Rhythm Migration, in response

In the short time loveDANCEmore has posted dance criticism there have been only a handful of shows which generated significant dialogue. As a site that shares primarily peer reviews it’s difficult enough to get a writer willing to offer opinion, let alone many commenting voices. Most frequently the dialogue generated asserts an alternative point-of-view but one that simply disparages the critique without presenting a new way of looking at the issues presented. With this in mind, I was thrilled to see Kim Strunk’s commentary about “Rhythm Migration,” an RDT Link project; not because I agree with one point of view or another (I couldn’t see the show, it was sold out) but because it respectfully engages with potent considerations of presenting cultural forms in Salt Lake — she contextualizes her work within the community and provides a new opinion from within “Rhythm Migration” itself. With her permission I re-print her comments here as a way of furthering conversation but also in the hope that more artists with new points-of-view find themselves willing to write reviews and comments about what they see on stage.

loveDANCEmore provides a great site and innovative open forum for sharing and supporting Utah dance. I recently discovered loveDANCEmore when I heard there was a review of Rhythm Migration posted. I commend Ashley Anderson for opening the space for responses and respectfully submit the following feedback on Yasin A. Fairley’s review of Rhythm Migration, An Evening of African Dance, Drum and Song with Rogine and Friends.

Mr. Fairley begins with a vibrant tone that matches the energy of the evening and uses some nice images to bring the event to life for the reader. However, his tone and direction take an abrupt 180 degree turn in the third paragraph where he begins with a blatant accusation of cultural appropriation without any articulable basis. Mr. Fairley continues with a litany of allegations and concerns, which placed the event in a very negative light.

As an established dance artist/educator, as well as a participant in Rhythm Migration, I am shocked by the reviewer’s accusation of cultural appropriation in the show. Although Mr. Fairley hurled the allegation of appropriation at an entire community of teachers, artists, dancers and students, (referenced as “the show”) I personally take great offense. I am deeply rooted in the community that came together for Rhythm Migration and have garnered a positive reputation among my colleagues for promoting West and Central African dance and culture in Utah and beyond. Understandably, I cannot take this unfounded accusation lightly. I believe Mr. Fairley needed to give his loaded comment considerably more thought before publishing in a public arena.

Cultural appropriation refers to taking or stealing aspects of another culture, such as dance and music, and exploiting them for one’s own benefit without permission and/or without giving appropriate credit. That being said, what transpired in Rhythm Migration reflected a profound cultural appreciation, not appropriation.

It seems the reviewer conducted little to no research on the community of dancers, teachers, and choreographers that came together for Rhythm Migration, including Fara Tolno. This African dance community profoundly values, respects and promotes awareness of various African cultures.

Salt Lake City’s African dance community has gathered for over 20 years and extends well beyond Utah. The configuration of participants includes teachers from Congo, Guinea, Ghana, Mali, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Zimbabwe, as well as students from across the Western United States. Many members of the community travel regularly to Africa to conduct humanitarian work and research in the dance, music, and culture of a particular region.

No one involved in the show represented the dances and music of West and Central Africa as their own, except of course Fara Tolno from Guinea, West Africa. Quite the contrary, the cultural sharing that took place gave obvious and respectful reference to the rhythms, songs, and dances of West and Central Africa. Additionally, all participants were supported, encouraged, and mentored by their teachers.

Although predominantly white, as Mr. Fairley points out, our community came together Saturday August 23rd to celebrate, not exploit or appropriate, West and Central African dance and music.

Yet another concern of the reviewer revolved around what he perceived to be a lack of the “aesthetic of the cool” in the dancer’s performance. “Coolness” represents an incredibly nuanced and complex organizing principal of African dance. It resides in many realms including the village or community, the individual, the ancestors, and the spiritual. I will venture to guess that had the dancers exhibited an “aesthetic of the cool” the reviewer would still have been offended, possibly even more so.

Drawing upon the idea of “coolness” was the responsibility of the choreographers, not the dancers, and the aesthetic was not necessary or appropriate in the context of this show. I wonder if the fundamental issue for this reviewer stems from the fact that the performers were mostly white, which is clearly implied in the following comments:

“It seemed like the dancers were “dressing up” without critically looking at their position, as an overwhelmingly white cast…”

“It seemed that this show catered to an overwhelmingly white audience with the intention of providing a PBS version of African Dance in culture that lacked deep awareness and empathy for African bodies in concert dance. It was too pre- packaged and relied heavily on Modern Dance vocabulary to tell its story.”

Yes, we live in Utah where whites constitute the majority of the population. According to the 2010 census, only 2.7% of Salt Lake City’s population are black. That being said, I find the allegation that the show catered to a white audience absurd and absolutely false. In fact, the only thing catered in the evening was the food.

The open forum and lovely reception following the concert could have provided rich opportunities for Mr. Fairley, a social researcher, to interview Producer, Director, and major contributor to the show, Rosie Banchero-Adcock,(who was not once mentioned in the review) as well as, participants and audience members; thereby garnering more accurate information regarding the intent of the evening and make-up of the community.

I am equally perplexed by the reviewer’s comparison of the “evening to a PBS version of African dance…” Normally, I would consider his comment a compliment, however in this case, I can only assume a negative comparison and regard it as somewhat of an insult to PBS, which is quite bold. The statement about lacking deep awareness and empathy is completely out of place in this context and also unfounded. Additionally the description of the evening as “pre-packaged” leaves me baffled.

Furthermore, I completely disagree with Mr. Fairley’s statement that the show “relied heavily on Modern dance vocabulary to tell its story” Only one piece fused the genres of Modern, Contemporary and African. If Mr. Fairley observed Modern dance vocabulary throughout then I can only assume he isn’t familiar with the wide range of African dance styles that permeate each region of Africa. As a long time student and teacher of West and Central African dance forms, I understand the substantial influence African dance had and still has on Modern choreographers, starting with Martha Graham’s contract and release. I am also of the opinion that Post-Modern dance was heavily influenced by the “aesthetic of the cool.” The examples are endless.

In my cultural immersions in Africa, most recently the Republic of Congo in 2010, I had the opportunity to observe countless performances and rehearsals in formal and informal venues. Some were traditional, some contemporary, modern, hip-hop and theatrical. I discovered that African artists want to maintain their traditional dances, however, they do not want to be constrained by them.

Mr. Fairley concludes his review by admonishing us to “look deeply at our own biases, privileges and disparities when we are placing a non-Western culture at the center of the stage, and to appreciate it on it’s own terms, not ours” My advise to the reviewer as an Associate Professor with a research emphasis in cultural dance forms is to take his words to heart and look deeply and critically at his own biases so he can come to terms with how they affect his writing and research.

Shrouded in personal biases and unfair allegations and assumptions, Mr. Fairley’s review comes off as accusatory and somewhat angry in it’s tone. This kind of diatribe does not seem in the spirit of loveDANCEmore.

Notwithstanding the fact that I hold a deep awareness of the importance of the issues brought forward by the reviewer, I am utterly “overwhelmed” with the negative tone and endless litany of bold,unfounded accusations made by Mr. Fairley and am completely “underwhelmed” with his review.

Kim Strunk is an Associate Professor of Dance (UVU 2002-2014) She danced professionally with Repertory Dance Theatre (1984-1996) and holds an MFA in Modern Dance from the University of Utah (2002). In 1996, she founded RDT’s Community School African dance class. Kim Strunk now lives abroad and continues her research and teaching as an Independent Dance Artist/Educator/Scholar.