Many well-known theatre practitioners have turned to other cultures for inspiration: from Antonin Artaud, who was particularly inspired by Balinese dance, to Bertolt Brecht, who was interested in China’s theatrical traditions; from Jerzy Grotowski, who drew upon a variety of rituals from cultures including Haitian and Balinese, to his student Eugenio Barba who now runs the International School of Theatre Anthropology (ISTA), an international and multi-cultural laboratory of theatre. We can go as far back as Shakespeare, who frequently set his plays in foreign climes, as well as adapting stories from various Roman and Greek texts: in fact over 75% of his plays are set outside of Britain, with a geographic spread north to south from Denmark to Libya and west to east from Spain to Syria. Throughout theatre history here in the UK / the West, the dialogues that have happened, and continue to happen, between global cultures – especially in our modern age of technological communication and increased international travel – provide some of the most wonderful impetus and material for new work.
What it is that makes an encounter with another culture so inspirational and so fascinating? And how can we foster positive relationships and ethical practice in intercultural theatrical exchange?
Any type of work that engages cross-culturally where the creator is from a dominant worldview is going to encounter the issue of cultural appropriation. The well-known English director Peter Brook, for example, has been accused of this in relation to his production of The Mahabharata, an Indian epic poem. Brook’s choice to represent the story as universal rather than particular to India led to a lot of controversy surrounding his production. There is something inherently disturbing when one considers the potential for the dominant European/Western perspective, in artistically presenting stories from other cultures and distilling these stories to their ‘universal’ essence, to assimilate and appropriate elements of these cultures to their own purposes and dominant worldview. Despite the fact that many found his production of The Mahabharata problematic, Brook has conversely championed diverse voices in the theatre in founding the International Centre for Theatre Research in Paris. Like Barba and others, Brook has fostered an international ensemble of actors from different backgrounds and nationalities, giving incredible opportunities for dialogue between cultures.
While on a research trip to Bali in June 2016, I discussed the way in which cultural exchange, especially between East and West, has become so popular in theatre practice. I was speaking to the actor I Wayan Bawa, who is an expert teacher in Gambuh, the most ancient of traditional Balinese dances, as well as an actor for Odin Teatret, Barba’s international ensemble. While he pointed out that Western audience are very different to Balinese audiences, he fervently believed that there is much of value for each culture to learn from the other. Not one of the artists I met in Bali seemed upset with the idea of sharing their arts with Westerners, rather the opposite: the spirit of openness and trust was both inspiring and heartwarming.
Bali, for me, was one of the most inspirational of places in which to immerse oneself in the arts. From the shadow puppet shows (Wayang Kulit) to choral chanting (Kecak) and mesmerising fire trance dances, from taking part in rituals in Holy Water temples, to practicing yoga, and having lessons in traditional Legong dance, I found the differences between my own (English) cultural experience and the Balinese cultural experience (particularly comparing the secular nature of a place like Britain to the spiritual nature of the island of Bali) to be fascinating and enlightening, and the points of connection to be wonderfully affirming. I had a sense that the artists I met were true artists in every sense of the word: virtuosos who dedicated their energies to their work. Balinese communities also value the arts in a way which we have lost touch with in most Western societies. Quality of experience is put before monetary gain, community before individual, and beauty and truth are highly valued. There is so much to learn from a worldview like this.
One of the most interesting and useful ideas was that of Taksu: Taksu is a unique Balinese concept referring to the charisma, spiritual power or creative inspiration that any artist needs in order to truly capture the hearts of the audience members. Every performer is searching for Taksu, through hard work on mastering skills, as well as through prayers, meditation, and self-reflection; Taksu is more than simple technical brilliance, it is the soul of the performance, and for this reason it is often understood as a divine energy which is channeled through the performer into the character, the dance, or the work of art she or he is creating.
The skill of a true artist in Bali is seen as nothing without spiritual artistic charge. Without creative inspiration from nature and God (that is, without Taksu), the art is, in my dance teacher Cok Indrayuni’s words, ‘empty’ and ‘no good’. During our visit to his workshop the renowned Balinese mask maker Ida Bagus Anom also spoke at length about Taksu, called it a ‘power of nature’ that cannot be created but can only be experienced through performing in a ‘pure’ manner, with focus. He told a story about a Western friend who came to train with him in masked dance every day for two months. At the end of this period this friend performed a masked dance, experiencing Taksu, during which he forgot Anom’s face completely, and could not recognise him until his wife showed him a picture and pointed out who he was. Anom said:
“this is maybe an energy of the taksu […]. Not only a mask dancer, not only an artist can have taksu. Everybody has taksu. Everybody can have taksu. Become photographer – have taksu. Become a singer… become any kind [of artist]: taksu will come. But one thing [is important]: focus and pur[ity]”.
(click here for a video of the conversation with Ida Bagus Anom)
The question of whether a westerner can achieve Taksu was also addressed by other artists I met, and the resounding consensus was that everybody can experience Taksu, and that it can be interpreted differently (perhaps as getting into ‘a zone’ or achieving a higher level of focus in performance) but is essentially the same thing. Gambuh performer and Odin actor I Wayan Bawa expressed his view that when the body, technical qualities, and expression (or emotional aspects) of a performer all come together and work as one, then the dancer has Taksu.
In practical terms, learning skills such as Balinese dance movement, yoga poses/sequences and Kecak voice obviously gives an actor more tools to their belt, and moving outside of the usual comfort zone you are used to brings obvious benefits: from allowing a greater range of movement or vocal resonance, to allowing different perspectives on oneself and one’s style of performing. On another, more subconscious level, engaging with different cultures expands your horizons in ways that are difficult to describe. I left Bali feeling both exhausted from the sheer amount of learning and exploration, but also having an indescribable new energy and drive. I felt a similar way after seeing the international ensemble of Odin Teatret (directed by Eugenio Barba) at work on their multi-lingual production of The Tree in Denmark, and after working with an international group of performers at IUGTE events in Italy and in Austria.
For practitioners who come from the privileged position of representing a dominant worldview, it is of course important to be sensitive to issues of appropriation and the difficult legacy of colonialism and oppression with regard to adopting ‘things we like’ from other cultures. Intercultural practice is bound to have to engage with these issues and face them head on, which is one of the things I find wonderful about approaches which seek to bring together voices of different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. It is only through this communication that we can learn from one another. And it is only through listening, observing and absorbing with a humble attitude that we can truly benefit. In our current climate it seems especially important to seek opportunities to embrace cross-cultural dialogue and exchange, explore the relationship between the universal / generally human and the specific / cultural, and represent unheard voices and a variety of global experiences and perspectives on stage: both at home and abroad.
She also is involved in organising various international programmes for young directors and performers, including a theatre residency in Bali, Indonesia.
To find out more about the June 2017 Bali residency opportunity, aimed at practitioners and performers interested in intercultural practices, email [email protected] or click the link above.