Immigration has been a hot topic in this election, but in the dance world it’s a no-brainer. We are immeasurably enriched by people from different places and different cultures. Last night I moderated a panel titled “Cultural Identity and Creative Process,” that turned into a passionate discussion about immigration and shifting perceptions of whiteness during this election. I came away thinking, One thing we can be proud of is that dancers from all over the world want to come to the United States. This is the country where they find themselves as artists.
The illustrious panelists were Zvi Gotheiner (originally from Israel), Patricia Hoffbauer (from Brazil), Eiko Otake (from Japan) and Reggie Wilson (from…Milwaukee). The evening was sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts and hosted by Gibney Dance.
While moderating, I could only take sparse notes, so what follows are a few sound bites of a robust, rambling discussion.
Coming to America
The first question I posed to each panelist was, What were your expectations when you came to the United States (or, in the case of Wilson, NYC) as a dance artist? It was clear that they all sought artistic freedom and a wider sphere of influences. But they also found a dance community.
Gotheiner: I grew up on a kibbutz in Israel. I was trained to be a soldier. I came to the United States to find my individuality.
Hoffbauer: I came here because I wanted to dance like Graciela Figueroa [a dancer from Uruguay who had worked with Twyla Tharp], but nobody here danced like that!
Otake: I’m an American choreographer. The only criterion is that I live and work here. When Koma and I came here in 1976, we performed everywhere in the first six months. We also made many friends.
Hoffbauer: I’m a U. S. choreographer, but I still think like a Latin American.
Wilson: I came to New York because I wanted to be a dancer. I was able to dance with people from Brazil, Israel and Japan.
Expectations of You
Wilson said that when he goes abroad, people expect him to do tap dance or hip hop or African. Hoffbauer said, “When I tell people I’m from Brazil, they think I do Capoeira and wear a bikini.”
Since the Election
Gotheiner: On Wednesday morning I taught my ballet class as usual, and people were sobbing during the barre exercises.
Wilson: I was not completely surprised. I have stopped being surprised by the deep well of racism that is in America.
Otake: The day of 9/11 was such a shock. Koma and I had a studio in the World Trade Center the previous year. We resolved to always remember that we had put our assistants in the target, but the resolve often fades in years. I tell myself after this election, as was at the last few elections I would not forget about this. We have to observe, think and act upon our regrets.
Gotheiner: Are we glorifying violence in portraying difference so great that people cannot listen to each other? My direction is to go back to the body. It comes back to the body. How can we be more articulate and communicate better?
Wilson: We have to really think about what is peculiar to dance. What can dance do that no other art can do?
Questions from the Audience
One audience member asked about how one forms a “cultural identity.”
Hoffbauer: “Culture” has been always projected onto the bodies of non-whites, but white is now revealed as a racial/cultural identity with this election. Cunningham also did cultural work. The abstraction, besides being an aesthetic choice, was also a political one that illustrated his cultural identity. [Check out Brenda Dixon Gottschild’s “Whoa! Whiteness in Dance” from 2005 for more on this.]
Otake: Cultural identity is fluid. My culture is different from my mother’s culture.
Another audience member said she tries to speak to people who voted the other way so that she can try to understand them. We agreed that it was important to make the effort to understand others.
Perron: The perception of whiteness has been reconfigured in this election. It is no longer a mark of the elite but of the rural, working poor. Instead of the polarization of white vs. non-white, we have the polarization of rural vs. urban, or the educated vs. the uneducated.
Otake: What’s needed now is courage.
All in agreement.