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Any discussion of what constitutes choreography and the presentation of traditional or folk dance in public presentations inevitably opens what I call the Great Pandora’s Box of “Authenticity.” The problem of how to engage the issue of “authenticity” in the presentation of traditional and folk dance for the proscenium arch stage and other public performing venues continues to preoccupy the scholar and lay person alike.

No performance placed on the stage, even those of actual native dancers, can be considered as a replica of a village or tribal performance in its native context. Those who stage or choreograph performances, even natives, make choices for the stage that differ from what occurs in the field. Typical of some of those basic choices: avoidance of excessive repetition in the dances and music, the omission of children and old people, leaving out poor performers, barnyard smells and the dust from the dance area, uniformity of clothing, reconfiguring the dance formations to face the audience, and rehearsing to achieve a high level of performance.

Several individuals have presented papers on various aspects of this topic in recent seminars that I have attended and the recent Proceedings of the 21st Symposium of the International Council for Traditional Music Study Group on Ethnochoreology (Korčula, Croatia) contained several essays addressing the topic. The discourse that swirls about authenticity in staged performances of traditional dance is oversaturated with covert and overt accusations and guilt feelings surrounding issues of appropriation, colonialism, preservation, revitalization, and, of course, how authentic a specific presentation is. Threats of exposure from the self-appointed “ethnic police” for those infringing upon the perceived authenticity of dances from particular cultures continue to be rampant wherever one encounters staged performances of traditional dance.

I have often witnessed panels of choreographers and artistic directors of dance companies of all genres, charged with dispensing public funding on federal, state, and local levels, regularly bring this topic up during panel meetings when viewing the work of traditional dance companies and their choreographers. The serious consequences for those who have failed the “authenticity sobriety test” can be grave indeed: funding may not be forthcoming for those who have failed the litmus test of authenticity.

The topics of staging traditional dance and authenticity are so fraught with heavy emotions that, until recently, many serious dance scholars, who bear the label of ethnochoreologists, have eschewed the subject of staged dance in favor of recording and describing the “pure” folk and tribal dances found in remote areas of the world, or classical dances of Asia, as the only (sainted) and legitimate areas of research in traditional dance. They have become what Theresa Buckland terms “Keepers of the Truth” (1999, 196) and they have considered performances of both professional and amateur folk and traditional dance companies that thrive in many areas of the world as too “slick, theatricalized, and glitzy” to merit serious scholarly attention. A frequent reaction on the part of many scholars can be found in the following statement:

The treasures carefully handed over to us by previous generations must be treated not only with respect but with theoretical restlessness and questioning. The responsibility of moulding a public is immense, especially when the object is traditional culture, which is not the product of an individual but of an ethnic collectivity. Demand for high quality performances of traditional dance increases year by year, and we must safeguard traditional culture from becoming a theatrical object expressing the artistic priorities of individuals. (Rombos-Levides 1992, 104)

Dance ethnographers Georgiana Gore and Maria Koutsouba add: “Any representation of traditional dance outside its customary context is no more than ‘imitation’ and may be seen as an artificial and adulterated version of the ‘original’” (1992, 30).

As a result of such attitudes it should come as no surprise that the International Encyclopedia of Dance (Oxford University Press, 1998) has few articles, and scant mention devoted to the directors, choreographers, and performances of the many of major state folk dance ensembles that have dominated the stages of the world over the past fifty years. Several individuals, such as Zvonimir Ljevaković, the founding artistic director of Lado, the Croatian State Ensemble of Folk Songs and Dances, and Olga Skovran, the founding artistic director of the Serbian State Folk Ensemble of Serbia, Kolo, did not merit mention, while less known colleagues in modern dance or classical ballet have received full articles since the latter genres are considered by many dance historians, and the general public, to constitute “high art.” Too staged on the one hand, and not “real art,” like classical ballet and modern dance on the other, dance scholars have largely ignored the topic of staged folk dance, the groups who perform them and the choreographers who create them. 1

Throughout the world, and especially in immigrant and ethnic communities in North America, dance constitutes a major symbol of ethnic identity. Because dance is embodied and immediate in its presence, it raises many highly emotional political questions of how a specific ethnic community is to be represented and who has the right to determine that representation. Unlike many areas of the world, in North America, the presence of many individuals, like me, who are not of the ethnicity of the dances they perform on the stage, but come from the Anglo-dominated mainstream society, further complicates these issues of representation and authenticity. 2

Next year I will observe my fiftieth year as an active choreographer of traditional dance. As the founder, choreographer, and artistic director of two successful dance ensembles and one of the first recipients of the James Irvine Fellowships in Dance award, as well as six National Endowment for the Arts and California Arts Council fellowships, I have been called upon frequently, most recently in the summer of 2002, in both scholarly symposiums and art panels to discuss how a choreographer of traditional/folk/world dance can successfully transfer dancing from “the field” to the stage, what constitutes “authenticity,” and what makes a successful folk choreography. Thus, over the past decades, I have provided advice and taken philosophical stances, and portentously pronounced my opinions on a wide variety of scholarly panels and seminars and arts council panels. (See for example Shay 1986). Needless to say, those opinions and “pearls of wisdom” have changed through the years as I matured as an artist, and as modes of representation have altered and mutated through time.

In this essay, while addressing the main topic of the issue of authenticity and the choreography of traditional dance, I am interested in showing how the staged representations of traditionally based dance have changed through the past two hundred years. Even today, the staging of traditional dance is in the process of evolution and development. I want to survey the historical way in which individual choreographers have staged traditional dance and what role issues of authenticity played in their presentations. I will cite both the works of well-known choreographers and my own choreographic creations as examples.

For the latest change of modes, I will analyze the changes in the choreographic output of Jamal, the artistic director of the AVAZ International Dance Theatre. His choreographic creations over the past ten years are representative of new trends in choreography based on traditional materials that have begun to surface over the past ten to fifteen years in many dance companies, especially in ethnic and immigrant communities where a new generation of choreographers and dance directors is fashioning new ways of choreographing and staging to fit in their new environment and new audiences.

Modes of Representation

Over the past two hundred years, Individuals within ethnic groups, and the various ethnic groups, as collectives, keenly desired and vigorously created and constructed choreographic means of representation that would show their respective communities in a positive light to the outside world. These individuals seized idealized and valued communal cultural models and ideals that they choreographically interpreted. For example, choreographers in the Armenian community, like other Caucasian groups such as the Azerbaijanis and Georgians, very often represented the men in their dances as valiant, martial figures, able to perform highly masculine, athletic figures, while the female dancers were represented as almost polar opposites – a model of femininity, very modest and chaste in their bearing, their unimpeachable virtue represented by downcast eyes and never looking directly at their male partners. When dancing together, the men displayed a specific chivalric attitude toward the women, the men escorting the women about the dance space with their hands held at shoulder level, protectively encircling their partner, but never touching her. Chorographically, this mode of dancing presented a highly valorized, idealized cultural model which still resonates in the Armenian community. This mode of representation still remains popular in the Armenian community as a means of displaying themselves in public forums such as international folk dance festivals as well as to themselves in community celebrations held in Armenian enclaves.

