The Artistic Gains of an Ethnically Diverse Society are Irrefutable
By: Leah Krauss, Senior Program Officer for Dance & Special Projects, Mertz Gilmore Foundation
The current face of dance in New York City is nuanced and multicultural, having been informed by different waves of immigration - including Arab, Caribbean, Chinese, Dominican, Filipino, Indian, Mexican, Israeli, and West African artists and organizations working in both traditional and contemporary idioms. This write-up pays homage to the meaningful contributions of immigrant artists to New York City’s contemporary dance ecology.
Having attended and reflected on many performances over the years, two trends - related to immigration and dance - are discernable. First, life in New York City influences and inspires traditional dance forms from other countries. Yet the artistic product is not simple assimilation. Through hybridization and imagination, first and second generation artists have raised the bar for innovative choreography. Second, beyond the aesthetic ingenuity, dance increasingly functions as an expressive vehicle for immigrant artists. As an articulation of shared humanity, it can communicate dissidence and resistance; or it can be used as a tool to bring people together and encourage consideration of the most contentious issues in this country.
Immigrant dance artists are making formidable contributions to the stock of creative output enjoyed throughout New York City. The skillful fusion of traditional aesthetics and contemporary American dance - a distinct genre special to immigrant dance makers - lifts up creative expression and expands the variety of styles available to New Yorkers.
As an adjustment into American society, reworking dance to express hybrid forms serves a psychological function for the choreographers who create them. First and second generation immigrants accommodate two postures, one connecting them to historical memory and national pride, and one that calls forth a new configuration of a synthesized American identity. Every immigrant dance artist brings with them a unique personal perspective and a dance heritage from their country of origin. Over time, these contributions get absorbed into American dance culture, both preserving a personal ethnic identity and creating a new hybrid of dance on today’s stages. Footnote: As fundamental as the immigrant experience is to an artist's core, many choose not to make it a focus of their choreography. Stage set
As an ephemeral art form people tend to let dance flow over them and don’t necessarily expect more. But dance can embody a persuasive campaign (often more so than congressional testimony or political commentary). A unique phenomena about dance is that the artist can express degradation or strife in a performance while the audience is simultaneously pleased and enchanted to watch beautiful movements (or costumes or lighting or set design) on stage. The dance becomes an oxymoron - agreeable to view and yet sharing with political, social and personal apprehension and oppression.
Dance and social politics may seem unconnected, but when they intersect the results can be powerful. As the nation listens to rhetorical political outbursts and contends with impending federal policies, many immigrant artists - as activists - use dance to respond to prejudice and express dissent. Over the centuries, some of the most transcendent art ever conceived has come out of horrifying situations.
Many foreign born artists use dance as a catalyst to encourage communication and increase tolerance. A dance performance can inspire curiosity and contemplation, which in turn can prompt discussions and result in learning from others. Dance also can convey passions and values in a non-menacing format that sensitively, intelligently, and durably persuades. Immigrant dancers from across the five boroughs keep our city moving towards being a more inclusive and welcoming place to live and create.
New York City in the 21st century is filled with people from different backgrounds engaging in different forms of expression. One of Mertz Gilmore Foundation’s roles as a grantmaker is to pay attention to and celebrate the vibrancy that diversity brings to the city’s dance community. Another role the Foundation assumes is to support reflection about existing realities, and maximize the use of dance as a point of connection, of communication, and of learning. Mertz Gilmore is thankful to take part with its philanthropic colleagues in city-wide efforts to generate an inclusive and equitable cultural environment, with the rebounding benefit of attracting dancers from all over the world to the United States. This is the country where they can find themselves as artists.