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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 Tsao
Copyright 2002 Aimee Tsao
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
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 ½ 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
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
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?
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