gillian performing on a colorful stage wearing black and in the process of falling

Post-Colonial Approaches to Cultural Fusion

When I lived in Cambodia, I heard a lot about “fusion” pieces when international choreographers came and worked with Cambodian dancers. Fusion is an exciting word and promises something new and innovative. The Holy Grail of cross cultural choreography, one could say. But there are post-colonial approaches to this, and there are colonial approaches.

The reality of fusion

Fusion, however, is a much more complicated thing. I saw a few of the pieces. Usually, it was contemporary choreography, and the dancers added a few sections with their own moves. You could always tell – the curved fingers of the Apsara style. It always seemed so random to me, like the fusion was just that – a few moments of clearly Cambodian dance. Because of that, I always felt it was superficial at best and disrespectful at worst.

I also had my own failure at attempting fusion in Phnom Penh. I started a project with the Khmer Arts Ensemble under Sophiline Cheam Shapiro to make a fusion piece. In my vision, me and the dancer I was collaborating with would learn each other’s styles and build something together. After some weeks, it became clear that her – and more importantly, Sophiline’s – vision of fusion was something totally different. For both of them, it was each dancer doing their own style, but next to each other and responding to each other. I was even chided for getting ‘free’ lessons in the classical form.

Since then I have been very wary of both cross cultural collaborations and supposed “fusion” pieces. I realized that it was a set up for misunderstanding and a kind of colonization. I’ll take your form and use it to make my piece better, thanks.

The Circle Comes Around

Some seven years later, I was offered a position as resident artist at the newly formed Institute of Arts and Culture in Lahore, Pakistan. Besides teaching, the university wanted me to conduct my own research and develop work. I was excited about the prospect, and worked hard to develop a proposal.

I decided to study the cultural myths and stories of Pakistan and the Punjab region, and then I figured I could build work from there. The first three months of the residency, spent reading folk tales and talking to faculty about their favorite stories, went wonderfully, but when it came time to start creating, I hit a wall. It wasn’t just that most of the folk stories involved cows or djinni; it was this very question of cultural appropriation and approach.

I knew I wanted to work with the most famous story in all of Punjab, the Heer Ranjha story, and something having to do with the Sufi stories. But the issue was, these weren’t my stories. I wouldn’t dream of trying to choreograph Pakistani folk dance. And how could I pretend to understand the Sufi poetry when it was all translated? It felt disingenuous, the same sort of profit I felt the international choreographers were getting in Cambodia – hey look I am using elements of this exotic culture, aren’t I cool?

Navigating this was challenging. Maybe I made too big of a deal about it, but I just couldn’t take the stories and run. If I was going to use them, it had to be tastefully and tactfully and respectfully.

Not Fusion, But Inspired By

In the end, I made two pieces. The first was based off a single instant in the Heer Ranjha story, when Heer finds out that her father has signed the nikka (the wedding) papers on her behalf and she must marry the wrong man. I set it to music from Romeo and Juliet and used purely classical ballet style – I thought it should be classical, but I thought it was more understandable to use the classical style I know.

The second was a Sufi-type piece based off a poem that a friend of mine sent me by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. In my research I had found lots of poetry that referred to the Sufis as wanderers, and found I could relate to it with my own experience. I asked some students to perform with me, and created a very simple movement illustration of the poem. I later performed that piece at a local festival in Lahore with good reviews.

It’s hard to say if I am “right” in these post-colonial approaches, or if by messing with the stories, I actually made it worse. I would like to investigate more what a post-colonial approach to cross-culture artistic collaborations looks like. Perhaps one day I’ll do a Master’s on it!

For now I’m still learning! I’m linking to excerpts of both pieces here – if you have thoughts or comments on this, do let me know!