In most of the ethnic communities, as well as in traditional/folk dance companies directed by main stream Anglo American individuals, the modes of representation, both in a general way and in the minute details, constitute highly contested areas between individuals within specific ethnic and immigrant communities, including community civic and religious leaders, choreographers and dance directors, dancers, musicians, and sometimes the parents of the participants. The arts in America are poorly supported, especially for traditional dance and music. In many ethnic communities, tensions often exist between the different choreographers and community dance companies, who are often rivals for pride of place in their respective communities as well as competing for scarce public funding and performance opportunities. As a recent example, an Iranian director in the San Francisco Bay area complained that funding and a performance opportunity had gone to a non-Iranian, Anglo American choreographer whose performances were perceived by a panel of “experts” to be more authentic than those of the Iranian director.

In addition, festival directors, folklorists, and other individuals from outside of the community also enter the arena of decision-making, enlarging the arena of contestation between the members of the ethnic communities and the Anglo American organizers of the venues in which they perform. These individuals often demand that performers from specific ethnic groups represent their communities in stereotypical and “authentic” ways, to be decided by the Anglo American festival director, so that American audiences would easily understand the performances. For example, festival directors often required Mexican American dance groups to perform the jarabe tapatio (the Mexican Hat Dance), Filipinos had to perform tinikling (the bamboo dance), or Greek groups were pressured to perform in recognizable costumes such as the Evzone uniforms. One festival director asked rhetorically, how else would the audience know that they were witnessing “authentic” Mexican, Philippine, or Greek folklore?

Members of different ethnic groups often feel co-opted by these mainstream Anglo American individuals in what they regard as a thinly-veiled attempt, not only to dictate to them how they should be represented through the choices they make in the dances they choose for representation, but more darkly, to cast them in an exoticized subservient role. “Any critical reading of the discourse on multiculturalism in Canada. . .will reveal that all efforts at inclusion have been guided by a wish to preserve the ideological status quo of Anglo superiority” (Pizanias 1996, 36). Pizanias further claims that

Successive governments, along with the ethnic political elite, have promised the wonders of sharing our cultural heritages and have allowed a symbolic capital to circulate among the ethnic communities than can almost never be translated into material/economic/ political success for the majority of those communities. . .Ethnic communities and individuals within them are thus forced to revive a tradition that was hardly theirs, and to recreate a museum-like archival past, in an effort that consumes so much time, money, and emotion as to leave no time to participate in real life. . .” (1996, 42)

Dance scholar Mary Coros who choreographed and directed a group of Greek dancers for performances for the Summer Caravan festival sponsored by the Royal Ontario Museum concurs:

I planned a program that included both contemporary urban dances as well as regional folk dances. The staff of the museum did not like the urban dances because they wanted the dancers to wear colorful folk costumes. I was totally insulted and livid. I said, ‘who are you to tell me what to present?’ We had to go against them because they wanted to freeze us in some mythical idyllic peasant village.” (Personal interview: July 16, 2002)

Individuals who make decisions in how the Mexican community is to be represented in the public arena of the dominant Anglo society, both in dance and in the wider world of art, continuously confront issues of representation. Armando Duron, a Los Angeles attorney who has served for many years on the educational council of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art commented:

Several years ago when the major art exhibit “Thirty Centuries of Mexican Art” toured to New York, San Antonio, and Los Angeles, I served as a member of the committee to select the performances that would highlight the exhibition and involve the Mexican American community. I had to fight very hard to take down banners that had been used to advertise this highly popular exhibit. I not only had to fight intensely with the largely Anglo committee, but even with the Mexican Consul General. They were going to put up these banners that would, once again, cast us in the role of the “folkloric” and the “exotic Other.” It is a subtle form of prejudice that wants to keep us “interesting,” and thus, “foreign,” but somehow less than modern, intellectual people. We are not exotic or foreign, and we do not wish to appear so. It is a constant issue of representation that we face. For example, to open the festivities of the exhibit, instead of choosing a typical ballet folklorico group, which, after the Mexican folk dance classes that I took with Emilio Pulido, at Lloyola Marymount, I found too balletic and inauthentic, we chose a group that performed very traditional and unspectacular dances of the Yaqui tribe. The Mexican Consul General, to his credit said: “I had to come to Los Angeles to learn my own culture.” In addition, we chose modern and ballet dance performances by Mexican artists rather than folklorico presentations. What we ended up with in our local presentations was really not the “Art of Mexico,” but the “Art of Mexican Los Angeles.” I wished that we had had the opportunity to change the title of the exhibit.” (personal interview September 9, 2002).

Thus, we are enabled to view in the public arena of representation what often appears as an attempt to present dance and other art genres as “interesting” and “exotic,” in fact, renders the specific community as “foreign” and “less” than the dominant society. Many of the individuals whom I interviewed from the various ethnic communities are aware of such attempts in the highly contested arena of public representation, however well-meaning and innocent they may appear to be, they must maintain a vigilant opposition against attempts to cast them in this subservient “exotic” and “folkloric” role. Mexican American choreographer Gema Sandoval sardonically commented that “if we weren’t folkloric, they wouldn’t love us” (personal interview August 6, 2002).

In this essay I want to emphasize that representation is a form of power, which is why decisions over who has the right to make choices of representation create arenas of contestation that involve political, ethnic, social, and economic factors. The repercussions of decisions concerning representation and the impact that these decisions have on individuals and groups in several ethnic communities can be powerful.

The iconic appearances that individuals and groups within several of these communities have created and developed through dance productions in the past often become stereotypes in which contemporary artists can feel strongly entrapped. Many of the dance artists from traditional dance backgrounds have developed an ironic awareness of the stereotypes they often occupy among the general public in America:

I am a dancer –that’s what I have been all my life. When you are a dancer from India, actually when you are anybody from India, people attribute all kinds of images to you – you are a meditating divinity, a snake charmer, a fiery curry eating dragon, a floating vision of beauty, and of course a yogic contortionist. Having mastered all the other aspects of the image (except the snake thing!) it was only this Yoga that stood in the way of my becoming the “perfect” Indian. So you can understand my determination to attempt this as well. Of course, I had no concept of what Yoga postures were all about, but then how difficult could they be? (Bharadvaj 2002)

Choreographers like Ramaa Bharadavaj, Jamal, and Gema Sandoval, representatives of the new mode of representation, currently shape the visual and iconic images of their respective communities through their choreographies. They feel the impact of decisions made by the choreographers and dance directors from the past who shaped the images in older modes, which they now struggle to reshape to meet the changing social, political, and aesthetic needs of the audiences of today. The new generation of choreographers find themselves in the position of confronting sometimes-stubborn images and stereotypes created by their predecessors, and stubbornly adhered to by conservative elements in their communities and many Anglo American promoters, all of whom are invested either emotionally or financially in the older modes of representation.

