Emory Report

September 27, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 6

Richard Long studies the world of dance since WWII
Many of us might not connect the development of international air transport after World War II to the birth of an era of world dance. But the relationship is very real, according to Richard Long; since the mid-1940s, Long has been a personal and professional witness to global effects on the development of dance.

"I am interested in all manifestations of dance, including concert and theatrical dance performances that involve distinctive traditional choreography," said Long, Haygood Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts. "As the world begins to take dance more seriously as an art form, it is fascinating to see how the medium has become a question of social concern. Recognized as high art, dance represents a nation's culture. I explore the politics of culture: how cultural forms operate as part of cultural and political encounters."

When Emory established a new dance major last year, Long was inspired to develop a course on "World Dance and the Politics of Culture." Focusing on selected dance idioms and traditions that have undergone commodification during the period since 1945, the course examined the role of dance in the politics of culture. Students learned the historical background of dance and viewed videos of performances that allowed them to contrast and compare culturally specific styles, setting and dance. Through the medium of dance, they investigated the issues of national identity, cultural hegemony and international rivalry.

An understanding of the historical context of these issues is essential to any discussion of world dance. Following World War II new dance companies, sponsored mainly by government cultural agencies, began to court international touring. The companies offered theatricalized presentations of recreational and ceremonial dances as well as danced dramatizations of traditional and neo-traditional tales. Notable among these companies have been Dancers of Bali (Indonesia), Les Ballets Africains (Guinea), Moiseyev Dance Company (Soviet Union) and the Bayanishan Philippine Dance Company. Their tours, like those of national classical companies from London, Paris and Moscow, gave rise to what has become an era of world dance.

"World dance is part of a cultural trend that recognizes the diversity and variety of the world's arts and seeks to appreciate them without the pretension of universality, but with consideration for both their distinctions and interrelations," Long said.

For the last 10 years Long's scholarly work has been in the area of dance and drama in Southeast Asia--Thailand, Java and Bali. He travels every year to see performances, has met leading scholars in the area and has lectured on Ramayana dance in the United States and in Southeast Asia.

Ramayana, he explains, is very important in the Asian culture, especially in India. The epic of Ramayana is compared with The Iliad and The Odyssey: Rama, the young prince, is born by supernatural forces after his father has failed to have children; the jealous stepmother extracts from the king a promise to banish Rama and his wife, Sita, who is abducted by a demon. The ensuing drama portrays Rama's attempt to recapture his wife and return to his village. The story has been interpreted by many different cultures; 1,500 years ago it traveled to Southeast Asia, taking form in a classic dance and puppet theater.

"The extent to which the Ramayana is a key to and a window on the daily life of many Southeast Asian societies is striking," Long said. "The story has become a dynamic factor in the attempt by the cultural mavens of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to shape a regional identity. Further, it serves to link the region with India, a counterpoise to the hegemonic gestures of China and Japan. There have been a number of Ramayana festivals and conferences in the last decade, most in Thailand, but one as far afield as Surinam."

Since coming to Emory full time in 1987, Long has taught many courses in which the arts have been considered, such as a seminar last year on the Caribbean as a locale of the African Diaspora. The students examined the sources of the Diaspora and traced human movement through Africa and Asia. In the process they discovered the persistence of African culture in Caribbean literature, history and art.

Outside of his scholarly work and teaching at Emory, Long has been a dynamic supporter of the performing arts scene in Atlanta. He facilitated an appearance of the Royal Thai Dance Theater during the Olympics. On Oct. 6 at 7:30 p.m. in the Carlos Museum reception hall, Long will deliver a lecture on Katherine Dunham called "Paths of a Pioneer," detailing Dunham's research into Caribbean dance, her development of a dance vocabulary for teaching and choregraphy, the successful adaptation of her work to the stage, and the impact of her work on dance worldwide.

--Cathy Byrd

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