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By Lisa Traiger
“Is it safe?” That’s the first question resident choreographer/rehearsal director Christopher K. Morgan asked CityDance Ensemble artistic director Paul Gordon Emerson when he heard that the company might travel to Algiers late last year. “I immediately thought of the 2007 bombing of the U.N. building there, which was claimed by Al Qaeda,” says Morgan.
For most dance companies the biggest security concern on tour is getting through the TSA line without a glitch. But for companies on official business as cultural diplomats, often arranged and funded by the State Department or U.S. embassies abroad, security can be a major worry. Outside of the scope of the high-profile DanceMotion USA program (see “Exporting Modern Dance,” Jan. 2010), smaller companies are also turning to dance diplomacy. And these companies (Washington, DC’s CityDance, Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company, and StepAfrika! among them) reap rewards for being flexible enough to travel to off-the-beaten-track countries like Venezuela, Peru, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Jordan, and Mongolia.
“If you look at American TV as much of the rest of the world does, you would think we all went around wrestling and wearing bikinis,” quipped Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year. Dance diplomacy introduces a new script in places where the American presence is limited to action films and TV sitcoms. Dance fulfills the State Department’s intention to more broadly communicate American ideals without the barrier of language. For CityDance, that meant giving budding ballerinas the confidence to exert their bodies and stretch their minds with modern dance in Belarus. In Bahrain, it meant opening children’s eyes to the concept that multiple movement interpretations can all be right. In Algeria, it meant being the first Americans that a group of North African hip hop dancers ever met. “In the case of countries where information is tightly controlled, freedom of expression is most often found in art,” says Emerson.
With just eight dancers, CityDance is lean and nimble. The number of dancers on a tour can be even smaller, depending on the budget and needs of the embassy. While past tours have taken more than a year to plan, the company received word about traveling to Algiers barely five weeks before boarding the plane.
Algiers (where CityDance was the only American group to perform in the Second International Contemporary Dance Festival) felt safe enough, but preventative measures were taken. A police escort with flashing blue lights stopped traffic to bring CityDance’s bus to the hotel, which was in a gated area of the city. And when the five company members on the tour asked to sightsee in the ancient Casbah, festival directors relented only after plainclothes guards could be obtained to follow the group—something they only learned after the excursion was over.
The rewards of traveling to unfamiliar places far outweigh the risks. “It’s fulfilling to see what our everyday craft, our primary language, can do as far as reaching across borders,” says CityDance member Elizabeth Gahl. These cultural exchanges have made Gahl reassess her own dance career. A recent stint teaching in the West Bank of Israel has “awakened a new inspiration for me as a dancer,” she says. Gahl is now seeking funds to return to the West Bank to develop a conservatory program for young dancers. “We take arts for granted. There are young children in Palestine who don’t have access to ballet classes the way we do. As much as I love performing, I’ve gotten a new wind with this cultural diplomacy.” —Lisa Traiger
Christopher K. Morgan leads a master class in Minsk, Belarus. Photo by Paul Gordon Emerson, courtesy CityDance