Some of the predecessors who created earlier images were sometimes not even from the ethnic community, but Anglo Americans who created both overly romantic images saturated with ethnic stereotypes, as we will see in the case of India and Mexico. (See, for example, the quaint portrayals found in Johnston, 1935). Thus, the choreographers of the more recent generations struggle with the often-hegemonic images of the past even as they strive to shape the future.

Parallel Traditions

In this essay, I will expand the concept of “parallel traditions” that I introduced in Choreographic Politics (2002, 17-22). In Choreographic Politics the concept of parallel traditions was more narrowly applied to the cultural production of the national dance ensembles in relation to the folk dances “in the field” in their own countries. In this study, I deepen and expand the concept of parallel traditions to include the cultural production of rural groups in local and international festivals, the dance groups from immigrant and ethnic communities, and recreational folk dance groups that operate on several additional parallel layers to the original two.

In that study I utilized the concept of parallel traditions in order to create a legitimate space for the study of theatricalized folk dance in relation to dance in the field. I did this in order to bring the cultural production of professional national folk dance ensembles into focus without engaging in judgments regarding authenticity.

However, for any discussion of choreographing folk and traditional dance, I suggest that any student of immigrant/ethnic dance must investigate several parallel traditions as they are manifest in different modes of staging and choreography for public presentation. Through the concept of parallel traditions dance scholars can look at all of the levels simultaneously to see how they intersect and diverge without making judgments regarding the value of one level over another based on artificial notions of “authenticity.” Each of the levels of performance, even the most theatricalized such as River Dance, conveys social, cultural, and aesthetic messages to us, and thus provides the student of dance valuable information regarding human behavior and attitudes. And, in this essay I argue that each parallel tradition has an “authenticity” of its own and many individuals and groups around the world fervently perform in various modes of staged performances which they deeply believe are authentic.

We can conceive of dance “in the field” in the homeland, that is the wide diversity of regional folk dances found in many countries of origin, as the first level from which all other parallel traditions make reference. We can conceive of another level when those same native performers ready themselves to perform for the public as occurs in many countries in the form of national and regional festivals and performances for tourists. Often these staged performances differ from what the dancers perform in social occasions in their home environment such as weddings. Performances for the public are often more self-conscious and rehearsed than the performances experienced in social gatherings. The dance observer may ask: Does this make them less “authentic?”

The dances that immigrant and ethnic individuals in North America and other parts of the world perform in their own social events in church social halls and other ethnic enclaves constitute another parallel level. Many individuals in ethnic communities conceive of the dances they perform as identical to those in the field in the homeland of origin, although they are often very different from the regional folk dances from the homeland. The dances in ethnic and immigrant communities in North America are often derived from the character dances I describe below. The staged and theatricalized dances that individuals in ethnic communities utilize for purposes of representation of their respective community in folk dance festivals and other public arenas can be conceptualized as yet another parallel tradition.

In addition, the investigator must interrogate and analyze the presence and performances of the state-supported professional national companies, which constitute another parallel tradition, since these state ensembles have served as models of representation for many of the immigrant and ethnic communities for the past fifty years. This is because in several of these ethnic immigrant communities the knowledge and appearance of these companies and their repertoires greatly affected, and still affects, the mode of representation and choreographic strategies utilized in the corresponding ethnic and immigrant communities. In many of these communities, over the past half century, enthusiastic individuals who have studied these companies in minute detail, and sometimes received the blessing of the directors of these companies, have, to the best of their ability and with limited funding and resources, created copies of these companies within their communities in the United States.

Modes of Representation

I posit four broad periods in which four very different modes of choreographic representation of folk/traditional dance existed and continue to exist: 1. the period of national/character dance, from the early nineteenth century to the present, 2. the period in which individuals in ethnic and immigrant communities, village and tribal groups in various parts of the world, and recreational folk dance groups staged local dances from the end of the nineteenth century to the present, 3. the period following the creation of national state folk dance ensembles, from the end of World War II to the present, and 4. the current era, beginning largely in the 1990s. It is important to stress that all of these modes of representation still exist and overlap, and one can sometimes view examples of all four modes shown together in international folk dance festival settings such as the San Francisco City Festival. While these modes of representation are useful as analytical categories, other dance historians might perhaps choose other ways to carve the modes of representation I describe and analyze.

Period 1. With the rise of modern European nationalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, several urban intellectuals looked to folklore as a means of demonstrating the unique characteristics of their nation. Since the influential writings of Rousseau and his concept of the “Noble Savage,” (not to mention the Roman writer Ovid), these scholars regarded the peasants as the repositories of the “true” and primordial national spirit. Throughout Europe, intellectuals like the well-known Brothers Grimm and Johann Herder, began a systematic collection of folk tales, songs, music, and, much later, dance as the “authentic” expression of the true cultural production of the developing nation-state. (See Coccharia 1981).

Character dances in ballet, also known as “national dances,” are the moments in Romantic ballets like “Sleeping Beauty” during which ballet dancers, costumed with one or two elements of “national” costume, such as a fan, a hat, or a little apron worn over a tutu, perform the “Polish,” “Spanish,” or “Hungarian” variation for the “court.” In the nationalistic climate beginning in early nineteenth-century Europe, character dance was much more popular than today as these dances were considered to be emblematic of the nation. Several professional classical ballet dancers of that period made lucrative livelihoods from the performances of the character dances that were their specialties. As Lisa C. Arkin and Marian Smith point out in their seminal article on character dance, both Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler, two of the most famous ballet dancers of the nineteenth century, included many “national” dances in their repertoires (1997). In any case, audiences of that period would not have accepted the authentic presentation of dances and music of the peasants whom they largely despised. As Lynn Garafola observes:

The 1830s and 1840s coincided with a veritable craze for folk-derived forms on the stage and dance floor alike. At the Paris Opera, the official headquarters and disseminator of ballet romanticism, national dance figured in over three-quarters of the house offerings, operas as well as ballets, while at public halls, regardless of whether they catered to an elite or popular clientele, polkas, mazurkas, and that earlier “ethnic” import, the waltz, dominated the proceedings. (1997, 3)

Folk Dance for the Nation and the Ballroom

The folklorists’ avid interest in the authentic folklore of the peasant population was manifest in societies in which there also flowed a contrary sentiment characterized by the existence of a deep and antagonistic mistrust, even hostility, between urban elites and the peasantry in many parts of the world.

Both king and nobility based their claims on the assertion that, since the time of Julius Caesar, the commoners, or third estate, constituted a race of slaves—conquered Gauls who had lost their liberty—and, as a debased population, had no right to political self-determination. This characterization drew on an older tradition, developed in the Middle Ages, that justified serfdom by a variety of intellectual constructs that reduced peasant to an inherited, almost subhuman status. (Geary 2002, 20)

Such attitudes permeated large segments of the urban population well into the twentieth century, and in some parts of the world continue today. The word “peasant” constitutes an insult in many societies. Nena Sokčić, a former member of LADO, the Croatian State Ensemble of Folk Dances and Songs, who was born into an elite family in Zagreb, recalls that, “when the peasant women from the villages came for the laundry, my mother would not permit my brother or me to be in the same room, as if those poor people were contaminated” (personal interview October 16, 1999). In the 1970s, when Bonita Edelberg, a folk dance enthusiast, went to Bosnia accompanied by a young Bosnian student whom she had befriended, she encountered a group of peasants dancing in a field outside of their village. “The student was horrified that I wished to speak to them, and he refused to translate for me” (Personal interview November 10, 2002).

