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Does authenticity really matter?

In folk dancing, it doesn't always take a village, argues choreographer and scholar Anthony Shay.

October 26, 2003|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

To the sound of pounding drums and wailing winds, two handsome suitors dance as they court a willowy young woman. She picks one as her future groom, and the other responds by taking up a pole and challenging his rival. The two men fight, but the loser in love proves a loser in battle too.

Still, remarkably quickly and with good nature, he joins all the other celebrants in this Kurdish wedding scene enacted recently at the Irvine Barclay Theatre by the Bonn, Germany-based Razbar Ensemble.

"Of course, this would never happen in real life," says Anthony Shay, founder of L.A.'s Avaz International Dance Theatre and author of "Choreographic Politics." Published by Wesleyan University Press and recently honored by the Kurt Weill Foundation, the book is subtitled "State Folk Dance Companies, Representation and Power."

"The bride would never pick her husband in a traditional marriage, as they were representing. The marriage would have been prearranged by the parents."

Shay's point here -- which he elaborates in his book -- isn't to debunk the performance. It's to sharpen our understanding of what goes into it.

A longtime folk dance enthusiast who began dancing in the mid-1950s, then formed the L.A-based Aman Folk Dance Ensemble in 1963 and Avaz in 1977, Shay brings his decades of dancing, choreographing and researching folk dance to his study of how large, state-sponsored companies push various political, social and ethnic agendas.

Most people think a folk or traditional dance company presents some version of a village or an "Old World" event. But that isn't necessarily true. The range of authenticity varies widely.

Take the Moscow-based Moiseyev Dance Company, arguably the most popular and influential folk dance company in the world. "The Moiseyev Dance Company is basically a ballet company," says Shay. "Their vocabulary is not a folk vocabulary. Igor Moiseyev's training was in ballet, and he was convinced that if the peasants could dance as well as ballet dancers, that's what they would be doing. His dancers are trained in the same conservatories as the ballet people are. They're chosen from a pool that the Kirov and the Bolshoi use."

There are several clues in the costuming and choreography of the Razbar Ensemble, too, that alert viewers to the fact that these dancers aren't peasants from the villages. But Shay isn't troubled by the issue of authenticity, as many dance scholars are. They disdain to look seriously at companies such as the Moiseyev or Amalia Hernandez's Ballet Folklorico de Mexico precisely because the performances deviate from the way dances are done "in the field."

Yet most of us know folk dance only through these companies, especially now that the vibrant folk dance movement in this county -- which peaked in the '70s and '80s -- is almost moribund. So Shay feels that studying them is important.

"What I'm trying to show is that authenticity doesn't matter," Shay says. "Each of these performances can tell us something interesting about the society in which it was formulated. There's more to be seen than merely pretty dances, choreography and costumes."

A personal vision

For starters, although folk dance troupes claim to represent a specific ethnic group, a country or a whole people, they often present a choreographer's personal vision, just as ballet and modern dance companies do, although not so openly. That vision is also usually in sync with an image the state wishes to project.

Hernandez, for instance, creates an attractive picture-postcard version of Mexico, entirely overlooking such recent social problems as the peasant insurrection in the state of Chiapas or the most violent aspects of the 1910 revolution. Moiseyev presents a sugarcoated image of unfailingly smiling and happy villagers or heroic, undefeatable partisans.

"That's a huge issue of power, in a two-hour performance to boil down the essence of an entire nation -- the Mexican, the Russian or the Iranian -- in a series of choreographic suites. That doesn't happen in modern dance or ballet," Shay says.

A personal vision is inevitable, he says, because all choreographers have to make choices. "We like to think we're being terribly authentic all the time, but we're always making decisions about what we are not going to include on stage. We're going to leave out the bad dancers, the children, the old people, the overweight dancers, the clumsy dancers. We're going to leave out a lot."

Sometimes, elements are left out for practical reasons. Moiseyev dancers do spectacularly athleticized movement, and traditional costumes, such as floor-length skirts, would just get in the way. So their skirts are shorter.

Hernandez, who died in 2000, felt that Mexican traditional dress wouldn't look theatrical enough when viewed at a distance by an audience, so she modified it, making it conform as well to contemporary urban tastes.

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