Careers in dance Transculturality instead of Multiculturalism

„Dialoge 09 - MAXXI Bernd Uhlig 2009“

In the 21st century dancers and choreographers are at home everywhere and nowhere.

Take the example of the celebrated Forsythe Company: it currently consists of 22 dancers from eleven nations. It is still led by its founder William Forsythe who was raised in New York, but since 2004 his company has been based in Dresden and Frankfurt. Or that of his fellow-American Meg Stuart: she lives in Berlin, her company Damaged Goods operates from Brussels. In 1991 she accepted an invitation to the Klapstuk Festival in Leuven where she was able to present her first full-length choreography Disfigure Study. The resonance was overwhelming; Stuart began to spend more time in Europe than in the USA and in 1994 she founded her company in Brussels. This was possible, not least, because she received public funding as the first non-Belgian choreographer.

Whereas in German spoken theatre it is still an exception that actors “with a migration background” (as the foreign in the familiar is termed nowadays) perform on stage, careers in dance – as in the visual arts and music – are international. Since the 1990s this tendency has been reinforced by the accelerated transfer movements of globalisation. In German spoken theatre plays are currently being discussed in which actors as the children of second or third-generation immigrants become the performers of their own history and thus negotiate the diversification of a society once hailed as “multicultural”. In dance, in contrast, immigration and emigration are givens to such an extent that they are hardly reflected in artistic practice. For it is often the precondition of artistic activity: people leave their home countries to learn and to practise. But the reason for both migration movements is ultimately to be found in the respective economic situation. Contemporary art is after all, as the art critic and essayist Nicolas Bourriaud writes ”a contemporary of the economy surrounding it.”

Multilingualism on many levels

There are various reasons for the internationality of dance: in many countries infrastructures for contemporary dance such as training centres and public funds hardly exist. Young dancers are often autodidacts, teaching themselves for example via youtube, or they go abroad to train. In this respect, too, there is a basic structural difference between dance and spoken theatre as in acting schools students of non-German descent are distinctly underrepresented. There are of course difficulties involved in border-crossing: students already have to cope with the Kafkaesque bureaucracy in acquiring a visa, and this continues after completing the course – particularly if graduates wish to work as freelance dancers or choreographers and are unable to prove beyond any doubt that they will not require welfare assistance from the state. Moreover, it appears that in the tense crisis-ridden climate since 2008 borders have once again become more difficult to cross and visas issued with greater reluctance. In artistic practice this friction has not (yet) become palpable.

“Everyone brings their own background, body knowledge and culture with them,” says the Argentinean choreographer Paula Rosolen, who studied at the University of Music and Performing Arts (HfMDK) in Frankfurt. “My experience is very different to that of my fellow students from Poland, Korea, Russia or China. In training we try to find a common ground.” Intercultural discourse and exchange already take place here. “You grow tremendously as a person,” claims Rosolen. “You learn about stories that are very different from your own and also from that of the place where you are now living together.” Internationality and interculturality are closely intertwined here – also in the diverse conditioning of the bodies that congregate here and work with one another, skin to skin, bone to bone. The “universal” art form dance has changed: nowadays its cross-border comprehensibility is based less on the fact that it does not rely on verbal communication but rather on the multilingualism that prevails in its movement vocabulary as well as in oral speech. In rehearsals the working language in any case is English.

Cultural conditioning of the body

In recent years a few choreographic works have focussed on cultural prefigurations in dance: for instance the piece Nijinsky Siam by the Thai choreographer Pichet Klunchun is a comparison of dance cultures that from the very beginning casts doubt on the identity of enclosed cultural spheres and celebrates the productivity of contact points where traditions – here classical ballet and Thai Khon dance – intertwine and communicate in translation with one another. For artistic inspiration definitely does not stop at national borders. Translation is also used by Monika Gintersdorfer and Knut Klaßen as an aesthetic tool: in their staged encounters between Ivorian and German dancers they present their socialisation and learning processes in dance to one another and thus also to the audience. Here they use the elements of multilingualism and translation (the German dancer always translates what the Ivorian is reporting) in order to reveal and negotiate the cultural contexts of dance.

Thus dance in its everyday routine and on stage retraces a kinetics of globalisation: over 175 million people live outside their home country, a trend that is increasing. Identities, ethnos and nationalities are in flux. “A recurring question in my works,” said Meg Stuart once in an interview, “concerns the double experience of feeling at home everywhere and nowhere.” One could say that dance creates trans-cultural or trans-national identities where cultures and forms of expression interweave to an almost utopian point: here the future of culturally diversified societies can be drafted and rehearsed.