Many people in the West express surprise that such tensions exist in the modern world. In Eastern Europe and the Middle East, where large peasant populations still live, many scholars who conduct research in the late twentieth century report that these urban-village tensions still constitute powerful forces that influence the way in which they conduct research. Hungarian-born anthropologist Eva V. Huseby-Darvas reports that “In spite of being Hungarian-born I was an urban person and a stranger (which alone would have been bad enough in this particular village) who arrived from America. There were several families who were, I was told after 1989, officially given the role of keeping an eye on my activities” (1999, 149).

Such urban-rural tensions also exist in the Middle East. Choreographer Jamal relates that: “no city person could enter an Iranian village without the permission of the village elder (kad khoda) or they would be eaten by the dogs. The hatred the villagers had for urban people was extremely intense” (Personal interview July 7, 2002).

Dance ethnologist Andriy Nahachewsky, who conducted field research in the Ukraine, noted:

My colleagues also operated at some cultural distance from their informants. A class difference, urban intelligentsia versus rural agriculturalist, was frequently apparent. Perhaps since the days of romantic nationalism, researchers often had an ambivalent relationship with carriers of the traditional culture. On the one hand, this culture was precious and valuable; on the other hand, it needed to be saved from the mud and poverty of the context in which it just barely survived. (1999, 183)

The elite disdain for peasants and their cultural production resulted in the creation of a form of pseudo folklore (called by many folklore scholars “fakelore”), that were known in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century as “national” dances that were performed in “national” costumes. Individuals, imbued with patriotic fervor, created “folk” or “national” dances, songs, and costumes that would be suitable to the refined parlors and ballrooms of the elite. In the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century, the urban upper and middle classes wished to show their patriotism through the donning of special “national” costumes, often featuring the colors of the national flag of the respective ethnic group, singing composed “folk” songs, and performing “national folk” dances in the comfort of their ballrooms. This is how the Czech and Moravian beseda, urban versions of the Hungarian csardas, the Polish mazurka and polka, and the Croatian salonsko kolo were composed in the early and mid-nineteenth century to appeal to their respective elite urban populations. The creators of these dances sometimes utilized steps and figures from existing peasant dances, but more often these creators, who were generally individuals with formal training in ballet and professional dancing masters, looked to character dance, a sub-genre of ballet, for inspiration. In this way one could perform “folk” dances without having to refer to the cultural expression of actual peasants.

Today, many individuals in ethnic/immigrant communities regard some of these creations as authentic rural dances and costumes. Laszlo Tabanyi taught choreographies of the urban-based csardas to the dance group of the Hungarian immigrant community that I performed with in Los Angeles in the 1950s. This urban-based czardas was the dance that people in the Hungarian community hall (Magyarház) in Los Angeles performed rather than the many regional versions that I later learned as knowledge of these dances spread through both dance groups in the Hungarian community and mainstream recreational and performance folk dance groups through the efforts of Hungarian dance instructors like Andor Csompo, a former member of the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble.

This creation of folk dances in nineteenth-century Europe was to have an impact on the way immigrant populations from Europe, and in some later cases, the Middle East, chose to represent themselves in their new environment.

It is important to emphasize that Igor Moiseyev, the founding artistic director and choreographer of the Moiseyev Dance Company, the first of the great state dance companies, used a character dance vocabulary and aesthetic not a folk aesthetic. His role in the next era was pivotal, as many of the national companies that were created in the wake of World War II such as the Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Moldavian, Rumanian, Polish, and later the Reda Troupe of Egypt, were heavily influenced by Moiseyev’s style and expertise. Thus, through performances based on Moiseyev’s style, character dance continues to serve as a mode representation in many parts of the world.

Period 2. The beginnings of the use of folk and traditional dance for purposes of representation in North America began in the settlement houses and international institutes that were found in large American cities with large immigrant populations at the turn of the nineteenth century. The largely Anglo-American social workers in these institutions found in folk dance a useful way to “Americanize” the new immigrants, by including them in international day festivals that gradually came to dominate civic life in a number of cities and towns across the United States and Canada. However, Caterina Pizanias cautions us to look behind the stated motives of multiculturalism found in these festivals:

Dance training, costume making, and event production, ensures that the real aspects of multiethnicity, with its structural unevenness, remain below the surface. The real multiethnicity is exploited under the banner of cultural diversity in action, of ‘us’ celebrating with, ‘them,’ thus forever reproducing the colonial diversity and effectively depoliticizing difference by allowing an ethnic identity that consists of spectacles, food, political bantering, and leisurely time out in the park, where a sense of ‘unity’ and/or ‘community’ can be both maintained and kept under control. (1996, 44-45)

Before the 1950s, in the United States folk dance was rarely considered a dance genre suitable for the concert stage, and thus the international day festivals that were founded in many communities throughout the United States became a prime vehicle for the largely amateur groups from ethnic immigrant communities that performed traditional dance. Before the 1960s, immigrant populations were relatively isolated from their respective homelands. Croatian American John Filcic concurs. “We had no contact with the homeland when we came here in 1933, until well after World War II. We lived in isolation and so we knew very few dances” (personal interview March 12, 2002).

In some communities formal choreographies were unknown. The social dances of the Greek community such as the syrto, hassapiko, and tsamiko are good examples. These are open circle dances with the leader at the right end of the line of dancers. Typically, the leader of the dance executes, to the maximum extent of his athletic prowess and skill, special improvised figures. During this early period, when the dancers from the Greek community, invariably attired in Evzone (the full-skirted, white costume) for the male dancers and Amalia (named for a nineteenth-century queen of Bavarian origin) for the female dancers, there was little formal staging of the dances. The dancers rehearsed to achieve a certain uniformity of appearance, but in festivals they often finished a dance with the end of a record (or, if accompanied by live music, until the orchestra started a new dance) and waited until the next dance music began. The repertoire of these dances was very small, usually no more than five dances.

By contrast, other communities produced individuals who prepared elaborate formal choreographies based on character dance. These first dance directors and choreographers were often urban-born men or women with a history, however modest, of professional stage experience, which often did not include dance. Nevertheless, they choreographed dances for their respective communities to perform. Like Laszlo Tabanyi from Hungary, who had stage careers in media other than folk dance, these individuals “created” folk dances for performances for special nights in the community and for international folk dance festivals. The members of these ethnic communities, many of whom came from working class backgrounds, looked upon these sophisticated urban individuals and their performing histories with a considerable degree of awe. These women and men created dances, often with a romantic flair recalling historical periods of national glory that often made no reference to dances actually performed in the field by village and tribal populations of the homeland, of which they were largely ignorant.

