featured photo
The Kitchen
Brought to you by
Body Wrappers;
New York Flash Review Sponsor
the New York manufacturer of fine dance apparel for women and girls. Click here to see a sample of our products and a list of web sites for purchasing.
With Body Wrappers it's always
performance at its best.

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home

Flash Perspective, 5-3: East & West Meet & Mix, or Maybe Not
Yo-Yo Ma, Mark Morris and the Silk Road Project / Alonzo King and Miya Masaoka / Silk Road Ensemble

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2002 Aimee Ts’ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- When my editor proposed a story on the East/West connection, covering Mark Morris's new piece "Kolam" for Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project (which explores the cross-pollination of ideas, cultures, music and art along the Silk Road), a music concert by the Silk Road Ensemble of traditional music and recent commissions, and Alonzo King's latest choreography to a score by the Japanese composer and koto player Miya Masaoka, I jumped at the chance to compare the various ways different artists ensure that "the twain shall meet." (Kipling's words make up one of the most misapplied quotes in the English language. The full quotation has the opposite meaning of the overused beginning phrase: "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,/Til Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment seat;/ But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,/When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of earth.") And in case you haven't guessed by my name, I am a living example of East/West genetic and cultural intermingling -- half Chinese and half northern European mix. In other words, I have a vested interest in this topic.

Cal Performances and the University of California at Berkeley sponsored an extraordinary ten days of concerts, exhibits and lectures from April 19 through 28 as part of the Silk Road Project. Started by Yo-Yo Ma, the internationally acclaimed cellist, in 1998 to explore the migration of diverse artistic ideas among communities, the Project takes the form of fourteen multicultural festivals and programs in the United States, Europe and East and Central Asia.

For more than two thousand years, the Silk Road, the famous trade route from China through the Middle East to Western Europe, has been both a means of exposure between the cultures of many political and ethnic groups and the blending and assimilation of those same groups. To give some idea of the diversity, there were hundreds of separate languages. Over many centuries the process of absorbing elements of one culture into another has been like dripping water wearing away stone. Perhaps one of the most familiar examples is that of the Arabic influence in southern Spain during the Moorish occupation from 711-1492 AD. We all recognize the Middle Eastern overtones in flamenco music and the undulating arms that came from belly dancing. More recently, at the end of the nineteenth century, there was a fascination with exotic Eastern cultures which resulted in the appropriation of an Oriental aesthetic that found its way into the ballets of Petipa, "La Bayadere," and "Nutcracker"'s Arabian and Chinese dances. Then the early twentieth century saw Michel Fokine's "Scheherazade" and "Prince Igor" with its Oriental slaves, and Leonide Massine's "Le Chant de Rossignol," among other ballets. The important difference between what these choreographers were doing and what Yo-Yo Ma is attempting with the Silk Road Project is collaboration with artists from the cultures themselves. The music concerts consist of pieces by composers from such countries as Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Japan, China, Mongolia, Korea, Iran, Uzbekistan and India that includes seven works commissioned specifically for the Silk Road Project, and performances by master musicians interpreting traditional forms. While Ma has succeeded extremely well on the musical side, Mark Morris was not working in the same vein for the dance component. Morris used "Charu A, Charu B and Rapt in 7 composed by Zakir Hussein, and played live in performance by Hussein on tabla and percussion, Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Ethan Iverson on piano and Ben Street on bass, and the dancers were from his own Mark Morris Dance Group, not master dancers of various cultures as were the musicians. This difference is significant.

I also found that the programming of the Mark Morris Dance Group's performance at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall on April 20 definitely influenced the way I viewed the collaboration between choreographer Morris and composer Zakir Hussein which produced the world premiere and featured dance of the evening "Kolam" ( the Talim word for the art of decorating courtyards, walls and places of worship using powders to draw intricate designs. It is the only art in India that transcends caste, occupation and religion). Sandwiched between the potent "World Power" (1995) to Lou Harrison's music replete with a gamelan orchestra and a chorus, and the ecstatic "V" to Schumann's Piano Quintet in E flat Major, op. 44, I found "Kolam" somewhat disappointing.

