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Dance Culture and Statuary Politics: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Myth of Primitivism

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Dance Culture and Statuary Politics: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Myth of Primitivism
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  INSIDE the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hallin Taipei, the 30 -feet high statue of the epony-mous general stares impassively forward.The impressive figure dominates the interiorspace of the hall, which also houses an ex-haustive archive of the man’s life and work.It has been redolent of the iconography of communism, and particularly the Asiaticversion of it, that vast monuments to greatand dear leaders are erected, but there issomething here that suggests the trend to bemore bipartisan. The intimidating scalemakes the point: whatever the restrictions of the body, the ideas are huge, the ambitionmassive, and intimidation an inevitable tac-tic of power. It is a monument of bombastic propor-tions. It reflects the need to commemoratethe founders of the Republic of China – to seetheir names and images displayed as if thecity and the province as a whole remainedunder their watchful gaze and reassuringpolicies, despite their passing. To see a statueof this scale displayed indoors is odd, andthe way the effigy dominates the interiorspace is strange at first. The atmosphere isfunereal, and the western eye, used to domedstructures being empty, filled only with con-templative religious space, senses somethingstultifying in a building that provides need-less protection for so solid a figure, and fitsover it like a cup that might easily be liftedaway.It begins to make slightly more sense out-side the building, where the open spaces of theChiang Kai-Shek Memorial Park, a rarity inthis ugly city of prefabricated concrete, densestreets, and temporary architecture, open outinto a large public square. The square isflanked on either side by Chinese temples onan outsize scale. Set on massive plinths, thetemples turn out to be concrete copies of clas-sical Chinese buildings, shaped and paintedto a traditional design. The two buildingsstare at one another across the central square,similar but not identical, and forman elon-gated triangle with the Memorial Hall.But for the shell of the building housingChiang Kai-Shek’s statue, we would see thatthese two buildings are what this enormousfigure is actually looking at: on his right theNational Concert Hall; and on his left theNational Theatre, the bluntest of politicalstatements about the role of culture inTaiwanese national life. This symbolism isimportant in understanding what follows. 280  ntq 20:3 (august 2004) © cambridge university press doi: 10.1017/s0266464x04000168 Gregory Sporton Dance Culture and Statuary Politics:Chiang Kai-Shek and the Myth ofPrimitivism Dance is often assumed to have universal values and to manifest a spirit of freedom,especially individual freedom.It is also the case that such freedom is perceived to bedeeply rooted in the condition of humanity.In this article Gregory Sporton showshowthese assumptions can mislead us about the basis on which dance operates.By citing thebody as the srcinal manifestation of expression, and linking dance practice to primitiveexperience, a sentimental picture of ourselves as dancers emerges.Takingdance practicein Taiwan as an example, the author shows how this ‘naturalist argument’can be exploitedby a political culture and in doing so divert questions of identity.For the visiting observer,dance appears to evidence political culture and social aspiration, identities that are fixed inthe present rather than thearchaic past.Gregory Sporton has had a substantialperformingcareer in ballet, contemporary dance, opera, and performance art.Heis Head of theSchool for Performance and Moving Image at the University ofCentral England.  I am here as a large crowd is beginning togather at dusk in the square, jostling forposition in relation to the huge video screenserected in front of the National Theatre. Thisevening, inside the theatre, there will be adance performance which is being broadcastinto the square and will be seen live onnational television. 1 In my wallet there is aticket, and I stroll across the square with anair of superiority that I will be priviliged tosee the show from inside. In the square a local television crew isconducting vox pop interviews with the gath-ering public, asking what the work means tothem and why they have come to attend.Later, the choreographer comes out and doessome breathing exercises with them as awarm up for the event. This Dance for TenThousand is meant to indicate to the waitingthrong their connection to the work and thelocation within them of its truth, a crucialfeature of the work’s main premise. Not forthe first time on this journey to Taipei, I amacutely aware of the local variation of thenaturalist myth and the complex politicalrelations it throws up. Dance will once againpresent itself as the innocent expression of humanity: an audience will be invited toshare it on exactly these terms, and in doingso perform a sleight-of-hand that elides thepolitical structures of culture.To suggest