Recollections of the Asia-Pacific International Dance Conference, 22-25 September 2011

In September 2011, I attended the Asia - Pacific International Dance Conference and was asked to write some thoughts on my experience for CHANNELS. Hybridity has been an ongoing inquiry in my dance practice for over twenty years. Earlier this year I investigated some new research questions at Critical Path, a choreographic research and development center for dance artists in Australia, where I posed some anthropological perspectives: Can we create a hybrid form in a laboratory situation? If so, what are our reasons to come together in a safe ‘multicultural’ society? How do notions of celebration of diversity shape our works, and are they enough?

 It was serendipitous that I managed to attend the Asia-Pacific International Dance Conference 2011 in September, hosted by the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. It was four fantastic days of networking with dance researchers, scholars, dance producers and artists keen to listen and share their fieldwork and perspectives on hybridity in dance, a timely contribution to my own choreographic research.

Hybridity was presented as being ‘the offspring of two parents’ and contested that it not be used to describe an existing dance form but rather ‘a process of something on the way to something new’. It was discussed as the ‘slow evolution of localised forms’ and ‘the changing or coming together of two things because of socio-political circumstances in a particular community or region’ and it was pointed out that this process was not the same as artistic practise which must be clearly defined as just that, or as ‘hybridism in process’.

Not being an academic, I always find it challenging to link academic or reflexive practice with artistic practice, but the experience of the conference was completely engrossing. Dance anthropologists, ethno-choreologists and musicologists investigated a wide variety of themes, from traditional dances performed as daily practice by ancient cultures, to the hybrid dances-for-dance’s-sake created in the high arts.

Presentation papers at APIDC ranged from movement dialogues or ‘shifts’ in Hawaiian dance history, to discussions of the Norwegian Halling dance, multimedia in contemporary Indian dance productions, the trance dances of the Temiar aboriginal peoples of Malaysia, the minority cultures of Laos, trans-global Salsa dance, and the hypergendering of male and female forms in Bollywood items. Examples were drawn from the works of young choreographers on the British South Asian scene, such as Sonia Sabri and Shane Shambu, and Malaysian artists such as Umesh Shetty. Two papers by practicing artists were given. One was by keynote speaker Jonathan Hollander, New York choreographer, who told of his influences from Indian Carnatic music, and his exchanges with Samir and Sanghamitra Chatterjee and choreographer Ramli Ibrahim. “Who is the judge of authenticity?” he asked. Hollander also contested that hybridity is only accepted when the artist is ‘too big to fail’, and discussed the ‘mediocritizing’ of new exploration by use of the term ‘fusion’.

Attendees of the conference were mainly from the Asia- Pacific region and some came from as far away as Norway, Ireland and New York, but artists and researchers alike were asking the same questions and questioning the same politics on the validity of multiculturalism. Dato’ Norliza Rofli, the Director General of Malaysia’s National Department of Culture and Arts, offered the ‘Realising 1Malaysia’ policy in her keynote speech as the credo of contemporary life in Malaysia. We were asked to ‘forget the politics’ and to celebrate the country’s unique multiculturalism.

Cross-pollination, melding, braiding, weaving and fusion of cultural dance and music have been going on for eons. They express our need as human beings to exchange, share, trade with, or befriend another culture or people. The downside to globalisation, and the further hybridisation of dances such as Salsa, Hip Hop or Bollywood, means there is a serious disinterest in older cultural heritage. The social and folk dances of the past are becoming endangered species. Even here at APIDC, the art works examined in the presentations focused more on classical ballet and contemporary dance ‘fusion inspired’ works, rather than those that actually utilised and examined cultural content at an intrinsic level.

I found it exciting to discover theories that had a connection to practice, particularly from those researchers who had embodied their fieldwork in some way. There were many non-academics with strong ideas to contribute who felt there was not enough real discourse on the exploration of hybridity in dance practice, and on how the politic of multiculturalism does not work. Vibrant conversations were had in the hotel lobby or crammed in the back of a small Toyota in Friday night traffic.

I feel honoured to have met so many passionate and very real pioneers in our local region, particularly from Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, and East Timor, where singular individuals are forging pathways for dance to exist as a valid career, art form and research subject. Some are even campaigning for a National Dance Repertoire to protect and nurture awareness of their cultural heritage within the local youth and communities. My hat goes off to the many organiser-professors who hosted this rich and diverse program and their students who helped to see its success. We received a CD of the more than 30 presentation papers and keynote speeches featured in the conference. The event also included a show every night by local and international artists as part of the biennial MyDance Festival, and Jonathon Hollander’s Battery Dance Company in collaboration with Malaysia’s Sutra Dance Theatre. This years’ conference also launched several dance books on contemporary dance practice in Malaysia and Australia.

Being amongst such an array of like-minded people was thrilling. The aporia of hybridity continues globally, and we continue to struggle with alternative definitions of hybridity as a catchall word for ‘neo-ethnic’ dance or as a term for understanding process. However, it was clear for everyone at the conference that what is important is not how cleverly we might put dances together in art making, but the quality of the exchange, and the respect for the culture we choose to share, or which we already hold in common.

Annalouise Paul is an independent choreographer. She has been creating works around identity and transformation using traditional and contemporary dance and live music for twenty five years in Sydney and London. APIDC 2011 was an opportunity to deepen her choreographic research and develop networks for her intercultural company, Theatre of Rhythm and Dance.  

Channels, No. 2 December 2011

Newsletter of the World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific

Editor: Bilqis Hijjas  Publisher: Australian Dance Council—Ausdance Inc.