Saturday, May 24, 2008

So You Think You Don't Folk Dance - my opening speech

good evening
my name is Su-Feh Lee and I am a dancer, choreographer, the artistic director of battery opera.
and this is my party.
Thank you all for being here.

Over the last little while, often, when I mentioned that I was organizing a discussion, a conversation on the continuum between folk practice and the palace, people would say, “and you are doing this for….?”

with the implication that this was yet another panel discussion initiated by some funding body, a governmental agency, an umbrella organization with agendas that have been handed down by politicians, policy-makers, bureaucrats and boards.

Well, this isn’t it. This is a conversation that serves nobody else’s agenda except mine. Which is that of an artist. An artist with questions about my craft and my instrument -which is my body - and the political and historical pressures upon it.

Having said that, I must now thank all the funding bodies, the governmental agencies and umbrella organizations that have helped me and battery opera do this. First, the Equity Office of the Canada Council for giving us the money. The Canada Summer Job Program for allowing us to hire an assistant, Sameena, who will document and disseminate the conversations. And of course, the Dance Centre for giving us the space and support.

Mostly, I want to thank my guests for agreeing to talk with me. They are
Dr Anis Nor, professor of Ethno-choreology and ethno-musicology from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Hari Krishnan, artistic director of Indance, based in Toronto, who works and teaches within and beyond the Bharatanatyam tradition.
Zab Maboungou, artistic director of Nyata Nyata based in Montreal, who is dancer, choreographer, teacher of philosophy, writer, activist and has been working for the development and promotion of African dance across Canada and abroad. Finally, closer home, Jennifer Mascall, artistic director of Mascall Dance. Jennifer is choreographer, teacher, educator and practitioner of Body-Mind Centering, of which she will tell us more later.
I had also invited Michelle Olson of Raven Spirit Dance Company to join us but unfortunately she has had to pull out due to unforeseen health complications. We will miss her perspective but we wish her well and a speedy recovery.

The term “folk” is a term loaded with imperialist and colonial implications as well as nationalist overtones. Any discussion of “folk dance” must deal with issues of power – political and economic - as well as issues of identity. As we discuss “folk” and the “palace” we will all have to grapple with the semantics of the words folk, ritual, traditional, contemporary, classicism, court, temple, sacred, popular etc etc. within the context of politics, patronage and the marketplace. Over the next few days, I am sure my guests will have plenty to add to this part of the discussion.

For my part, I would like to take back the word “folk” from its colonial, imperialist and nationalist projections and think of folk dance as just what folk do. Implicit in my definition of folk dance is dance that is ritual based. Dance that has a function other than being ornamental, other than being entertainment. In this category I include dances that are performed to bring rain, dances that are done to flirt with members of the opposite sex, dances that celebrate rites of passage, dances that celebrate the harvest, dances that help you commune with the divinity of your choice. Thus, in my definition of folk dance I include breakdancing circles, contact improvisation jams, dancing all night at a rave while on ecstasy, lion dances on the street during Chinese new year.

In my definition of folk dance, I do not include the “folk dances” that one sees on a big stage such as, say, the Shumka Dancers. I do not include the breakdancing or hip-hop that one sees on a music video. I do not include the Chinese lion dance that is performed on a stage to impress the audience with virtuosic acrobatics. I do not include them because they have been taken out of their ritualistic function. They have become entertainment. A commodity for the palace.

What is this palace I am referring to? In the past, it would have been the European courts of Italy, France or Russia where classical ballet developed. Or the courts of South-east Asia where certain court dances developed. Implicit in my definition of the palace is the notion that the dance is being seen and paid for by a party that holds political and economic power. The nobility, the landed gentry, the bourgeoisie. While we can argue that these frameworks are also a kind of social ritual, the function of dance in these instances is often as object, as ornamentation not as the primary action of these rituals.

In the present, I believe that the demands and expectations of the palace continue to influence how we present and watch dance. We watch dance, often, in proscenium spaces such as this one. In which the audience has bought a ticket, has paid money to see the dance. In which the language of the marketplace – buying, selling, owning – has been used in the exchange of art. Who are the stakeholders in the artmarket of today? Are they governments, are they corporations – sporting or otherwise? In these palaces, old and new, it seems to me the circle of the folk ritual has often been transformed into something more linear. Function has been replaced by aesthetics. Aesthetics, in turn, are governed by the agendas and expectations of the palace.

In the practice of dance today, I believe we move fluidly, sometimes more sometimes less, between these two paradigms – the folk and the palace. Neither are ideals for me.

But I wonder what happens to the dance, to the body of the dancer, to the body of the community that dances, I wonder what happens to this body as it moves between the “folk” space and the “palace” space.

As the dancer moves from one function to another – from invoking to evoking or provoking, from action to subject to object to action again - I am curious about the changes that occur in the architecture of space, in the organization of the body, the role of the regard – the regard of oneself, the regard of the other. I am curious about how time is used in partnership with the dance, the role of rhythm in the organization of time. I am curious about the question of narratives, about the notion of ownership and authorship and how they are affected as we move from the sacred, intimate dance that we have with the divinity of our choice – either a god-figure or our deepest personal bliss - to the public dance under the gaze of the other.

These are my questions as we head into a weekend of conversation which I hope can inspire and provoke each of us as we go along our paths of making, teaching and studying dance.


Anonymous said...

Su-Feh, Most important questions you bring up.
The fire of creation
> was stolen from the gods by Prometheus and this act of stealing was
> for the greater good of man kind, an act of love for the weak and
> with no attachment other than a sense of doing what has to be done.
> Best wishes, David Pressault

sufeh said...

art as an act of love then! and as an impulse, art as just what needs doing.
Thank you, David.
But "the greater good of mankind" - hard to be sure what that is. Many terrible things have happened in history because we think we are doing something for the greater good.