Dance Diplomacy: Connecting the Global Human Experience Through Dance

“I believe in God, the maker of heaven and earth and myself. The whole world stinks but I am lovely, I am gorgeous, I am divine.”

These words were repeated out loud before every performance of Dougla by the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH). The ballet, created by Geoffrey Holder, depicts the marriage of African and East Indian cultures in Trini- dad. In September 1992, I stood on stage with 25 other dancers at the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, dressed in Holder’s stunning costumes. DTH was the first performing arts company to break the 30-year cultural boycott imposed on South Africa by the international community for its apartheid practices. There was a heightened sense of presence, the moment before an auspicious occasion. I can still remember the opening trills of the flutist.

I do not consider myself a religious person, but Holder’s chant imbued those performances with a sense of ritual. In that moment, each member of the Company truly “represented something larger than ourselves,” a favorite saying of DTH founder Arthur Mitchell. This, coupled with Mitch- ell’s larger-than-life vision for the transformative power of the arts, filled me with a profound sense of purpose and strength that night. A ballet company was changing the world!

In breaking the cultural boycott, DTH had the chance to christen the new Civic Theatre. We danced in front of its first multi-racial audience, with a multi-racial orchestra and black conductor. To make the occasion even more monumental, Nelson Mandela was in the audience. For a South African artist like me, few moments com- pare to the deep honor and reverence I felt that night.

In the five weeks leading up to the performance, the company spent time teaching, holding workshops, and interacting with dance students, artists, and sponsors in every corner of the country. We visited townships where black children danced barefoot on concrete floors and white academies where tights and ballet shoes on sprung floors were the norm. I was struck by how quickly the universal language of making and sharing art connected us to one another. Though rhythm and gesture meant different things to different people, somehow they plucked the hidden strings within each of us, enabling us to effectively communicate.

This was not a revelation, only a reminder of the transcendent power of dance. I had graduated from the University of Cape Town Ballet School a few years earlier and experienced what it was like to be fully immersed with students of all races. How quickly we bonded over the thing we loved: dance. While at the University of Cape Town, I taught ballet in an outreach program started by the Company’s artistic director, David Poole, in the neighboring Black African townships of Gugulethu and Langa. I experienced a tiny sliver of township life, not something many non-Black South Africans had occasion to do. In a country whose governance was built on race, the issues underlying our differences were always lurking. Yet, the experience of racial exposure at the school in the town- ships provided a window into what could be possible with racial integration, while the better part of the country was struggling with the violence and inhumanity of Apartheid.

Fostering Artistic Integration Across Cultures

Four years after my groundbreaking tour of South Africa, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., commissioned a work for their African Odyssey Festival. Arthur Mitchell, South African DTH member Augustus Van Heerdan, and I choreographed South African Suite. The work was inspired by our 1992 experience and was set to the music of the Soweto String Quartet, four black South African men playing original compositions based on African tunes on European instruments. It seemed a perfect fit.

As part of the choreographic process, we requested the musical scores. When they arrived, we were surprised to see that the five-line staff contained no musical notes. There were a few symbols at various intervals, but no way to understand the phrasing, time signatures, or tempos. We were scheduled to perform the ballet with live accompaniment by the Soweto String Quartet, who were to arrive a week before the premiere. Needless to say, our musical director was in a panic.

It turned out, the absence of a score made the group even more in tune. The quartet had developed their own musical language. Only two of them had extensive formal classical music training, so they played together by ear. This did not mean that there was no structure, replicable model, tangible milestones, or any of those things many of us have come to expect from music. The quartet made extraordinary compositions because they understood each other and their own code, both literally and figuratively. The challenge in making a ballet with them was to learn to be mutually understood.

Many people think of South Africa as a country divided between black and white. Really, it is a multi-layered mix of ethnicities, cultures, and backgrounds. It is home to more than a million South African Indians, like myself. By fusing music and dance styles, we were able to highlight some of that complexity and transform certain perceptions about what South Africa is, a representation of Nelson Mandela’s “rainbow nation.” To reflect this, we added an African conga drum and an Indian tabla to the score. The ballet was created en pointe, typical for classical ballet, but we also wove in elements of African dance, contemporary movement, and Indian classical dance.


