The term fusion dance is usually understood as a process of ‘blending’ dances from two or more different cultures, genres or styles. Fusing dances from different cultural legacies could have two distinct outcomes. It could be seen as enriching the cultures, somewhat like fusion cookery, or as inappropriate cultural borrowing, even theft.
When we watch or make intercultural fusion dance, however, understanding the cultural values, protocols and worldviews as embodied by the dances can be unnecessary; all that is needed is an appreciation of innovation or novelty. One explanation of this emphasis on novelty takes us back to the early 20th century work of modern dancers, or to European Romantic Ballet in which stereotypes from the Orient, Africa and other far flung ‘exotic’ places were produced in a Disney-like dance world. Think of Ruth St Denis’s and Ted Shawn’s 1920s pseudo Egyptian, Thai and Japanese modern dances or LéonBakst’s designs for an African eunuch in Fokine’s Scheherazade (1910). Fusion dance, as a magic carpet ride that takes romantic flights of fancy, is not new. There are, however, longstanding concerns about the liberal way in which choreographers can sometimes borrow from other people’s cultures as legitimised by, what one might call, a ‘western’ license to thrill.
A liberal fusion dance policy can also feature in education. Although there is awareness of inappropriate trafficking in other people’s cultures, it seems that the ethical call, as to whether or not teaching snippets of a non-western dance and integrating them into a western dance process and product is OK if the borrowing is made explicit, is made by individuals; a situation worthy of greater debate. In 2013 I gave a key note for dance educators entitled To Fuse or Not to Fuse – or how to? It gave rise to many interesting opinions, discussions and questions - exactly the open forum that is needed to unravel some of the positives, negatives, risks, pitfalls and problems inherent within this complex practice. For instance, if a teacher is fusing, Indian Bharata Natyam dance or hip hop or kapa haka with western creative dance, which cultural legacy is used as a yardstick by which to assess the choreography?
Arising from my own research, a risk that intrigues me is how we might be hijacking another culture’s dance making process by switching to a default creative dance choreographic approach. Concerns arise if we consider how liberal borrowing could endanger the artistic livelihoods of choreographers whose dances we borrow. For instance, disenfranchising choreographers/teachers from the financial remuneration that comes with teaching and/or creating their dance heritages could give rise to ethical concerns, wherein making the borrowing explicit becomes an insufficient justification.
I should point out that there are ways of fusing Eurocentric with culturally different dances that can be argued for and validated. Stephen Bradshaw’s spectrum for Māori Contemporary dance being nourished by Māori whakapapa at one end or, at the other, not so much, is a helpful concept. However, questions about how and why kapa haka movement vocabulary is selected, and who is selecting it for fusion with European dance vocabulary, persist. Also, if a dance uses only European contemporary movement but depicts something significant for Māori culture, such as a story or visual art image, how is that categorised? Is that fusion dance or Eurocentric creative dance? Another difficulty, raised by a Festival Director at the recent Atarau Academic Symposium,is how to programme Indigenous Contemporary Dance.
Cultural borrowing, although delineated by anthropologists as far back as the 19th century, is not necessarily carried out quite so liberally in all cultures. Sometimes an assumption that fusion dance involves ‘blending’ European contemporary dance processes and movements with culturally different dances can be counterbalanced by how other cultures make dance. Examples of choreographic practices from other cultures are now presented for the reader to consider possible alternative ways of making fusion dance.
When making their traditional dances, some cultures only borrow from near neighbours. An example, as described to me by Tongan dancer Niulala Helu and backed up in the work of noted anthropologist of dance Adrienne Kaeppler, records how Tongan Queen Salote first learned the Sāmoan tau l’uga in 1926 but slowly ‘moulded’ it into Tongan dance. Tongan borrowing of Samoan dances is a longstanding and accepted custom. However, the final dance must look Tongan according to elder dancers in local communities. Rather than a cultural emphasis on individual innovation this process is framed by communal decision-making, and uses a movement palette that is relatively restricted in comparison to Eurocentric dance making.
Welcoming the Chinese New Year in a Wellington community dance project that culminated in the performance of Taniwha Loong (2010), Tanemahuta Gray fused traditional Māori movement (wero, haka, taiaha) with Shaolin martial art and Chinese Dragon and Lion dances. Interestingly, the dance’s structure and creative process were driven by the values of pōwhirirather than western compositional parameters, producing, arguably, an appropriate intercultural fusion dance.
In 2013 I was invited to mentor choreographic entries for Viva Eclectika, Aotearoa’s Intercultural Dance and Music Biennial Challenge (VE). There was dance and music in varying combinations from Afghanistan, China, Cook Islands, England, France, Hawaii, Jamaica, Japan, Korea, Middle East, New Zealand (Māori), The Philippines, Samoa, Scotland, Senegal, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka and Tonga. Only two of the dances included recognisable western contemporary dance.
Entirely run by volunteers from The New Zealand – Asia Association (NZAA) Inc., VE aims to encourage people from different cultures to live, work and play together harmoniously through making dances with each other. The VE rules state that if a certain dance is chosen someone in the group must be of that ethnicity, and that the distinct cultural qualities of the dances must be retained. As the 13 groups and 209 performers rehearsed in venues at all points of the compass across Auckland, another way in which these fusion dances differed from a western fusion process emerged. Results varied in terms of choreographic quality, but I observed that in their creative processes the groups were juxtaposing culturally diverse dances whilst respecting their differences. Movements were not ‘blended’ so much as placed next to each other to reveal fascinating differences and similarities between the way people move and their worldviews. Perhaps these dances present another different approach to intercultural fusion dance.
As a mirror of New Zealand’s contemporary ethnic mosaic, the rehearsals that I visited brought to light challenges of translating diverse dance and spoken languages in order to negotiate choreography and accommodate different cultural understandings of the world. Having been the choreographic director of the winner of VE in 2009 with Dancing With Difference, a choreography that involved collaborating with eight choreographers from different cultures, I can attest to the many challenges that can arise. Indeed, in fostering understanding of the dances and lives of the ‘other’, the process becomes as important as the final performance, and meets the VE vision of developing understanding of people who live alongside us; kind of like making dance not war!