Looking Beyond Your Own Window
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
“if you want to trace yourself back to kings or the pyramids or whatever, that’s nice, but then it’s very important that you turn away from this narcissistic mirror and you begin to look out the window and you begin to realize there are other people out there with different histories, different mythologies, and that your job now is to enter out into the world. Your history, your ideas, is a gift and you’re also in a position where you receive the gift of other peoples’ culture, and that’s the exchange…”
—E. Ethlebert Miller in “Black and Universal”
In the quote above, the poet makes a point about the importance of knowing your cultural history while not being so myopic that you close yourself off to other traditions. After seeing a stunning work of contemporary dance by Brazilian choreographer Bruno Beltrão, this idea is percolating inside me.
Beltrão came up as a hip-hop street dancer in Rio in the 1990s, but over time he grew creatively frustrated with the conventions of a genre that celebrates individual virtuosity and has a predictable soundtrack. He formed his all-male dance troupe Grupo de Rua to push the boundaries of what hip-hop street dance could be if it evolved to include other traditions and movement vocabularies.
Speaking after this weekend’s performance, Beltrão explained that some audiences react negatively to his work because he doesn’t deliver on people’s expectations. He no longer performs, saying that dancing is an intimate act he prefers to do it at home and with people who are dear to him.
All of this has me thinking about the tension between being a follower versus a shaper of a particular tradition. Are some traditions (artistic, religious, cultural) more open to expansion and reinvention? And, if so, what makes them this way? Is it harder to stay open to change if your tradition has been ignored, misunderstood, or devalued? I don’t have easy answers to these questions and wonder what others think?
Moving to Think
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
Listening to neuroscientist Adele Diamond’s conversation with Krista, I couldn’t help but think of the talk by Sir Ken Robinson. Robinson has written several books on education, the arts, and creativity, and he’s on our “big list” of potential future guests.
One thing Diamond mentions is a lifelong love of dance, which brought to mind Robinson’s story about Gillian Lynne, who’s best known for choreographing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. He tells the story about how Lynne’s “learning disorder” turned out to be her life’s calling (jump to 15:15 in the video for the story, or read the transcript below):
“… Gillian and I had lunch together one day and I said, ‘Gillian how did you get to be a dancer?’ And she said it was interesting; when she was at school she was really hopeless. And the school in the thirties wrote to her parents and said, ‘We think Julian has a learning disorder.’ She couldn’t concentrate, she was fidgeting. I think now they’d say she had ADHD, wouldn’t you? But this was the 1930’s and ADHD hadn’t been invented, you know, at this point, so it wasn’t an available condition, you know. People weren’t aware they could have that.
Anyway, she went to see this specialist in this oak-paneled room and she was there with her mother and she was led and sat on this chair at the end. And she sat on her hands for 20 minutes while this man talked to her mother about all the problems Gillian was having at school.
And at the end of it — because she was disturbing people and her homework was always late and so on, a little kid of eight — in the end, the doctor went and sat next to Gillian and said ‘I’ve listened to all these things your mother has told me. I need to speak to her privately.’ So he said, ‘Wait here. We’ll be back. We won’t be very long,’ and they went and left her. But as they went out of the room, he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk, and when they got out of the room, he said to her mother, ‘Just stand and watch her.’ The minute they left the room she said she was on her feet moving to the music and they watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother and said, ‘You know, Mrs. Lynn, Julian isn’t sick — she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.’
I said, ‘What happened?’ She said, ‘She did. I can’t tell you, sir, how wonderful it was. We walked into this room and it was full of people like me; people who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.’”
Marc Sanchez, associate producer
“This project is inspired by the rigor and austerity of religious practices while decrying the barriers that religion creates. We will approach our research as a devotional practice allowing this intension to essentialize our communal purpose. Simplicity and economy can demonstrate how extreme restriction can be turned into powerful kinesthetic expressions. This project seeks to create a performance that is the sum of perfect gestures and total sensory engagement.”
The performance also features original music by Alan and Mimi Sparhawk of the band Low. And, upcoming performances are scheduled at PS 122 in New York, Wesleyan University in Middletown, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Expressing Our Inner Gifts
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
“I mean, we spend over one-third of our lives actually in the workplace, and one of the loneliest things you can find is somebody who is in the wrong kind of work, who shouldn’t be doing what they are doing but should be doing something else and haven’t the courage to get up and leave it and make a new possibility for themselves. But it’s lovely when you find someone at work who’s doing exactly what they dreamed they should be doing and whose work is an expression of their inner gift. And in witnessing to that gift and in bringing it out they actually provide an incredible service to us all.”