In the decades before the 1960s, choreographers and dance directors from the ethnic enclaves had to utilize whatever resources in the way of music, dances and costumes that they found among the members of their own communities. They did not worry over issues of authenticity. After all, the ethnic dance directors were of the requisite ethnicity and they were comfortable with the thought that whatever they arranged for stage performances was, therefore, authentic. This notion is still alive and well in some communities. An Iranian woman who directs a local company told me “whatever I do is right and authentic because it’s in my blood” (September 1991).

I remember one year in the early 1950s, Laszlo Tabanyi choreographed a highly aristocratic dance to the “Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz,” recalling Hungary’s political affiliation with the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although, the Hungarians of a century ago had universally hated the political union with Austria and had struggled for well over a century to rid themselves of it, when I danced with the Hungarian group, the immigrant community seemed to look more benignly upon this troubled history than they had in the past. In light of the brutal Communist takeover of Hungary after World War II, and the bloody Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Hapsburg era was looking much improved in the Hungarian immigrant community. Life in the Hapsburg Empire took on a rosy afterglow of candlelit ballrooms and aristocratic associations, rather than the actual reality of the unwelcome political and cultural dominion of the German-speaking population.

I remember that we whirled about the floor, the women in beautiful matching evening gowns and the men resplendent in dashing gold braided Hussar costumes. In those days, no one questioned the propriety of a Hungarian community group performing a dance of Austrian origins to represent the Hungarian community.

Other communities, such as the Mexican American community, often performed dances that were used only for public display. Dances such as the jarabe tapatio are recognized as “Mexican,” and “representative” of Mexico, and it was consciously taught to children in dance classes in the Mexican American community for performances both in community recitals and public performance contexts, but it was not performed by the Mexican American community as a social or recreational dance at celebratory events such as weddings. The presentation of the jarabe tapatio also had connections with character dance. Anna Pavlova performed a version of it in Mexico City to wild cheering, and she is credited with the popularization of the dance as an emblem of Mexican identity.

Period 3. The Middle Period, the National Folk Dance Ensemble Model 1945-

The first major change in the mode of representation of folk dance for performance occurred with the advent of the appearances of the state-sponsored folk dance companies beginning in the late 1950s that changed the mode of choreographic representation of immigrant/ethnic communities. The impact of these companies was very powerful. David M. Guss tellingly observes that the appearance of staged dance enhances many aspects of its use as an idealistic vehicle for primordial, nationalistic representation, particularly if the performers are young, as they are in Ballet Folklorico and Moiseyev Dance Company. “The dancers – all healthy, young, and well-dressed – emerge from a magical never-never land, a paradisiacal place where the forgotten world of folklore still exists” (2000, 162).

The arrival of the Eastern European state folk ensembles, and later companies from Latin America and Africa, in North America, beginning in 1956 changed the former practices of choreography. The issue of authenticity was raised for the first time. In order to bolster claims of authenticity for the choreographic cultural productions of these ensembles, their programs laid heavy emphasis on the fact that the artistic director/choreographers of the state folk dance ensembles conducted intensive field research, sometimes under conditions of great hardship, according to their publicity. (See, for example, Cristiani and Escolana 1994, 134 and Bayanihan 1987, 82-83.) Many dance directors from the ethnic communities upon seeing these spectacularized performances were suddenly confronted with the notion that their local performances, which stretched over the past fifty years, were inadequate, appearing naïve and simplistic by comparison. The state folk dance ensembles provided new models for ethnic communities to emulate. The state ensembles featured large casts, spectacular choreographic strategies, and brilliant costuming, the likes of which people in most immigrant communities or Anglo American recreational folk dance groups had never seen nor experienced. (Shay 2002)

In the Greek community in Canada, Caterina Pizanias observes that to the Greek community, “All that was needed were mechanical execution of steps and spectacular costumes. All they could see was that the most spectacular tourist summer show in Athens was Dora Stratou’s (the name of the Greek State Folk Dance Ensemble), and the most spectacular amateur dance troupe at the Heritage Festival was ours—the most Stratou-like one” (1996, 17). Personally, I wanted to have the most Lado-like dance company.

Most recreational folk dancers and dancers in immigrant and ethnic enclaves thought that since the members of the state folk dance ensembles came from the “sacred soil,” they must perform authentically. Many of the Anglo American folklorists carried the sacred flame of authenticity to what I will call the “Temple of the Sacred Soil.” By the “sacred soil syndrome” I mean that many Anglo Americans, as well as members of various ethnic communities, held the notion that only a person born in a particular place, the original homeland, or at least from authentic genetic background, could ever accurately and “authentically” perform the dances, songs, and music of that specific location. In other words, if the individual performer did not originate in that specific place, he or she could never aspire to any position more than a second-rate copyist. This conceptual position was long-retained by the Anglo American directors of the Smithsonian Institution’s American Folklife Festivals, among others.

In the beginning, dancers and dance directors did not need to travel to the countries of origin since the performances of the national ensembles from such diverse areas as Mexico, the USSR, Serbia, Croatia, Nigeria, Georgia, Poland, the Philippines, Iran, and Guinea, among other countries, brought the Old World homelands to the New. However, later many individuals traveled abroad to see not only the state dance companies and learn from their performances, but they also wanted to experience the “original” and “authentic” folk dances in their native village settings.

Before the 1960s, dance directors from community dance companies rarely felt the need to conduct research, by which I mean the meticulous detail and intense search for the “authentic” in the way folk dance research became popular after that period.

After the 1960s, both Anglo American individuals from the recreational folk dance movement and individuals from the various ethnic communities traveled to villages and towns in the homeland, armed with film and video cameras and tape recorders in search of “authentic” new dances suitable for staging and choreography. They searched for authentic ethnographic detail in costumes, music and dance, purchasing books and learning the requisite languages to read them and interview peasants. They attended folk festivals and village weddings in what one observer called the “desperate search for authenticity” (Elizabeth Freeman 2001). It was fashionable to bring home one’s clothes still covered in the halo of dust of the sacred village dance ground. Of course, the amount of research that any single individual conducted varied widely, and the two-week, Club Med researcher turned overnight dance “expert” can still be found in our midst.

The First Appearance of the State Folk Dance Ensembles

In the late 1950s, the appearance of the Serbian State Folk Dance Ensemble, Kolo, and the Macedonian State Ensemble, Tanec, the first ones to appear in the United States, galvanized a major interest among many younger, mainstream Anglo American recreational folk dancers in the dances of Eastern Europe. These folk dancers created and developed active folk dance groups on most university campuses that were largely devoted to the circle and line dances of the Balkans. This group of young enthusiasts brought yet another parallel layer of influence on the way in which several ethnic groups viewed themselves and how they wished to represent their identities to the outside world. In their enthusiasm, these young people sought out the ethnic communities of Eastern Europe and eagerly participated in the social activities of these communities. The young American dancers regarded these Eastern European communities both as a source for additional dance venues in which to dance recreationally and to learn new dances

Folklorist and colleague, Robin Evanchuk, who shared many of the same experiences as I did, encapsulates this experience:

The tour of the Macedonian group Tanec was followed the same year by the unprecedented arrival of another Balkan troupe, Kolo. Acquiring its name from the national dance form of Yugoslavia, this second performing group (this time from Beograd) not only changed the lives of many individuals in the United States, but also irreversibly altered the nature of international folk dancing and the personal lives of many of its participants. A new level of enthusiasm emerged. Some folk dancers in the audience returned night after night to the theater to see every performance of Tanec and Kolo. Some followed the groups to other cities and by the time the performers left the area these devoted individuals had acquired a strong familiarity with the dances, music and style of the companies and had begun to pattern their own dance styles after what they had seen on the stage. Contacts were then made with local members of the Balkan community, with whom the dancers met and from whom they could obtain useful information on the Balkan Culture. In time, these devotees became strong supporters of this ethnic culture and wished to become a part of such a culture locally. (1987-88, 117-118.