Given the usual parameters of time and money, it is understandable that the choreography for "Kolam" is not as impressive as the music it is danced to. I am assuming there are several reasons for this. The first is that Morris is working with very good and excellent dancers who are used to doing his work. They do not necessarily have Morris's own extensive background in Flamenco and Eastern European folk dance, in addition to their training in ballet and modern dance. Had Morris been able to use a dozen of his own clones, or had he been given an astronomical budget with which to emulate the Silk Road Project's model for musicians and hire the very best ethnic dancers from around the world with generous rehearsal time, I have no doubt that Morris's considerable choreographic talent and understanding of universal dance movement would have produced an astounding piece, though not without a lot of work. Ralph Lemon's Geography Trilogy comes to mind. In the second part, he traveled to Asia to find dancers and brought them together in an intensive workshop process. I saw a showing of that collaborative creation at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, where he had been an artist-in-residence.

Generally speaking, much Western European dance is lacking in the nuances of the face, head, arms and hands that are crucial to mastery of most Eastern dance forms, as well as an instinctual sensuality. That doesn't mean Western dancers don't sometimes have those qualities, but it is usually in spite of their training, not because of it. Morris himself is an exquisite mover, definitely the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps after the MMDG dancers have more performances under their belts, more will emerge on the interpretive side, but much of the Indian movement appeared to lack authenticity. That leads us to the differences between musical and choreographic composition. Musicians, unless they are jamming together, often can compose on their own, write down the notes and then rehearse the other musicians in an already completed piece. Choreography is mostly created in a studio using the canvas of the dancers' bodies. Studio time and dancers' salaries add up, quickly limiting the amount of time a choreographer can afford to spend making a new piece. After learning the steps using taped music, no doubt the dancers had only several rehearsals with the musicians, usually not enough time to feel really comfortable, which also points up the difficulty that dance has compared to what the musicians experience. The dancers must internalize not only the choreography, but the music as well, so they have twice as much to learn in half the time.

While "World Power" uses movement suggestive of Southeast Asian dance, in much the same way that "Kolam" employs Indian mudras and yoga poses, the former piece feels more cohesive and the movements are shown off in a choreographic structure that highlights and supports them. I will also confess that my anticipation of seeing "V" again (I saw the preview showing last October) led to impatience on my part with anything not at the same brilliant level. This performance of "V" was even more exhilarating than the first. Yo-Yo Ma, playing in the quintet, elevated the musical excitement several notches. His obvious delight in playing for and with the dancers was visibly demonstrated as he constantly turned his head over his shoulder to watch them, never missing a note. And the dancers responded with their pleasure in moving to this divinely played music, their faces illuminated with rapture. I was moved to tears of pure joy.

Six days later, back in San Francisco, I saw Alonzo King's Lines Ballet perform his latest work, "Koto," at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater. The commissioned music by Miya Masaoka, who performed live on the Japanese koto, was absolutely mesmerizing and the costumes by Colleen Quen and Robert Rosenwasser with lighting by Axel Morgenthaler were gorgeous.

King also commissioned music from Zakir Hussein in 1998 for "Who Dressed You Like a Foreigner" and has a long history of using a broad variety of ethnic music for his work, from Australian Aboriginal to traditional African, and from flamenco to Indian ragas. In many cases King's choreography reflects the source of the music, but he also adopts, consciously or unconsciously, the Merce Cunningham stance that the dance and music are separate entities. In "Koto," though I found a fluidly articulated structure, with wonderful variatons in both intensity and serenity, I am not sure I could say that there is any specific Japanese influence on the movement itself. Not that there needs to be, but in comparison to the Silk Road Project's offerings, it is something to be considered. Perhaps the ultimate in acceptance of another culture's art forms is the ability to use them toward one's own ends without feeling the need to slavishly tie them to any traditional forms. And the understanding that dance does not have to be accompanied by specific music, or performed in certain costumes. That through gaining familiarity with each other's cultures we are broadening our palettes, and the colors with which we now paint are new blendings of an infinity of hues. What could be more beautiful than that?

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home