that I am simply picking faultwith Taiwanese cultural arrangements is tounderstate the ubiquity of the fallacy of danceas natural expression, and the concomitantextension of it as evidence of our humanityand our first cultural representation. It ismore that such assumptions are thrown intostark relief in a culture in which the casualvisitor has no stake. My interest here is howthe naturalist argument about dance can besubtly employed to suggest that goodgovernment allows free reign to the naturalcultural expressions of the governed. It isalso to state how important the argumentabout freedom is to the cultural justificationsfor dance.This combination of freedom and theexpressive body, and of dance as the ultimateexpression of an atavistic need, is what Imean when I talk of the naturalist argument.The modern literature of dance is redolentwith these associations. In the introductionof virtually any dance book with pretensionsto giving an historical, sociological, anthro-pological, or aesthetic account, some kind of description of how dance was formed byprimitive man prior to language is recounted(and primitives seem mostly to have beenmen, according to the literature). As a form of letting loose frustrations ororganizing society, dance has a pre-eminentplace in these accounts because it is made of movement. Its very formlessness is cited as a badge of authenticity since it predates cul-ture, even informs and decides it. Invariably,as the introduction ebbs, we are introducedto a taxonomy of dance that classifies byform or content, and the imaginative fantasy,purity of expression through movement, isleft behind. But the freedom toexpress isargued as fundamental to dance practice. As it emerges into cultural form, it is oftenpossible to see it argued, as does McNeill forexample, that the movements themselvesreflect the agrarian reality of prehistoric orancient experience; that a human archaeologyis inflected in the forms and structures of thedances as they evolve. 2 This usually, asKealiinohomoku likes scathingly to pointout, develops into ballet as representative of the most noble form of dance practice. 3 The Modern Primitive It should be said that this is a comparativelynew argument about dance, dating from theearly twentieth century and absorbed intothe artistic and intellectual fabric of dancewith the assistance of the early moderns andthe late post-modernists. Taylor would sug-gest this sentimental view of the body andnature first shows up in the Enlightenmentas the result of a particular interpretation of Descartes. The extension of individual experi-ence as a self-validating authority was ab-sorbed into the social disposition, and not just as a result of philosophy. 4 The result of relocating the moral as being within us asserts both individualism and instrumentalism. Descartes expressed a spiritual need toobjectify the body as a step towards self- 281  mastery, and this in turn was the justificationfor an internalized rationalization of physicalexperience. As this concept of self and bodydeveloped, the appreciation of the exception-ality of experience, in terms of existence andmanifestation in social relations, began todominate a concept of the self. Rationaliz-ation of physical action as the manifestationof moral or inner purposes gives rise to acommentary provided for the pre-modernswho could not provide it for themselves.This instrumental case about the body linksthe political and theistic freedoms assumedfor the soul with the manifestations of physi-cality. As Taylor indicates, this means mind– body dualism can be interpreted ‘as showingthe way to an “innerworldly liberation” of the soul’. 5 For dance as a bodily practice, this woulddraw into focus its historical reliance uponform and purpose. When Freud began dis-cussing creative practice as the expression of individuals and Curt Sachs began classifyingdances according to cultural significationrather than form, dance as the expression of civility looked less attractive than did its pos-sibility for cathartic experiences. 6 In his introduction to his seminal study World History of the Dance , Sachs claimsdance is ‘the mother of all the arts’, and that‘man creates in his own body in the dance before he uses substance and stone and wordto give expression to his inner experiences’. 7 This view, fusing as it did psychology andanthropology to dance as cultural expres-sion, simplified dance as a practice by citingthe untutored body as its own authority.Such primitivism was its sign of authenticity because it performed an expressive task. 8 Though this idea is inconsistent with therest of Sachs’s evidence (which mostly con-sists of explaining dance as communicativeand socially interactive), the emphasis on theindividual was to be a significant factor in justifying the body as fundamentally a danc-ing one for generations of dance scholars.More pertinently in this situation, by pre-dating language and social structure, danceemerges as the true and free expression of humanity. This position has made countlessarticulations about the commonalities of dance practices possible, including execrable justifications found in work such as Brinson’s,where the attendance at nightclubs is cited asstatistical evidence for a nation with a pas-sion for dance. 