Early in this decade, an arts administrator from Baltimore whispered to me, “Multi-culti will be the buzzword of the ’90s.” I wondered then if this was a good thing, and I am wondering it now.
Multiculturalism is certainly here to stay. The NEA Four’s defunding, the case that dragged through the courts for most of the decade, created the petri dish in which the boom was born. Arts presenters hoping to fill their calendars with “unobjectionable” programming found a solution in multicultural presentations–works that could be construed as anthropology and could also satisfy certain community outreach goals. The verbiage used to promote these events has been bewildering. Here is an excerpt from an Australian Web site, Cyberdance, describing a typical project: “an encounter between traditional dance necessarily tied to a history and place, and modern dance as a multinational, multicultural wanderer free to roam across localities, borders and histories in an emergent… world.”
I’d like to raise some questions about this vortex of diversity after watching it develop over the last 10 years. Is the “discovery”of world performance simply appropriation? African sculpture existed long before Picasso stumbled across it. Harem pants were being worn long before Parisian hostesses sawthem in Diaghilev’s costume closet.
Look at this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival. The following traditions were represented: Taiwanese, Korean, South African, Irish, American Indian, salsa, flamenco, and square dancing, among others, with Merce Cunningham thrown in as the bastion of good-old-fashioned, Eurocentric art stars. Does performance at Lincoln Center strengthen these heritages and magically transform them into equal members of the canon? Does turning this work into a consumer product really serve misrepresented people, or does it merely toss a few personalities into the art-star machine? Is the multi-culti phenomenon a token bribe, a sop? Or a fad, like Madonna popularizing yoga, East Village trust-fund brats wearing bindis. Does it maintain the inequity of the art-historic status quo by objectifying the exotic and sifting it into fashion, taking plurality off the street and marching it up the avenue?
Am I even allowed to raise these questions as, on the surface, I am one of the privileged: white and male? My queerness surely opens a window of understanding into the marginalized, even though there have always been a few fags loitering in the halls of the academy, as long as they aren’t too flamboyant. White shame and guilt must be acknowledged as a component of multi-culti’s rise.
This spring, while attending the Spoleto Festival U.S.A., I cringed to see Conjunto Folklórico Naçionale de Cuba strut and sashay under the moss-hung live oaks of Charleston, South Carolina, within half a mile of the old slave blocks. Fanning myself in the piss-warm breeze, I was surrounded by boozy, white, geriatric types in seersucker suits and bow ties, men who called their wives “Mother.” Were any of these people healed or uplifted by their troubling cultural voyeurism? As a testament to the power of a single artist’s ability to transcend the vogue by vision, in that same festival I left the Urban Bush Women’s concert of Self-Portrait, Transitions, and Batty Moves feeling included, celebratory, not guilty of anything, my essential human nature affirmed.
What is the bulk of this inter- and intracultural pageantry actually saying? Much of the programming falls into the category of lecture/demonstration, a living encyclopedia. But even this format can become a springboard for something profound and transformational, like Reggie Wilson’s love, at last year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Wilson uses dance ethnography to present a picture of enduring spirituality connected to the shifting geography of the African diaspora.
Some movement artists are creating work that grafts the guts of various lineages onto each other in intriguing ways without rhetoric, fusing classical and contemporary shapes into a new hybrid entity. Successful results include Doug Elkins’s Center My Heart, for which he won a Bessie in 1997, and Séan Curran’s Folk Dance for the Future, which premiered in Prospect Park last summer. Some choreographers simply glue eight counts of ballet to eight counts of something else for an effect like smarmy channel surfing, cf., Karole Armitage’s unfortunate Predator’s Ball at BAM two seasons ago.
When this melding does work, as in Maia Claire Garrison’s collaboration with Carlos Funn, Think What You Will, part of this year’s Out of Doors, you see the extended line of ballet, the sequential liquidity of postmodern dance, the contortions of Fosse, the athleticism of capoeira, and the percussive isolations of West African dance achieve a synergy. The interstices between identifiable positions are the most interesting. These are the awkward moments when the body can’t rely on its training and hasn’t yet memorized its path–like when shoulder blades travel from a fourth position pirouette preparation into a series of rapid contractions, or the grounded pelvis of African dance negotiates the elevation of a classical glissade. The body forging new alliances and making up links as they come could be an analogy for intercultural dialogue.
Voicing concerns about the uses of multiculturalism doesn’t mean that the work shouldn’t be seen, shouldn’t be given a rightful place at the table. But ripping things out of their native venues can be akin to declawing a cat. These lineages have thrived as a living heritage; ascribing them to the cobwebbed loftiness of the dead arts could diminish their potency.
In the vanguard of modernism, any new commingling of forms needs its cheerleaders to encourage and educate a confused audience (John Martin for modern dance, Clement Greenberg for abstract expressionism). So has multiculturalism needed this initial period of advocacy from presenters and curators. Now it is time to move on, to transcend the commodification of the exotic.
Clifford Geertz has written that he is distressed by the modern world, finding it “fluid, plural, uncentered, and ineradicably untidy.” Perhaps multicultural programming, instead of rectifying art history’s narrow focus, has really been an attempt to tidy this mess with pigeonholing and categorization.
Choreographer Donald McKayle was multicultural long before it was fashionable. Like Jawole Willa Jo Zollar of Urban Bush Women, his work incorporates the global community as an extension of his personal vision, not because it looks good on a grant proposal. A mini-festival within 1998’s Out of Doors focused on his 50-year legacy, allowing him to emerge from Alvin Ailey’s shadow. Dayton Contemporary Dance Company showed three of his early works, two of which have become modern dance classics: 1951’s Games and 1959’s Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder. The Limón Dance company, for whom McKayle now serves as “artistic mentor” and resident choreographer, performed his new, somewhat derivative work, Heartbeats. This suite of dances to a selection of global music traversed familiar McKayle terrain: virtuosic execution of eloquently earthy, universally humane themes.
McKayle’s dances have always celebrated hope and the human heart, while unflinchingly showing painful sides of the American black experience (urban grit, Southern chain gangs). His career spans Broadway (five Tony nominations), film, and concert halls, both as a dancer and choreographer. His autobiography, slated for publication next spring, will hopefully stake him a larger, deserved legacy in American dance.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 8, 1998