I started to think about people who embody what O’Donohue describes — people who are living their right livelihoods. Tap artist Savion Glover quickly came to mind. I saw him perform last year in Minneapolis and was captivated. He is so precise, fluid, and joyful in his dance, as you can see in the video above.
Thinking some more, I wondered about people who live out their gifts but aren’t so famous. Then I remembered a traffic cop I used to admire when I lived in Brooklyn who exemplified grace, playfulness, and good humor as chaos and impatience swirled around him.
Who comes to mind for you: famous or not famous? How do you express your inner gifts through your work?
Dancing with Sidi Goma: The Black Sufis of Gujarat
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer
I recently attended a dance workshop in Saint Paul with Sidi Goma, a troupe of African-Indian Sufis from Gujarat, India who were visiting Minnesota to perform at a local festival. I’ve explored a variety of mostly West African dance styles, but this practice was entirely new to me.
The Sidi people migrated from East Africa to India 800 years ago and it isn’t clear which modern-day African countries they originally hailed from. The Sidis express their mystical Sufi Muslim faith through an exuberant dance and musical tradition. The idea, as I understand it, is for the performers to connect with the Divine and inspire the audience to experience a kind of divine transcendence through this joyful expression.
As you’ll see in the video we’ve posted of the workshop, the dancing and rhythm picks up speed and culminates in a crescendo. I wondered whether there’s a connection here with the whirling dervish who practice the sema — a form of ecstatic worship we explored in our program on Rumi. Some of the Sidi dancers’ movements are inspired by animals — notably birds. You’ll notice how they use their eyes as much as their limbs. It actually reminded me of the popping and locking break dancers are known for.
At the end of the evening, another workshop participant fetched a cowbell from his backpack. The bell is a kind of percussive instrument sometimes attached to an African drum called doun doun. It seemed like the Sidis were unfamiliar with the cowbell, but their faces beamed with delight when it was played along with their instruments. Only one member of the group spoke English but we all danced and relished in the music together — a refreshing minder that movement and rhythm can transcend verbal language.
Special thanks to The Ordway and Paul Escalante for giving us permission to post this video clip.
Repossessing Virtue: Chery Cutler on the Art and Practice of Improvisation
» download (mp3, 16:11)
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer
I love to dance. After spending my work week plugged into screens, headphones, and all things Microsoft Outlook, I seek spirit and solace in movement. Most Saturdays you’ll find me sweating it out at an African dance class in downtown Minneapolis.
In April I traveled to the Pacific Northwest to participate in a weekend-long improvisational dance workshop on Vashon Island, near Seattle. To call it a dance workshop is actually something of a misnomer. I and my fellow improvisers weren’t there to perfect our dance technique. Our charge was to learn to listen without fear — or put differently, to practice the art of “creative listening” which is to pay attention to whatever is happening in the present moment of an unscripted dance. I think that Jon Kabat-Zinn would give it a thumb’s up.
I was so jazzed by the experience of the workshop that a few days after I got back I decided to interview one of the facilitators, dance veteran Chery Cutler. In a book she co-authored, Creative Listening: Overcoming Fear in Life & Work, Chery describes creative listening as “learning to quiet fear and listen three-dimensionally — to one’s own inner voice, to others, and to the environment…”
Slight in stature but super-sized in spirit, Chery is now retired from Wesleyan University where she founded the dance department and worked as a professor for over three decades. She recently told me that past SOF guest Majora Carter took her class back in the day.
So much of what Chery says about improvisation and creative listening echoes the conversations we’ve been having as part of our Repossessing Virtue project. She calls this moment of economic collapse “an extremely exciting time” that has the potential to unleash creativity if we can just stop, listen, and resist the urge to willfully dance to the beat of our pesky fear-driven agendas.
We recently wrapped production on Living Differently, Beyond Economic Crisis — the latest installment in our Repossessing Virtue series. This program features the reflections of eight SOF listeners and scores of others online. Soon we’ll be posting more audio interviews to fatten the growing RV archive. I think this conversation with Chery makes for a nice addition to this growing chorus of voices. Let me know what you think.
[I’ve included a picture of my fellow creative listening improvisers here. As the lone Minnesota representative, I’m the only one wearing a coat — not quite fully trusting that it’s safe to venture outside without a down-filled garment. Chery is the one crouched in front, smiling broadly and wearing a black hoodie.]