The East West binary and the burden of representation.
In a 1990 article, ‘Black art and the burden of representation’, Kobena Mercer discusses general expectations about the work of artists of colour. Critics and spectators in Europe and North America, he argues, invariably assume that the work of black artists always ‘represents’ Black identities or addresses the concerns of the Black community. This paper examines the conditions that determine when, in choreography and performance, dancers are or are not required to carry this ‘burden of representation’, focusing in particular on European attitudes towards dancers of Asian origin. It does this through discussions of five recent dance works: Gustavia by Matthilde Monnier and Maria La Ribot; Cheap Lecture and Cow Piece by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion; Zero Degrees by Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; and Pichet Klunchun and Myself by Jérôme Bel and Pichet Klunchun. Each of these pieces are performed by two dancers of the same gender and, compared with the love narrative of a conventional ballet pas de deux, each work seems to explore a social relationship. In most of these pieces, a friendship seems to bridge the dancers’ different backgrounds. Burrows is a dancer and choreographer while Fargion is a composer; La Ribot’s work lies in the ambiguous space between experimental dance and Live Art while Monnier is one of France’s leading contemporary dance choreographers; Khan is a British Asian dancer and choreographer while Cherkaoui is Belgian, from a Moroccan family, and is a long term member of the Belgian company Ballets C de la B. In Pichet Klunchun and Myself the differences between Bel and Klunchun are presented in a way that makes this bridging difficult. Bel is French with a similar background to La Ribot while Klunchun, from Thailand, has trained in the Thai Court Ballet style ‘Khon’, and is pioneering contemporary Thai dance. Part of the appeal of Burrows and Fargion’s pieces is the way each performer seems to allow the other a space in which to be different while at the same time working closely together. Something similar occurs with both Monnier and La Ribot, and with Khan and Cherkaoui. Bel and Klunchun, however, are more like adversaries, and the dramaturgy of their piece seems to place the burden of representing Thai dance on Klunchun, while Bel seems only to represent his own, idiosyncratic approach to conceptually-oriented European dance. It thus reinforces the idea of a binary split between Europe and Asia. In Zero Degrees, the problem of this split is presented through Khan himself who recounts, during the piece, his own semi-autobiographical experiences of vulnerability as a western born, educated young man on a journey between Bangladesh and India. Cherkaoui, who like Khan was born in Europe to a family with an Islamic background, and who shares with Khan a love of Sufi poetry and music, seems in the piece to play the role of sympathetic fellow witness. While Khan and Cherkaoui escape the burden of representation, Bel and Klunchun are unable to escape appearing to be on opposite sides of an ideologically constructed binary with its accompanying unequal power relations. Because what is at issue here is both personal and political, this paper uses postcolonial theory and recent discussions of ethics and relationality to examine the conditions of possibility for escaping the burden of representation.
paper presented at Gdansk Dance Conference, "Asia and Europe – cross-cultural dialogues in theatre and dance” June 18th 2012
Citation : Burt, R. (2012) The East West binary and the burden of representation. Paper presented at Gdansk Dance Conference, "Asia and Europe – cross-cultural dialogues in theatre and dance” June 18th 2012
Research Group : Dance Research
- School of Arts