So great was the enthusiasm for this repertoire of dances and the people who performed them, that some individuals intensely identified with Croatian, Serbian, Greek, and Macedonian culture to the extent that these individuals changed their names, learned to speak the language like natives, and a few even moved to reside permanently in those countries. Many other folk dancers, who did not move to the Balkans, nevertheless made frequent trips there to learn dances, acquire costumes, and “soak up the atmosphere.” As Evanchuk observes: “many of these people made the journey as a pilgrimage to the ‘wellspring’ of the culture to find and purchase the ‘authentic’ Balkan folklore” (1987-88, 121).

The skill and proficiency of the young American folk dancers often reached professional levels and leaders in some of the ethnic communities hired some of these individuals (including me) to teach their youth how to dance, and direct and choreograph for the community’s performing dance group. These groups represented their communities in both the ethnic community and in the larger public arena of the international folk dance festivals, adding new voices to the discourse of representation and authenticity.

Dance for Representation

When individuals and groups in ethnic communities appropriate the dance arrangements of the state-sponsored dance companies of the countries of origin, they often encounter dance traditions that are alien to them. This derives from the fact that the national companies typically feature a wide range of regional traditions in their performances. “When Greeks go ‘out’ into the ‘multicultural,’ we take with us dances from places in Greece we know little about, we put on costumes sewn not by us the dancers, and we do dances of alien traditions in the manner decided upon by an artistic director whose sole purpose is to present a ‘tradition’ borrowed from the archives of a discourse born of the marriage of aging colonialism to the young upstart of tourism” (Pizanias, 41). These dances have generally been learned from dancers who have performed or learned the dances from the state ensemble like Athan Karras, a popular Greek folk dance teacher and one of the first dancers who performed with the Dora Stratou Greek Dances Theatre, the national dance company of Greece.

I have yet to see, when the kefi [ecstatic pleasure] takes over, the dance group members do Gaida, Beratis, Kotsaggeli, Sperveri, and a host of other dances from the repertory acquired at workshops offered by ‘professional dance instructors,’ our ‘living link with antiquity.’ Instead, the dancers, along with their parents and friends, have the best of times dancing the night away doing the dances that all self-respecting Greeks are expected to do, tsamikos, kalamatianos, syrtos, and rebetika, and when enough persons from the same village are present, they will dazzle all by performing intricate steps of their local dances, bringing tears to Terpsichore’s eyes. I believe it is time for this side of Greekness to come out of the multicultural closet (Pizanias 1996, 43).

Caterina Pizanias and Mary Coros offer a strategy of resistance to the practice of ethnic communities positioning themselves as “quaint and colorful exotics” by performing unfamiliar dances from the national dance company’s repertoire that are at odds with the everyday social dance practices of the community. Pizanias stresses the point that “authenticity” can only occur when the dancers can be passionate about the dances that they love and know like a comfortable pair of everyday jeans, rather than performing unfamiliar and alien dances for public spectacle.

Anthony Shay, Choreographer

Although I participated for a few years in many ethnic community and mainstream folk dance groups, it was within the mode of representation based on state folk dance company performances that I developed as a choreographer. I was caught up in the spectacle and color of performances of Lado, the Georgian State Folk Ensemble, Ballet Folklorico, the Uzbek Dance Ensemble, Bahor, and Bayanihan. I attended every possible performance of these ensembles and absorbed their aesthetic. I particularly regard Zvonko Ljevaković, the choreographer and first artistic director of Lado, the Croatian State Ensemble of Folk Songs and Dances as a mentor. A performance of Lado can still inspire me (November 12, 2002).

The tool that I used the most was one that I learned from Ljevaković: the maximum use of authentic detail of movement, costume, and music to create the illusion of reality and authenticity. The use of authentic details requires intensive research. I spent hours in reading, learning dances in workshops and rehearsals of Lado, attending seminars in Yugoslavia and locally, and again, reading. To this end I amassed a huge library of books, articles, music, recordings, films and other research tools to support my work. I made frequent journeys to the “sacred soil” for research. After all, I was not a native and felt the need to gather evidence in case I was accosted by the ethnic police.

One of my greatest compliments came after the performance of a wedding from Northern Croatia (1974). An elderly woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and said, “I was married in that village and that’s just how it was.”

At this point I want to make clear that, in spite of the intensive use of authentic elements of movement, music, and costuming, I have never believed that my works were duplicates of village performances. They were always intended as works of art; I never committed ethnography on the stage. My choreographies were intended as original works that utilized authentic elements from a wide variety of traditional sources. I considered the elderly woman’s comment as an affirmation of my goal to present dance in such a way that people believed in the illusion that I artfully created that they were viewing an actual village performance.

The period of the national company mode is still with us. Bayanihan and Ballet Folklorico look-alike companies are popular in ethnic enclaves throughout North America, and even the villages in the field often utilize choreographic strategies from the national company and engage dancers from the national company to come and teach them.

But a new generation of choreographers has appeared and they wish to “challenge the hegemony of the state folk dance model” as Filipino Joel Jacinto choreographer stated (February 19, 2002).

Period 4. The New Mode of Representation, 1990-

On a recent bright and sunny Thursday morning I sat in our dining room sipping tea with four individuals, whom I suddenly realized were representative, not only of the ethnic diversity that characterizes Southern California but many other areas of the United States today. More importantly, we were discussing how they, as immigrant choreographers, dancers, and recognized leaders in their respective dance traditions and communities, were planning to revolutionize traditional/ world dance through working together, fusing with each other’s traditions, utilizing contemporary artistic techniques and visions, exchanging ideas, and bringing one another’s communities to joint performances. All four of the choreographers spoke of the challenge of opening their visions to include their immigrant experiences. They no longer live in their original homelands and feel the need to create work that reflects and includes their American experiences as well as keeping and honoring their ancient traditions. Ramaa Bharadvaj, Indian classical dancer and choreographer, declared, “I no longer live there (in India), I need to create work that has meaning where I live now, and yet still remain true to my identity as an Indian” (Personal interview February 14, 2002). Iranian choreographer Jamal added, “I have lived more than half of my life in the United States. I am choreographing for audiences that live here, not in Iran. I want my work to be a reflection of my environment (personal interview February 28, 2002).

