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Animated Edition - Spring 2002
Exploring transformations
Exploring transformation, interpreting heritage, investigating identity Dr Alessandra Lopez y Royo unpacks the thinking behind the new Research Centre for Cross-cultural Music and Dance Performance funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board

So why have the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) awarded £865,000 over a five-year period to fund research in cross-cultural music and dance? Perhaps Australian choreographer Cheryl Stock's commentary on her dancemaking processes aptly encapsulates the ethos behind this significant initiative: 'to be truly productive, [multiculturalism] requires a willingness to suspend or even radically change some of our long-held cultural beliefs and, whilst not necessarily accepting all aspects of the other culture's beliefs and values, at least make a commitment to studying and experiencing them in order to meet a deeper level of understanding' (1).

For the first time, research questions raised by the performance of sound and movement within Asian and African artistic practice will be addressed systematically and in-depth. The Centre seeks a symbiosis between the performance concerns of ethnomusicology and musicology and it will explore analysis methodologies utilised in theatre and dance research, creating a synthesis between related disciplines. Thus the Centre will tackle shared concerns of the cultural coding of music and dance - aspects of movement or sound performance determined at the socio-cultural level. Performers are agents of interpretation; therefore, they will play a major role in research. The Centre counters the dominance of Western paradigms, which separate the 'scholar' from the 'maker'. Western based criteria for analysis will be interrogated in a way that will undoubtedly impact on the whole Western discourse on performance and its practice. Therefore, the primary focus is not to promote East-West creative amalgams, many of which are 'forced' from cross-cultural collaborations, although such things may naturally occur as part of the sharing.

The Centre will capitalise on the interrelationships of music and dance and movement in general, through the cross-fertilisation of ideas promoted by joint projects conducted in the UK as well as through field research. It will invite Asian and African choreographers and musicians to work with its researchers from diverse backgrounds in order that different knowledge bases can be brought together, to collide, engage and interact. Seven interrelated projects have already been defined and these will be supported by a twice-yearly newsletter, a dedicated website, a postgraduate training programme and a seminar and workshop series.

The projects are:

  • Resident Asian and African Performer-Researchers some of whom will be from abroad, with others drawn from British and European communities. The performers will collaborate on specific research projects
  • Documentation. A series of audio CDs and CD-ROMS with books and links to the Centre's website
  • Music analysis will explore the validity of applying Western analytical techniques to Asian and African traditions by developing jointly owned, collaborative accounts
  • Interpreting and (re)constructing dance and music heritage. This will analyse and interpret Indonesian dance and music heritage, as variously defined and (re)constructed inside and outside Indonesia. It will use computer imaging and movement recording systems for documenting dance within the heterogeneous context of contemporary Britain
  • Transformations in African music and dance performance, a collaborative study by resident performers, ethnomusicologists, dance anthropologists and movement analysts
  • The performance of ritual in Asian music and dance will delineate changing criteria and modes of presentation in locally and internationally staged Asian ritual performances
  • New directions in South Asian dance: postcolonial identity construction will explore how dance practices inform postcolonial and immigrant identity formation, based on contemporary British, Indian and Sri Lankan practice.

The Centre proposes to explore transformation, interpret heritage and investigate identity. So how does this link with the formulation of collaborative theoretical perspectives? The connection is clear though not immediately apparent. Whilst the Centre is not concerned with creating a spiritual transformative space, it is designed to explore transformation and interpretation as it is happening in contemporary performance. In other words, it is concerned with notions of change in Britain and in the 'home' environment - i.e. performance landscapes and modifications of use the word 'transformation' as an acknowledgement of contemporary efforts to conserve, preserve and promote, and how these impose certain criteria on any genre of music and dance. Some criteria are political, some concern authenticity and notions of historical accuracy and others seek to match (or contrast) movement and sound performance with other extant dance and music genres. Thus, the Centre extends theoretical frames through the emphasis on collating different elements: social and cultural, performer perceptions, 'scientific' analysis.

It is the Centre's intention to reach the widest possible audience and so a programme of open workshops will be hosted in conjunction with national and international organisations. In an endeavour to broaden our remit, we hope to encourage the development of additional research projects to complement those already planned. We also hope the newsletter and website will be used by everyone to disseminate information on related work, and welcome the submission of materials for the CD, CD-ROM and publication series that are being developed.

As I write, the Centre is in the process of being set up and will be launched this September. The sense of elation is unbeatable for we are aware that such a Centre, through the activities and networks it generates, will redefine British dance and music landscapes.

Dr Alessandra Lopez y Royo, senior lecturer in Dance Studies, University of Surrey Roehampton and a member of the AHRB Research Centre's Academic Advisory Board. Check out Email

1. Stock, Cheryl, Dancing the Dual Phoenix. Collaborations across cultures: A choreographer's view of Vietnamese-Australian Collaboration, Korean Journal of Dance Studies, Fall, 1998.

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Animated: Spring 2002