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The Foundation of Movement: Cultural Diplomacy

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When Romola Nijinsky first introduced American cultural figure Lincoln Kirstein to choreographer George Balanchine following a 1933 Les Ballets performance in London, the widow of famed ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky may have known exactly how significant the meeting of these two artistic forces were. Though Kirstein and Balanchine were both already involved in the world of ballet within their own social circles, a casual introduction was enough to convince Balanchine to relocate to the US and begin a 50-year collaboration with the New Yorker.

I was reminded of this important connection of the minds after rereading former Under Secretary of State James Glassman's speech titled "The Limits of Cultural Diplomacy, and a Way Forward," which was presented at a conference on "Culture's Purpose and the Work of Public Diplomacy" at American University this past fall. One of Glassman's main points is the issue of perspective and how difficult it ultimately is for distinct identities to realistically understand one another. He concludes by stating,

"[A]n effective cultural diplomacy is one that promotes, enhances, and enriches the culture of critical nations. Again, it is about them. That is the way forward-to throw off our own solipsism and think of the rest of the world. Sure, try to understand other cultures, but better help others understand their own."

Certainly Glassman brings up very valid points -- truly immersing oneself in a foreign culture is a challenging reality for many, and such a condition can easily place cultural diplomacy in a discouraging light. But this assertion may not quite refer to cultural diplomacy as many perceive it today. With the continuing exponential proliferation of communication across borders, what now constitutes true cultural diplomacy are the elements of exchange and mutuality. I absolutely agree that effective cultural diplomacy "promotes, enhances, and enriches the culture of critical nations." However, in today's vast networks of information and communication, diplomacy of any kind is ultimately disserviced by being contextualized in a construct of "us" and "them." Though such labels will obviously be necessary to some factual degree, diplomacy is more about striving to achieve a sense of "we." Cultural diplomacy in particular is critically important to integrating individuals from distinct backgrounds who are interested, invested and participatory in a mutual cultural practice.

The new standards of cultural discourse strive for elements such as shared platforms of communication, multifaceted engagements, and an understanding of mutual objectives and benefits. Considering the interconnectivity of much of the world today, cultural diplomacy has in many ways become an inherent aspect of global communication -- if one is inclined to have a successful experience with it, anyhow. As such, modern communication has evolved from offering mere connectivity to actually contributing to cultural progression -- both abroad as well as at home.

I have been a firm believer that cultural diplomacy literally contributes to the progress of culture in and of itself. Take the American Ballet Caravan, the first official state sponsored performing arts project abroad in US history. Produced by Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine at the outset of WWII, this five month ballet tour of South America disputed the general opinion at the time that Americans were skilled in the popular or "low brow" arts sector but weak in the classical or "high culture" disciplines. Two of the dances that Balanchine personally created for the American Ballet Caravan would become integral performances at the future New York City Ballet as well as in the world of dance in general. Ballet Imperial, which premiered on May 29, 1941 in Rio de Janeiro, lacks a literal story but conveys the essence and imperial grandeur of the choreographer's distant hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia. Concerto Barocco, which premiered on June 27, 1941 in the same city, is perennially considered to be an instrumental inspiration to 20th century neoclassical ballet. This 18-minute dance is still referred to as Balanchine's most signature creation, and ballet companies around the world interpret both dances to this day. These two works, initially created to impress audiences abroad, have survived not as tools of dance diplomacy but rather as seminal contributions to the cultural sphere of dance and movement.

Dance diplomacy has recently been revitalized with DanceMotion USA, a program of the US State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Produced by Brooklyn Academy of Music and consisting of three modern dance companies (ODC/Dance, Evidence and Urban Bush Women), DanceMotion USA recently toured three regions of the world--Asia, Africa and South America--in the first major dance diplomacy effort by our government in more than twenty years. Joseph Melillo, BAM's executive producer, explained to me that the program was based on a "structure of process" which focused on master classes, lectures by the artistic directors of the involved modern dance companies, as well as performances. Having participated in Indonesia and Senegal segments himself, Melillo witnessed how the participants "learned a new vocabulary...a new placement of the body into a different realm. The same is true for the American dancers who were given insights in the art of dance from the cultures they visited." He believes that "this cultural diplomacy, where the strength of the program is on the process of dance and not solely on the presentation of the art form in a public sphere, has advanced the knowledge and understanding of the American modern dance art form."

DanceMotion USA's highly interactive program with the local communities displays how the act of progressing culture in transnational collaborations is an ambitious yet simple tool for furthering the significance of dance diplomacy--as well as cultural diplomacy itself. Humans have an instinctive tendency to be curious about the world and one of the most basic ways in which people can contribute to a global society is through a shared experience in their respective cultures. Though we have yet to see if any creations developed during DanceMotion USA's recent tour will become the next modern dance version of Ballet Imperial or Concerto Barocco, what is clear is that the participatory procedure of the program has already instigated artistic discourse and communication that would not have occurred without the meeting of these distinct communities.

To toss solipsism is a wonderful thing, but our neighbors abroad do not need our "help" in understanding their own culture. What we all need is to continue Romola Nijinsky's instinctive inclination towards connecting the similar yet disjoined, and then utilize these developments towards real contributions for the evolution of a culture's body of knowledge in the broadest scope possible.