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Thoughts from a Dance Enthusiast: Pico Iyer’s Plenary Speech -- Day 1

July 26, 2011 · By Christine Jowers · 7 Comments

Editorial note: This article was originally published Wednesday, July 13, 2011 by Christine Jowers who blogs as The Dance Enthusiast.

We Need Some Good Food and Balance. Dance/USA Introduces Pico Iyer.

Ruth Birnberg, director of the Boston Dance Alliance and trustee of Dance/USA, introduced us to Pico Iyer. In her opening comments, she spoke about the reasons dance professionals come to these conferences. Much of it has to do with the nuts and bolts of how to run our various arts organizations, learning new things, getting together with old friends, or networking to make new friends. What about nurturing our souls? More than ever in the arts, we dancers and dance administrators need some good spiritual food for sustenance – especially as the world pushes us to move ever faster in its service and sometimes, it seems, far away from the art we love. It is imperative to thrive despite many draining challenges that face us. It is important to find balance in our lives. Perhaps this non-dancing, busy, well-traveled, intelligent, and prolific writer’s observations about globalism, dance, and the future can give us some insight into creating balance and room in our lives. Look at all the work that he does, by the way. His list of accomplishments is daunting yet he’s still smiling, relaxed, and enjoying it all. He has found balance. What’s his secret?

The Dance World Through The Eyes of a Worldly Observer

Pico Iyer was born in England; his parents are Indian; he has lived in California; he was educated at Eton, Oxford, and Harvard. Now he lives in Japan, or maybe it’s better to say he lives mostly in Japan, as he continues to travel and live everywhere. He is a writer, an essayist, and a novelist. His book, The Open Road about the Dalai Lama, is a national bestseller. He is an incisive observer of our world, wonderfully eloquent, while charming and self-effacing. He kids us, as he opens his comments, that he is afraid we might focus on his small stature relative to the large podium in front of him instead of on what he is saying. What I notice is that he has made me feel very comfortable -- at home. Maybe this is because he can make his home in so many places, or perhaps it is also that he has chosen to speak without a visual presentation, therefore allowing us to be still and leisurely drink in the meaning of every delicious word and inflection in his speech. (It is good to sit and listen without feeling the urge to catch the main points all the time.) His conversation flows from one culture to another: Bali, Japan, Nepal, California, New York and Cuba, and from one cultural reference to another: Van Morrison, Molière, the Kardashians, reality TV, Marshall McLuhan, The Sixth Sense, Billy Elliot, Balinese dance, Bruce Willis, Werner Herzog, Cuban social dance, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” He is not a dancer, though his words and ideas dance magically, but he is extremely appreciative of what we do and deeply believes that we hold in our art form a transformative power that is very necessary to our world and its future. This gives him giant stature to me.

The Future Is Like a Porsche Being Driven by a Teenager

This Iyer analogy caused me to chuckle, and I paraphrase, “The future is like a Porsche being driven by a teenager on a winding, hilly road.” I am the mother of an almost teenager so this means something to me (as in, “Watch out, whoa, listen up.”) because I see very clearly in my son and in our world the unrelenting emphasis on acceleration, with no sign of slowing down. (What about food for my son’s soul? How will he be nourished? When will he find the time to eat?) There is a need for speed and immediacy, yet one wonders, are we really moving toward a destination? Is the constant barrage of information helping us or hindering us? Are we being numbed somehow? I noticed on the Chicago news this morning a report saying that peoples’ memories are becoming worse by relying on Google. The theory being that we really don’t have to pay attention anymore because we can always “find it” on the web. Later I am told by a colleague that almost the same thing was said about the written word in books. (Really?) I am not a Luddite but I am fighting the battle between loving my connectedness to “everything all the time” by way of email, Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc., and wanting to call the whole thing off because I think I am getting whiplash. Iyer says that in one day we are presented with more images than a person in Victorian England would have been presented with in a lifetime. How do we survive the onslaught of technology and retain our humanity?

Who Am I? Where Is My Home? Who Is My Tribe? Where Is My Center?

