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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Vive la difference
Animated, Winter 2001. International is a mark of quality - look at the labels on perfume bottles and quality clothes - London, New York, Paris, Tokyo, writes Dick McCaw. It must be good if it is sold in all those places. International is where we all want to be: breakfast in Toronto, lunch in Chicago and dinner in Houston. Transport is no longer a question of physical displacement or even discomfort, but of passive transit - we sit unaware of the passage of thousands of miles. In other words - it is all a question of consumption: now we consume internationalism. Well, not those rioters who smash up international burger chain branches during world economic summits, but the rest of us. Fast-food outlets are a great example of us not even having to move from our home base, since they cover the globe offering us their particular brand of foodstuffs whether we are in Beijing, Bognor or Bogota
Admit it. You really do yearn to be in the international club. You do want your dance company to be seen in Bonn, Hawaii and all points west. Why? Because it will pay very well and it sure as hell beats the drudgery of staying with Mrs Teabag McGurgle of Everyville (though I hear that the brushed nylon sheets are finally going out of fashion). For the most part touring conditions are appalling in Britain, and international tours can offer a brief glimpse of how things could (should?) be.

Is that it then? Hopefully not. International could also be about dialogue between different nationalities, a dialogue which affirms and explores rather than erases differences, a dialogue which places much importance on the experience of the passage between those nations, and which accepts that some differences may always remain between them. Let internationalism become about difference and not the same, let us rejoice in the fact that the other eats, walks and talks in a different way. Only through an engagement with this other will I understand how and what I eat, how I walk, how my language generates such a different picture of the world. The border is not a barrier to be broken down, like some impediment to free exchange, it is a vital zone of interaction in which profound understanding takes place. The border is the zone of love, of understanding, of revelation.

What I write is not the result of having read an essay by some French post modernist with a name beginning with B. It is the result of having worked as artistic director of the International Workshop Festival for the past seven years. My job is to create the conditions in which people from different countries can come together and learn about each other's performance traditions. It is a job which is almost impossible. How can you take seriously an organisation that brings over an Indian dancer who has taken 40 years to perfect his or her art, and then organises a week-long workshop with him or her?

What can you learn in a week? It depends on the task you set yourself. If the theme for the workshop is characterisation then one can study one typical character from the repertoire, and a few means by which this dance conveys that character. Already we encounter a problem: why talk of 'character' when we are talking about dance and not theatre? The fact is that our culture's relatively recent separation (say the beginning of the 18th century) of dance and theatre cannot be understood by many Asian and African artists for whom the two are part of the same continuum. The first lesson from this exchange is that our notions (our constructions) of genre are very culture specific. But back to character. We are asked to convey expression with muscles in our face we have never used before and have to assume crouching positions which leave our thighs aching from this unfamiliar use. Try saying that it is 'all so un-habitual' and you start seeing the point of these international exchanges. The death of art is habit: the already-known, seen, and heard. By seeing how different cultures approach physical expression you become aware of the infinite possibilities that we have for physical expressivity.

I am not suggesting that we imitate the techniques that we have learned in our week-long workshop: that is to deny the fact that you too come from a country and have a culture. What is truly creative is to use this encounter to rethink your tradition, to rethink how you dance, how you approach character, what parts of your body you have habitually used to dance with. International exchange is fuelled by curiosity and our subsequent dialogues are sustained by admiration and ultimately by love. I have seen participants who have travelled to Kerala, to Moscow, to Tokyo in order to continue their researches. I have been proud to have made their first introduction, and to see how the relationship has blossomed. Exchange at this level re-introduces all the things that international commodification (the new form of colonialism) denies: the journey, the effort, the borders, but, ultimately the delight in the manifold differences in how we express ourselves and the desire that this creates to communicate and to understand each other across the borders. You can try to turn everyone into images of yourself. But to what end? To enjoy the tasteless and mournful fruits of a universally grey monoculture? No. It is not even possible. I can only really know what it is to be me by observing that others are different to me. Choose your cliche to affirm this truth: 'People who need people are the luckiest people of all' (say the beginning of the 18th century), or 'Vive la difference!'

Dick McCaw, artistic director, International Workshop Festival London.
Contact +44 (0)20 7924 7733

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001