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Animated Edition - Summer 2004
Critical faculties
Soul Dad Donald Hutera asks who you'd choose as your choreographic parents?

Last December I asked certified American dance icon Bill T Jones who he'd choose as his choreographic parents. The notion had floated into my head whilst watching Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker in performance during Dance Umbrella 2003. I know from personal experience that, in interviews, the celebrated Belgian can be a tough customer. (There are probably reasons why Mark Morris, during his few years in Brussels, cheekily dubbed her 'Anne Teresa de Tearsmaker.') She only really begins to thaw, just a bit, when you enquire about her kids.

So there was de Keersmaeker, darting about the stage of Sadler's Wells. I suddenly thought, 'What it would be like to have this pinched-looking, but undeniably creative, individual as my mother?' Which, in turn, prompted me to wonder by which dance-makers other people in the industry might wish to have been raised. Not 'Who's your greatest influence?' but 'Who would you most want to cook your meals, wipe your bum, kiss you good night?' and all those other things a parent is supposed to do. So I started slipping the question into interviews. (Someday I'd like to pitch it to de Keersmaeker herself.)

Responses thus far have been fascinatingly varied. Jones, articulate as always, nevertheless cheated in that he opted for a musical mom and pop. 'Well,' said Jones, 'I would like to have a father who would have the inspired sense of form and proportion of Bach.' Pause. 'I wish I could find someone closer to me. Bach sounds almost too easy. But okay, we can say Bach, maybe, to be kind of a father, but a father with great lyricism. But then I want a mother who has the kind of feeling of Bessie Smith. The strength of somebody like that.'

These are balanced, sober choices (especially compared to impish Lea Anderson, whose wish is to have been the bastard offspring of an incestuous union between Nijinsky and Nijinska). Maybe because he'd selected a musical lineage for himself, I couldn't resist sharing something personal and silly with Jones - that I've sometimes joked, albeit prompted by genuine regard, that my real parents are Aretha Franklin and James Brown.

Now I'm as white, on the outside, as a cream cracker. As the son of a hot-tempered bartender and a neurotic housewife whose peasant parents emigrated to the United States from Poland, I have no special claim on 1960s R&B. In a different mood, at a different time, I could just as easily claim to be the pirogi-eating love-child of Ann-Margret and Elvis Presley.

What I most assuredly am is the human product of western culture of that decade - a time, it's worth noting, when civil rights was one of America's hottest socio-political issues. I've no idea how much of that I did or didn't absorb back then. All I know is that singing along to Aretha's 'Chain of Fools' on the car radio mattered, as a source of pleasure. Just as being the only white kid, age eleven or twelve, percolating down at the front of the stage at a James Brown concert was a formative - or, at the very least, unforgettable - experience.

Credit to Jones for taking my faux soul ancestry in his stride. 'One of the things that I've had to let go of in my adulthood,' he replied in beautifully modulated cadences, 'was the feeling of owning black music and black feeling. I think there's been an entire planet of students of black music and black feeling for a long time now. That was a hard thing for the ego of black folks. But there are many people who are able to access that. Some of it is imitation. Some of it is about having found the place where it's come from.'

I wonder, where is that place? Could it be an actual location? Is it in the air and on the streets, or is it in the blood? You could say that the 'sounds of blackness' inside me are only skin deep. But might I have passed them on? Why else is it that one of my 23 year-old daughter's biggest kicks is to sing soul classics like 'Dr. Feelgood' in the country-dominated karaoke bars of our mutual birthplace, the Midwestern American city of Minneapolis? She's even mock-dubbed herself 'the albino Aretha.' How ironic is that?

Perhaps race and cultural identity are, on some level, as artifical a set of social constructs as gender. I'm reminded of British-Asian journalist and broadcaster Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's remark at No Man's Land, a half-day symposium organised by the dance agency Akademi and held at London's ICA (Insititute of Contemporary Arts) in May. Subtitled 'Exploring South Asianness', the event was chaired by Shobana Jeyasingh. Rejecting what she called 'the tyranny of multi-culturalism and the stranglehold of authenticity,' Alibhai-Brown reminded her audience that white people don't feel the need to maintain authenticity.

Maybe we don't. Nor should anyone else. In 2004 it may be that each of us is a melting pot of particular, not to say peculiar, ingredients.

Donald Hutera writes regularly for The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and many other publications. He edited the autumn 2003 edition of Animated, to which he is a regular contributor.


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Animated: Summer 2004