We live in a world with vast opportunities for exposure to other cultures. We can immediately access a country on the Internet. We most probably have lived in several different cultures in our lifetime and we can easily travel to places far from where we were born. In our lifetime, we may have multiple homes and jobs and multiple identities. Who we are is not as predetermined as it might have been for generations before us. It is an exciting period because of the proliferation of options from which to choose to craft an identity, yet, exactly because of these opportunities, it is easier than ever to lose one’s center. Hey, whoa, listen up, if you are in a Porsche being whipped about on a hilly road, the one thing you need to hold on to is your center. Maybe then you will have the presence of mind to tell the teenager to let you off, or let you take the wheel for a bit.

Pico Iyer on Home and Identity: Two Minutes with Words That Dance
Why Dance Is Necessary. The Good News.

The good news is that dance is a slow art and we shouldn’t let the fast pace of society make us feel less “cool” or relevant. There is no need to feel awkward or apologetic about our sense of time and history. We need to embrace the stillness we can offer to the world and do our best to share it effectively. We are needed. People are hungry for connection, for slowing down, for finding meaning amidst the “helpful” machines that spit out information. Dance is built for this. Iyer points out dance has always stood for culture in societies. “In a culture of fusion (as ours is and continues to become) dance can be the center of mingling, for it speaks to the deepest aspect of culture – universalism. Dance addresses a primal part of us that hasn’t yet started to think in terms of division. Dance speaks of something more,” Iyer reminds us: “surrender, transport, and transformation. It can carry us to a deeper, often unvisited part of ourselves.”

Next time you go for a walk in New York City (or your home town), notice the number of people carrying yoga mats on their backs. Witness firsthand the great need for surrender and transformation.

Now for the Not So Good News or The Golden Opportunity

After Iyer’s speech my colleague sitting one seat over from me, looked deeply in my eyes and said, and I paraphrase, “He spoke to us as if we are part of the world, not outsiders isolated in a studio.”

This feeling of being sequestered away from society is horrible, and very real for professional dancers. Many of us have been trained to be set apart from this world with our highly specialized diets, grueling exercise regimes, and with the inordinate amount of time we spend chasing perfection. We have been trained to be inaccessible. Of course we are part of the world. We are human and connected to all human beings. We eat, breathe, sleep, eliminate waste, have sex and search for meaning just like all other humans. We hold in our possession the magical use of our bodies. All humans share bodies. All humans move. Dance is a common language.

Is it that the world doesn’t get us? Is it that most people don’t care about the great high culture we have to offer because they would rather watch The Simpsons (I like to watch The Simpsons) or The Kardashians (not so fond of the face work there) or sports (love soccer)? Is it that the overburdened person feels excluded from our exclusive professional dance club, or mystified by the definitions of contemporary dance, modern dance, ballet, tap or folk? Is it that people have no idea who we are? How can we change this?

Many of us serious dancer types have interrupted our connection with the larger culture. We need to be reunited somehow. This has nothing to do with dumbing down what we do, or changing who we are essentially to fit the society. It has everything to do with broadening our horizons, by jumping out of our studios and offices to take a look at the great, big, cacophonous, speedy, multicultural world of fusion before us and realistically assessing our place in it. What is our dream for our art? Is it a realistic one? Where is our center? What can we offer? How can we take advantage of new methods of communication to help us? This doesn’t have to be a horrible chore that leads us away from art work. It can be an energizing invigorating experience. It can help us to feel balanced, appreciated, and part of the world again. This is an exciting time. Today, we are not only dancers and administrators but we are hosts, welcoming old friends and newcomers into our homes to be nourished by our work (once we are nourished ourselves, of course). We dancers have a golden opportunity to create a more meaningful, more relevant, more enjoyable, and less lonely world for all of us. I, for one, am enthused.