Each regaled the daylong meeting with the dreams they hold to simultaneously respect and change, hold on to and break with, the ways in which their traditions have been largely represented in the United States for the past fifty years. Their eyes shone as they planned choreographic strategies to represent each of their traditions within new, contemporary frameworks in which they would create new contexts into which they would each fit their work and create a truly cooperative enterprise. In many ways, theirs would be a disruptive process, challenging the status quo.

I listened to the voices with their diverse accents from the Philippines, Iran, India, and Bali as they energized and engaged one another, expanding on their dreams and their plans to work cooperatively. I realized that I was witnessing and chronicling both the end of an era that was two centuries in the making, and experiencing the beginning of a new one.

Thus, fifty years later, the second change ushered in the beginnings of the search for contemporary modes of staging and choreography that, at the end of the twentieth century, is challenging the hegemonic mode of representation that copied or referenced the repertoires of the national state folk dance companies from the homeland. This is the new mode of cultural production and representation that is growing and spreading among ethnic/immigrant communities throughout the United States. The new generation of choreographers from the ethnic enclaves is challenging the widely held notion that tradition and representation are unchanging and fixed.

Ironically, it is the older generation of Anglo American choreographers, who direct professional and semi-professional international folk dance companies across the United States, with their focus on “authenticity,” who cling to the older style of representation within the framework of the culture wars of authenticity. In addition, several former members of state folk dance companies like Moiseyev, Ballet Folklorico, LADO, the Azerbaijan State Folk Dance Ensemble, and Bayanihan, who now reside in the United States teach and choreograph for various dance companies. They generally teach choreographies to ethnic communities from the repertoires of their former companies, rather than dances from the field, because it is all they know.

What I want to demonstrate in this essay is that the politics of identity and ethnic representation, through its most visual icon, traditional/world/folk dance, performed in public, theatrical venues, is dynamic, contingent, and highly contested. The manipulation and use of folk dance as a vehicle for the visual representation of ethnic immigrant communities has changed through time and traditional dance cannot be viewed as a primordial unchanging artifact of immigrant life. John R. Gillis reminds us: “The core meaning of any individual or group identity, namely, a sense of sameness over time and space, is sustained by remembering; and what is remembered is defined by the assumed identity.... We need to be reminded that memories and identities are not fixed things, but representations or constructions of reality, subjective rather than objective phenomena” (1994, 3). In L. P. Hartley’s terms “The Past is a Foreign Country” (Lowenthal 1985, xvi).

Many of the first generation of choreographers from ethnic immigrant communities, now in their mid-life careers, have experienced ongoing exposure to contemporary dance genres through participation in potpourri dance concerts that indiscriminately mix many dance genres together like the former Dance Kaleidoscope dance festival in Los Angeles.

Borrowing from other ethnicities and sources is not a new phenomenon. There has always been keen competition among many of the groups to present the most spectacular performance and receive the most applause. Joy Parnes, wife and partner of Irwin Parnes, the impresario, producer and director of the International Folk Dance Festival in Los Angeles for over forty-five years, laughingly said: “Every year, backstage I would see the different groups watching each other very carefully. If the director or a group member saw that another group was performing a particular movement that was spectacular, they would practice it and then the next year you would see that same movement, but altered a bit to fit the ethnicity” (personal interview March 19, 2002).

Such changes also occur in the countries of origin where peasant groups appearing together in local and national festivals of folklore eye one another’s performances carefully for audience reactions to their neighbors. They freely borrow from each other the elements that they think will enhance next year’s performance. In addition, they are often exposed to performances of the state folk dance ensemble, from whom they also borrow. In Croatia, it was common for the peasant groups to hire dancers from LADO, the state ensemble, to acquire sophisticated choreographic strategies and learn the “old” dances that they had long forgotten. (Shay 2002).

Amalia Hernandez, artistic director of the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, relates seeing her creative innovations appear in the performances of dancers “in the field:”

With only a small trace of irony, Hernandez describes being invited to judge a contest of traditional dancing in culturally conservative Veracruz. Watching the competition, Hernandez discovered that the participants were openly incorporating steps she had invented for her classic Ballet Folklorico Veracruz suite. “I didn’t say a thing,” she recalls with a big smile. “The tradition is like a river of style that goes on.” (Segal 1997, 67)

The new contemporary approach also appeals to ethnic artists from the younger generations who often enroll in modern dance classes in local colleges and universities and seek to fuse the contemporary aesthetic they learn in classes and experience in concerts of modern dance with their traditional movements and aesthetic standards and synthesize the two elements. This group of artists wants to create works that are reflective of their new environment; they look upon the models provided by Igor Moiseyev and Amalia Hernandez over fifty years ago as dated and quaint.

Jamal - Turning Through Time:
The Quiet Revolution in Iranian Dance

Jamal’s choreographic creations constitute a valuable case study for this essay because his creative philosophy reflects the major changes that are beginning to inform how traditional dance is staged in the United States in the twenty first century by other individuals. He began his career as an architect, turned to the visual arts, and for many years he had a successful career as a painter of Southwest art, which still continues. He began his work with the AVAZ International Dance Theatre as a designer of sets, costumes, and lights. His choreography reflects his architectural training.

In 1990, he created his first work, shateri, a dance associated with working class men from the southern districts of Tehran. It was the first time that a group choreography of this solo improvised dance had been created. Shateri has been so successful in the AVAZ repertoire that it has become something of a company icon in the Iranian community in the United States. In 1998, the company performed it and several other works by Jamal in a gala command performance for HIM Farah Pahlavi, the former empress of Iran, in Queens College, New York. Iranians are always calling the company office and offering outrageous sums of money to have the company perform shateri at weddings, but Jamal says:

We never perform at weddings or our reputation and credibility as a company that performs dance as an art form would be irretrievably destroyed. I know that I am not alone in attempting to create art from what is generally perceived as a form of low class entertainment, and I thank all of my colleagues who are working to realize Middle Eastern dance traditions as art. My countrymen and women, except for a tiny westernized elite who attended concerts, never attended performances in which dance was shown as an art form. They did not have either the financial means or the training to attend concerts at Rudaki Hall, for example. Attending concerts and museum exhibits in the way that western individuals do is learned behavior. Such habits of attendance simply did not exist in Iran. Even here, Iranians are beginning to attend AVAZ concerts in large numbers, because the art that I am creating is designed for their sensibilities. Our choreographies need to be at once sophisticated and culturally familiar. (Personal interview. November 30, 2002)

"Turning Through Time" is the title of one of Jamal's newest choreographic creations for the AVAZ International Dance Theatre of Los Angeles. It is also the theme that informs his research, his artistic life and philosophy, and the choreographic strategies he uses for the development of a fresh approach to an ancient form of cultural expression.

