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from an open panel conversation on cultural divides

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this is from an article written about a panel i recently moderated at Chicago Cultural Center; looking at exploring the difficult conversation of culture as it relates to dance, art-making and the Chicago neighborhood mentality….

Salon NOTEBOOK: Difficult Conversations: Cultural Divides

by Zachary Whittenburg

On April 16 at the Chicago Cultural Center, prompted by interdisciplinary artist Baraka de Soleil, four panelists and their audience kicked off a discussion about culture by attempting to lasso that rampant word with other words.

Hema Rajagopalan, artistic director of Natya Dance Theatre, identified culture’s three main ingredients in her view — beliefs, practices and values — but swiftly added that they are “always going to be influenced by the surrounding environment. It’s important that we understand that [culture] transforms and evolves.”

Phil Reynolds, executive director of the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, gave his “working definition” of culture: “A set of belief systems, intellectual expression, artistic output and social practices that, combined, define a society or a subset of a society.”

Although it has other connotations, too, he said. “You hear, ‘I came from a cultured family.’ What does that mean? Good breeding? Refinement?”

Cescily Washington, founder and president of CW Arts Consulting, called culture “a collective palette.” De Soleil, the panel’s moderator, called it “the visible and invisible ties that bind.”

“It’s who you know, what you know and how you know it,” said attendee Eboni Senai Hawkins, producing artistic director at see. think. dance. “I’d maybe add to that,” offered Reynolds, “how you express what you know.” Choreographer Madeleine Reber replied further that culture “is what you don’t know you know.”

“Using it as a singular makes me put my head against the wall,” said Barbara Koenen, director of artists’ resources at Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. “It always has to be plural. It’s malleable. It’s multiple. Everyone has their own.”

* * *

Allow me at this point to pose some questions to you, NOTEBOOK reader. When away from a context in which you feel comfortable or fluent, do you listen to and seek to understand and absorb its foreign qualities? Or do you signal outwardly what you want strangers to know about your own identity?

Does the answer depend on how you feel inside each particular unfamiliar?

“Aesthetics and perception” were two words de Soleil chose to express his understanding of culture; I’ll subdivide the latter, as perceptions can be grounded in lived experience or based on association, assumption and reputation.

What are the sources of your assumptions? Do you know what they are, and are they born in conscious choice, inheritance or reflex?

Two success stories of cultural exchange are music and food. (Masgouf tastes the same to tongues of all mothers; ndbombolo sounds the same to ears of all colors.) Both are experienced in the body, albeit with no guarantee of personal interaction with their producers.

So what happens when there is no non-human intermediary such as an entrée on a dish or an mp3 file in a music player? When the question is not, “How do I feel about masgouf?” but “How do I feel about Iraqi people?” or, rather, “How do I feel about this Iraqi person, who has a face and a name?” Sometimes, though not always, the answer is no exchange.

That’s a major challenge for live dance. Not only isn’t it transmitted through an intermediary — it travels directly from performer to viewer’s eye — a dance doesn’t always utilize or adhere to known vocabularies, shared or otherwise.

What’s left, then? Bodies moving in shared space, being observed by other bodies, period. As a location of potential cultural exchange, the odds are not in its favor but, for the same reasons, the fidelity dance offers as a conduit for empathy is hard to beat.

* * *

Rajagopalan came to the United States from India in 1974. She was in her mid-twenties. When she first heard the term “melting pot,” she said she remembers thinking, “But I want to see my vegetables! I don’t want it to all become mushy.” Through the Urban Gateways program, she performed in Chicago Public Schools but admitted she often dreaded the experience. “I used to hear remarks [from students] that would really upset me. Not that [Urban Gateways was] paying a whole lot of money. The fact was, I wanted to educate and share and wanted to express that there is another form, [another] aspect, a whole other world out there.”

“The empathetic heart,” she continued, the desire to understand what others experience and can offer, “is what is missing in Chicago. That extension of a hand doesn’t necessarily happen.” (Rajagopalan acknowledged that, at times, the hand withdrawn has been her own. While driving west at night from downtown Chicago on Roosevelt Road instead of the Eisenhower Expressway, she used to pass bars with mostly black clienteles. She recalled reminding herself that she was safe despite her instincts to the contrary.)

Reynolds expressed his satisfaction with progress made toward audience diversification at the Dance Center, although some desired benchmarks remain elusive. “The meter is going to move really slowly,” he acknowledged. “This is complex behavior.”

“It’s still, ‘Go for your color,’ ” observed de Soleil about attendance at culturally specific performances. “Black audience for black dance. Latino audience for Latino dance. Queer audience for queer dance.” From the panel’s audience, Natya program coordinator Bill Jordan concurred. “Crossing a cultural divide is one of the hardest things to do, beyond a trivial level. It takes a lot of work.”

In addition to rifts opened by racial difference, there are intangible barriers constructed by economic inequality and loyalty to faith. “Sometimes ‘difference’ is as clear as ticket price and ‘How do I get there?’ ” de Soleil observed plainly. “Twenty-five [dollars] is affordable? Not if you can’t afford it. ‘You want me to come downtown? But I need to eat.’ ”

While there are many ways to expose oneself to a broad spectrum of culture for free, some pan- and cross-cultural experiences charge admission at high prices. Once inside a “zone of privilege,” what cultures are and aren’t represented? Rajagopalan asked whether exchange is a component of presenting organizations’ philosophies, beyond or independent of their commercial needs and wants as institutions. Attendee Abra Johnson of Honey Pot Performance made a few basic requests of the field: “Experience each other’s performance culture. Learn each other’s aesthetics. Get to know non-central spaces and organizations. Think about bartering as a source of funding.”

Rajagopalan responded by describing how fulfilling it’s been for her to learn to express herself in non-native languages, saying she’s “still a student” of other dance forms. She identified how relocating overseas increased her capacities as a dance artist. Larger stages were more accessible in the U.S. than they were in India and her movement grew to fill this freshly available space.

Washington asserted the importance of providing youth the same sense of latency, by way of arts education and outreach. Chicago students “have a huge opportunity,” she said, but wondered if they were aware of their own potential. Later, she listed truths she wants to ensure the city’s children hear.

“Yes, you have a voice. Yes, Chicago is yours. Yes, you belong here.” She paused for a moment, then said, “Culture is shapeable. It’s shapeable.”



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