Christine Jowers founded The Dance Enthusiast in 2007 with web designer Will Arnold. The Dance Enthusiast is the web extension of the non-profit Moving Arts Projects, originally founded to create performance projects celebrating the powerful stories of dance history and individual dance artists. Jowers writes, edits, acts as videographer, and interviews artists. In addition to her web work, she performs, produces, and teaches. Prior to creating her own company, Jowers performed with Maryland Dance Theater, The Pittsburgh Dance Alloy, and The Doris Humphrey Repertory Company in New York.
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Tags: 2011 Annual Conference · Commentary · Mind of the Artist

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jody Oberfelder // Jul 28, 2011 at 9:16 AM

    Really great article Christine.
  • 2 gvinton // Jul 28, 2011 at 9:40 AM

    Inspiring stuff!
  • 3 Blakeley White-McGuire // Jul 28, 2011 at 1:15 PM

    Thank you for this affirmation and challenge. It is crucial to the form's very survival that we dancers continue to engage with the popular culture outside of corporate and institutional dance.
  • 4 CBN // Jul 29, 2011 at 9:17 PM

    I am a fan of both Iyer and the Dance Enthusiast, and I'm so impressed by both Dance/USA and Christine Jowers for making this connection. It's connections like these; connections between dance and the way we live that will keep dance from being an insular art form. Dance does not need to be dumbed down to attract a wider audience, but it does need to be perceived as more accessible and relevant to all human beings. I hope to read more about dance in relation to other arts, science, politics, cooking...and automobiles!
  • 5 Gary Masters // Aug 1, 2011 at 6:55 PM

    Conversations and communications among Dance Artists throughout the field are vital to the growth and development in our ever speeding 21st century. Christine's thoughts and further commentary inspired by Pico Iyer's speech reminds this reader to continue the search for ways to bridge the gap(s) between the 'bullet train' within our own, and ever younger, dance community with the soul and humanity of art form's heritage. Her questions relating to our own dreams for our art, whether they are realistic, etc., certainly hit home. Bravo!
  • 6 Brendan McCall // Aug 4, 2011 at 10:35 AM

    Thank you for this article, Christine, and for the inquiries it has generated. I hope more people read it, and become inspired by it, as I have.

    I agree with you, that there has been an increasing hunger among people (particularly in communities like New York) for more surrender, transformation, and broadening of one´s horizons. The spread of yoga mats over Manhattanites´ arms is but one indicator.

    However, in America as a whole, where approximately 75% of Americans do not have a passport (and therefore have probably not set foot outside the country, except to say, Canada), the only recourse for "travel" has become the television or the internet.

    Professional dancers, while sequestered from this majority, may simultaneously be more "balanced" in some ways, because of their probable exposure to diverse ideas, travel to different places, and of course the regular creative work that defines what they do. Many non-artistic professions do not require such constant imagination and innovation, and performing artists (I include actors, singers, musicians, and puppeteers to this category) are using their body, breath, as well as their mind on a regular basis. How many non-artistic professions require so much of us?

    You article also addresses the population of dancers themselves: are they happen in the attendant lifestyle of their profession? As other models of business (including the arts) change in the world today, how is the dance world changing, or not changing? Seems like these questions were asked in the 1920s-30s by dancers such as Graham, Laban, Wigman; and again in the 60s by people like Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown. Is performing at NYC Ballet the only "option" for someone serious about ballet? What other models could there be?

    I am interested in these questions you bring up, and would love to learn about how different dancers have taken risks and chosen different ways than the "conventional" path, to pursue balance in their life. For me, who began dancing professionally in 1994, this mean altering what it meant to be a "dancer." I thought I had to limit myself to being this, and nothing else. Instead, I enjoy being a dancer, a choreographer, an actor, a director, a writer, and a teacher. I can do all of these things, as I want to, when I want to. What other answers have others found? I´d be interested in reading them.

    Thank you again for the article!

    Brendan McCall
    Artistic Director, Ensemble Free Theater
    Oslo, Norway

    Head of Acting, Bilkent University
    Ankara, Turkey
  • 7 Nancy Allison // Aug 10, 2011 at 3:43 PM

    Thank you, Christine, for taking the time to slow down yourself enough to write this thoughtful and deeply felt piece. Your example and your generosity are an inspiration.

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