The Dance Theatre of Harlem’s performance at the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, broke the 30-year cultural boycott imposed on South Africa by the rest of the world for its apartheid practices. Nelson Mandela was a member of this first multi-racial audience. Photo: Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives

Working on South African Suite was a microcosm of the power of changing perceptions at a single point in time, a theme that continues to inspire me. Twenty classically trained dancers, a violinist, a violist, a cellist, a classical bass player, a conga drummer, a tabla player, three choreographers, not to mention costume, set and lighting designers, a conductor, a host of technicians, no score, and a world premiere coming up at the Kennedy Center in short order. This was a small production by ballet standards, but it contained all the ingredients for success or disaster. And it begged a thousand questions. Who should do what? Who can do what? How do people interpret the world? How do they communicate?

Thankfully, the ballet was a rave success, delighting audiences around the world as part of the Company’s repertoire for several years. Though this was only one experience of integrating performance across cultures and media, I realized how important the mindset required to do so would be for so many successful undertakings.

Bridging the Human Experience Through Dance

I soon realized the extent to which I would need to call on everything I learned in those moments of integrated creativity as I began my role as executive director of DTH, which comprises a school that trains students ages three to adulthood, standards-based arts education programs delivered in schools, and a professional dance company. Following severe financial strain in December 2004, the organization was forced to lay off the professional company and shut its doors for seven weeks, and I was asked to lead the recovery. Balance sheets, income statements, cash flow, fundraising, marketing, facilities management, and board meetings all quickly became a big part of my daily existence. Changing leadership dynamics and broad external skepticism within the New York arts community added to an already highly stressful internal culture among students, dancers, and staff.

Together, an extraordinary team of staff and supporters resurrected an iconic institution, culminating with the re-launch of the beloved DTH Company in 2012, which is again touring. Together with its school and outreach programs, the organization is inspiring audiences and changing perceptions around the globe. Leading this resurrection was fun, frustrating, and fulfilling, a gift few ever receive.

In its new incarnation, DTH collaborated with the Cameroon National Ballet, whose repertoire and dancers represent the 10 major provinces of Cameroon and their traditional dances, showcasing Cameroon’s rich and diverse heritage both at home and abroad. DTH Resident Choreographer, Robert Garland, spent a week in Cameroon immersed in the local culture and created beautiful work with CNB dancers that built on the traditional dances using western concert dance structure along with contemporary and ballet vocabulary. What resulted was a new and innovative way for the Cameroonians to communicate with a western audience. The work was performed at several high-profile events in the United States including the NAACP National Conference and a cultural celebration in New York hosted by the Cameroon Minister of Arts and Culture and attended by a number of international guests.

Each art form has a different way of igniting human connections. In 2013, the Company’s Artistic Director Virginia Johnson, commissioned a new ballet entitled Far But Close, in which a 24-minute dialogue between a man and a woman that begins on the New York A train. A piano and electric bass accompany a dance among two couples. The dance itself does not follow or literally depict the spoken word; rather the choreography, music, and words together with the dancers create a unique theatrical experience not typically seen in ballet. Immediately following the premiere and a standing ovation in Seattle, WA, an elderly African American woman, urgently approached me. She grabbed both my hands, visibly emotional. “You told my story,” she said. “I have waited for 80 years, and a ballet company told my story!” After a few minutes of conversation, I understood why she was so moved. It wasn’t that the story was explicitly hers, but that the nuance of the experience mirrored her own.

The success of all three works depended in large part on the Company’s ability to develop a new language, a new way of communicating, both verbally and physically. As is the case for almost any successful creative endeavor, the artistic process is both fun and frustrating, filled with tension driven by deadlines, egos, personal insecurities, and different points of view. Each person involved focuses on developing mutual understanding, attuning to unfamiliar cues, deciphering differences in words and meaning, letting ideas marinate, developing and solidifying a shared vision, developing a clear execution plan, making critical decisions, and allowing the co-creation of the work to manifest.

Yet, in most cases, a final product—a book, a movie, an iPhone—homogenizes the individual efforts that con- tribute to its realization. In live performance art, each individual action is preserved and repeated again and again in perfect synchrony, and each performance offers a different rendering of the same intent. The integrated human power in performance triggers an individual’s inherent cultural DNA and values, fostering people-to- people connections through one’s unique experience of each aspect of a performance. Discovering new connections takes courage and curiosity, and a willingness to explore the unknown. Though doing so can be both fun and frustrating, it is almost always worth the effort. With a more subtle common understanding of the world, its cultures, and its identities enabled by performance art, people can come together more quickly to solve problems, find solutions, and build common cause.

Read the full article in The New Global Citizen.