While historically traditional professional dancers performed in various venues, staged dance in Iran, as westerners know it, is very new. Many choreographers like Robert De Warren, the former director of the Mahalli Dancers (a government-financed, state-supported company that existed for a decade prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979), as well as several Iranians both in Iran and in the diaspora, attempted to graft Western dance forms on Iranian dance. They incorporated Broadway musicals, classical ballet techniques, and modern dance movements and strategies in their work. These elements are alien to Middle Easterners. It doesn't work; it's like grafting a pear on a rose bush: the plants, each wonderful in their original form, are alien to one another. In the Middle East, only the Turkish folk dance companies avoid this and that is why traditional dances in Turkey are very popular as staged performances.

What I am saying does not mean that I am anti-western or radical. On the contrary, I love many western art forms including dance. I have had a successful career painting in a western style, and I have no desire to paint a Persian miniature. In fact, Martha Graham and Antony Tudor (choreographer for the New York City Ballet) were geniuses and I love and admire their work, but I need to create in my own unique style. Iranian dance is not well understood, even in Iran. Unlike poetry, which constitutes the major form of cultural and aesthetic expression throughout the Middle East, dance, especially as an art form performed in public, is disreputable. Consequently, the dance has never had the support, development and expansion needed to become an art form.

Dance in Iran is an ancient expressive form. We have numerous statues, miniatures, illustrations on ceramics, coffee house paintings, murals, and other iconographic evidence for this form of cultural expression for at least six millennia. Theoretically, because of its improvisational nature, Iranian dance can be can be infinitely expanded and developed, both conceptually and aesthetically. There is no need to utilize Western techniques and choreographic strategies to achieve a classical art form. Unfortunately, Iranians who attempt to work with this tradition are unfamiliar with the diversity and richness of their own native dance forms and instead of reaching inside themselves and the vast Iranian dance environment surrounding them to find inspiration, they attempt to use Western classical ballet and modern dance because in Iran, and here in the United States, those were the only formally taught dance traditions. The very fact that we are working on a proscenium arch stage means that we are working to a degree within a western environment. These western forms carried a certain cachet because they were from the United States and Europe. In Iran we have a phrase, gharb-zadegi, to characterize this unquestioning worship of things western. I am convinced, however, that I have every choreographic tool within in my own native tradition that I need to create works that are potentially of interest to both Iranians and non-Iranians. My choreography is the essence of my emotion, and I want to connect with my audiences on an emotional level. (Personal interview March 3, 2002)

Jamal traveled as a child and a teen-ager extensively throughout Iran with his father and brothers on business as well as visiting family members and business partners who lived throughout the country. His travels provided valuable opportunities for Jamal to attend frequent weddings, the primary site of traditional dance. “But you cannot bring such dances to the stage. In Kurdistan, I saw village musicians bringing the villagers from all over the region with the sound of the sorna and dohol (double-reed pipe and drum) and, at the end of the day culminating in a halo of dust rising in the center of the village as hundreds of feet beat the ground. This scene cannot be transferred to the stage” (November 30, 2002).

One of his most vivid memories was coming upon a village in Khorasan that had been leveled by a devastating earthquake, leaving behind many casualties. "I vowed I would keep the names of those people alive and I am doing that through dance” (March 3, 2002).

Recently, I created a Loristani (southwestern Iran) funeral that unlike virtually any other region in the Islamic world contains patterned movements, a simple dance called do-pa that is performed at funerals. From this I constructed an eight-minute choreography. On opening night I wondered how my fellow countrymen and women would react. To tell the truth I was very nervous. We closed the first half of the concert with this piece to allow the audience to react. It didn't take long. Many members of the audience were crying. A man from Luristan came back stage. He was beside himself and weeping. He made me promise to have the company perform this piece for his funeral. Another woman, a Kurd, was crying and said it brought back memories of her brother's death. He was executed by the regime and there was no funeral, and this performance gave her release. She subsequently provided the company with a tape of a traditional wedding with dancing for the company's extensive research archives. Even though to the western eye, because of its austerity and simplicity, my funeral scene might appear as a modern dance, to my countrymen and women, it appeared as totally Iranian. That was my goal." 3

His newest choreography, "Charkh: Turning in Time," is a contemporary exploration of the Sufi universe. This universe is filled with symbolism. “Charkh means wheel or circle and symbolizes the turning of the planets and the universe, and so I visually create the wheel, which also symbolizes unity: the unity of God and man, nature and humankind, etc., in several ways unity permeates the choreography. It's all about connection. I may bend tradition, but I never break it.

"I have had some Iranians come up to me and say 'we don't have turning in Iranian dance.' I am amazed at their ignorance. Turning permeates all forms of Iranian movement practices. It is found not only in dancing, which you can see in the many dance films in the AVAZ archives, but also it is found in the zur-khaneh, one of the traditional martial arts of Iran, as well as in Sufi rituals and ceremonies of some of the brotherhoods, like the Mollavi (Mevlevi)." Jamal is delighted that this work, which was a breakthrough, risk-taking choreography, utilizing movements from Sufi ceremonies, has earned him a James Irvine Dance Maker Fellowship and a Rockefeller Map-Fund award.

Jamal is currently creating a new choreography inspired by the tale of Bahram-e Gur, from the Shah-Nameh. The work is a full evening length narrative dance utilizing many genres of traditional and contemporary movements. “The marriage of poetry and dance is an artistic challenge and reflects the importance of poetry in Iranian life.”

I am an artist not a savior of national folk dances. Nothing that I do on the stage will affect the performances of dance in the field. My creations will not affect what people in rural areas of Iran perform during their celebrations. In the beginning, I began to stage and choreograph folk and classical dances in a very traditional way. I will continue to use traditional dance as an inspiration, but now I am expanding my creative ideas. I want to create a whole new world of dance and take Iranian dance to a new place. I am able to do this because I have many new tools with which to stage my new choreographies. I am happy to have the freedom to create. This comes from my training as a painter. I do not want to be type-cast as a folk choreographer or a modern dance choreographer. I am entirely different and I want to connect with my audiences and develop a trust in the quality of my work. (Jamal November 30, 2002)

Witnessing the new generation of choreographers, I am able to see that the choreographing and staging of traditional dance has a bright future. Its beauty will continue to inspire artists who hold a wide variety of aesthetic viewpoints and they will take it in new and exciting directions. We will all have to adjust our notions of what constitutes “authentic.”


1. Needless to say, those of us who have performed on countless stages throughout North America, or created choreographies for major folk dance companies like the Aman Folk Ensemble or the Duquesne University Tamburitzans, among others, did not merit mention either.

2. By Anglo American, I do not mean an individual of white Anglo Saxon background, but rather those individuals who are culturally a part of the large mainstream “Anglo American” society and who use English as their principal language, whatever their original racial or ethnic origins.

3. On September 11, 2002, this choreography was performed by several dance companies throughout the United States to remember the victims of September 11, 2001.

4. Jamal arrived in the United States in 1976 at the age of 22 to attend college. He began his education majoring in architecture. He graduated with a BA and an MFA from California State University, Los Angeles, with a degree in design. He began his career as an architect, but quickly became a visual artist, and for many years he had a successful career as a painter of Southwest art, which still continues. He began his work with AVAZ as a designer of sets, costumes, and lights.


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