Friday, January 27, 2012

Meeting Artists Abroad

I decided to write about past international experiences and the impact of meeting artists abroad has had on my work and the way I view dance. This is my first installment. In 1999 I was invited to Pakistan to interact with dance artists and travel to the historic sites of Alexander the Great because I was working on a new dance for the Kennedy Center about Alexander's life. The current salt flats of Pakistan are the farthest reaches of Alexander's campaigns. The great artwork of Gandhara, now in the regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, are where the first images of the Buddha emerged. Prior to this time he was depicted by symbols, such as footprints or hands but never in full body form. The artisans left behind by Alexander depicted a Greek pantheon of gods at home and thus gave the Buddha physical form in Pakistan. These Buddhas are beautiful, cloaked in Greecian garb with Amerasian features. As a child I was so fascinated by them that when I reached the great Buddhist temple ruins of Pakistan I was overwhelmed.

In 1999 these sites were under attack from militant Muslims. The art was considered a threat. I remember visiting a chained up museum of Buddhist art that had been recently looted by the Taliban. In the dark, using a flashlight to look at the works that had survived with a security team in tow, these ancient works unfolded before me. Pakistan's people are so diverse being at the cross roads of the East and West for centuries. Faces in the Swat Valley are informed by multiple Semetic tribes, the Chinese, Europeans and more.

I visited 6 dance artists in Pakistan. I choose not to name them to protect them. At the time under strict Muslim law, dancing was illegal but not always enforced as so. Dancers survived under the radar. I met with dancers, watched their choreography, exchanged ideas on art and even thoughts on the effects of the Partician on Katak which is a often thought of as a Hindu based form. My final artist exchange occurred near the tribal areas with a talented Katak dancer. In her home was a man recovering from a gun shot wound. He had been shot for dancing. He had almost died. He appeared to be in his early twenties and was very thin and weak. We sat together and I was so moved by the fact that they danced with the full fear of being killed for practicing their art. They believed so wholeheartedly in dance that it was tantamount to their own physical safety. I will never forget these wonderful dancers. It has stayed with me for years. Now when I hear a dancer question their belief in their work, their funding, their lack of accolades, and a plethora of other woes, these are the dancers that come to mind. How lucky we are to be able to dance freely and express ourselves openly. We have the freedom to build dances with a sheer sense of openness and to communicate our thoughts and ideas through dance to others. May we all find a place to dance with freedom and remember what a gift freedom of expression is and strive to help our fellow artists.


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