 1960s, Joanna Gewertz Harris notes that a contemporary newspaper “describes them as famous for their dusky beauty.” This kind of exotic-ized depiction and superficial understanding of non-western culture and arts was common at the PPIE. Dance is an entry point to experiencing a culture, but as the comment reveals, it does not necessarily follow that experience leads to understanding.

In 2015 many of the cultural forms presented at the PPIE are now being sustained in the Bay Area by the diverse communities that have immigrated to this region over the last 100 years. Berkeley-based Balinese dance and music company Gamelan Sekar Jaya, performing at the Rotunda dance performance on February 20, 2015, is an excellent example of the way that the San Francisco Bay Area has become a center for the preservation and development of dance cultures from around the world.

Balinese culture was represented at the PPIE under the colonial moniker of the Dutch East Indies. Indonesia was the largest Dutch colony, and natural resources like nutmeg, peppers, cloves and cinnamon were grown and sold for the benefit of the Dutch colonial administration who also introduced non- indigenous crops—most notably coffee—to the Indonesian agricultural ecosystem. After World War II, Indonesian nationalists declared independence and the subsequent Indonesian National Revolution ended when the Netherlands formally recognized Indonesian sovereignty in 1949.

Gamelan Sekar Jaya was founded in 1979 by a group of predominantly white aficionados of Balinese culture along with Balinese Gamelan master I Wayan Suweca. Despite their East Bay heritage, they have grown over the past three decades to be viewed as one of the most artistically important and relevant Balinese Gamelan company, receiving the Dharma Kusuma— Bali’s highest award for artistic achievement. Their performance at the Rotunda Dance Series will include a ceremony that recalls the Dutch colonial era depicted at the 1915 Exposition, as well as the economic exploitation of Balinese resources.

The PPIE was also important milestone in the popularization of the burgeoning modern dance forms created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in opposition to ballet. In Beyond Isadora, Harris states the natural style of dance created by San Franciscan Isadora Duncan at the turn of the century began to enter the mainstream dance culture at this time, due in part to the inclusion of Duncan-style dance on performance stages at the PPIE alongside music hall style dance forms. According to Harris, “the general public thus began to see dancing different from that at music halls and in vaudeville in intention, costume and design… At the PPIE dance began to acquire a different dimension, an aura of grace.”

The Rotunda series performance on the 20th will also feature a performance by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. It may be argued that Jenkins’ own graceful work is part of a dance lineage that extends back to Duncan, but Jenkins has spent her career creating dance that is informed by collaboration across disciplines and cultures, working with companies and artists in milieus as diverse as India, China, and most recently, Jerusalem. This outward seeking creative philosophy is one that is not uncommon in contemporary choreographers who have reached the edges of the modern dance vocabulary, but in her body of work Jenkins has successfully walked a path that has felled many lesser choreographers whose collaborative work has been less authentically process-oriented than hers has been, and more about combining different cultural forms as a stunt to attract new audiences.

The most curious and potentially most interesting performance at the opening of the Rotunda series is the Swedish folk dance. Sweden was represented at the PPIE. Yet, 1915 was a period where many European immigrants to America began to abandon their cultural traditions and practices with the goal of being accepted into the dominant homogenous “American” cultural identity that promised the benefits of what is now commonly referred to as white privilege, constructed on a system that oppressed people of color. Peeling back the artificially created “white” culture to explore the distinct cultures that were abandoned in its construction (such as the Scandinavian dance forms the Swedish dancers will present) has the potential to remind an audience of the complex and contested processes that make up our country’s cultural history.

The gulf of differences between the world of 1915 and the world of 2015 is vast, but there is one notable similarity. Attendees of the 1915 PPIE were experiencing cultural, economic and technological changes at a rate faster than they had ever experienced before. In 2015 we are, as a culture, experiencing a similar rate of change that is dizzying and sometime dispiriting. These dance forms provide a connection with the labyrinthine histories of our past while also offering optimistic visions for the possibilities of the future.

The 2015 Rotunda Dance Series will continue with monthly performances through December 4, with performances by artists to include Halau o Keikiali’i, Kaiwen You Chinese Dance, Nimely Pan African Dance Company, Shinichi Iova-Koga, and many other Bay Area artists sustaining dance and music from around the world. For more information visit dancersgroup.org/rotunda

Rob Taylor is a writer and arts administrator working in the San Francisco Bay Area.