9 The naturalist argument has given rise tosome highly self-regarding discussions in thedance literature aboutthe place of dance inculture. More importantly, if obliquely, itassumes that the normal rules of culture donot apply to dance – that its primacy andprimordiality could also be associated withcultural purity and creative affirmation. Todance has become synonymous with beingfree. Thus dance becomes associated withfoundational culture and with freedom, sug-gesting a powerful yet individual culturalvoice in a wordless form. Yet this notion seems a simplistic versionof how a culture, or even a dance, develops.The desire to believe that we start with the body, create culture, and end up with apolitics to organize it looks palpably untrue.It is political structures of one sort or anotherthat determine what kind of dance there will be to do, and what shape culture will take.Itis this thinking that arranges Chiang Kai-Shek to keep vigil over the bastions of Tai-wanese culture, and compels the Nationaliststo raid the Forbidden City for its treasuresasthey evacuate the mainland, or the presentgovernment of Taiwan to establish nationaluniversities for the arts. These actions are not unique to Taiwan, of course. It is merely easier as a visitor to seethe direct connection between political andcultural structures, being so accustomed toone’s own that one no longer notices theenergy the Arts Council exerts in attemptingto bring into being the kind of art that itthinks I ought to like and that suits its ver-sion of modern Britain. Post-modern Freedoms In a strange moment of consensus, it can beargued here that post-modern dance hastaken up the modernist position of indivi-dual alienation as a legitimate source formovement. At least one strand of post-modernism in dance has progressed from 282  artistic challenges to the dry aesthetics of ’sixties modernism to self-justifying asser-tions of dance as a simultaneous demand fortherapy and the happiness of social recog-nition. The issue of freedom, of who could bequalified to do or speak of work as dance,istightly locked into a political statementabout the inherent legitimacy of individualexperience and expression. In other words,post-modernism in dance is often presentedas a variation on the naturalist theme, onlysteeped in identity politics. The night before my visit to the NationalTheatre, my gracious hosts in Taipei hadarranged a ticket for me to see the TaipeiBallet Company. 10 They were performing anew ballet version of Lady of the Camellias ,choreographed by a returning Taiwaneseexpatriate, staged in an ugly civic hall in thecentre of town. For the westerner, the arbit-rary use of western music in an unfath-omable order and historical mismatch, thecardboard sets, and the embarrassing castingof an inept occidental as Armand were dis-tracting and irritating. But the strangeness of the sight of twenty-first-century Chinese pre-tending to behave like nineteenth-centuryFrench aristocrats was highly apposite tounderstanding the perception and receptionof western culture in a place like Taiwan. Forall its artlessness as ballet (and there were afew very fine dancers), its staging of haughtyarrogance seemed a parody of nobility, itslove story made unbelievable by its lack of warmth, and its humanity intentionally im-prisoned in sclerotic acting and rigid dancing.This was, of course, what this culture wasmaking of what has become an internationalform. But, while located in an historical past,the action is never less than in the present,and the interpretation of the manners andcharacter of ballet, and of a ruling class longsince swept away, speaks volumes of theirperception, admiration of, and contempt forthe West. The public in the full hall loved it: herewere some of their own, playing at beingEuropean in character and form. This modelof what I might best describe as counter-imperialism, an antidote to the patronizingpost-colonial idea that they can’t know whatthey are doing or they wouldn’t do it, wasintriguing and annoying. It was as if I hadseen my own culture plundered for ideas,half-understood, and presented as parody.At the same time, the motivation of the workseemed very clear. The esteem of another’sculture had led to a massive investment intime and money, the training of the dancers,and the presentation of the work intended to be just like the West, and failed because itwas palpably not of the West but somewhereelse. However, for all my objections, this foundlocal approval because it reflected a parti-cular aspiration of the audience (and theirdaughters, no doubt) to occupy this parti-cular model of culture with its associationswith European class systems, training in thetechniques of the West, in its clothes, in itsshoes. This wouldn’t seem possible wereonly a tiny minority interested to do it or towatch it, but was reflecting a way the audi-ence would like to see themselves, as theirtastes globalize and the effectiveness of theWest at promoting its culture is simply incor-porated into their particular national story. Dance as National Story At the National Theatre the following even-ing, the Taiwanese national story becomesfurther complicated as Cloudgate DanceTheatre perform Legacy , their signature work,for a national television audience, a crowd inthe square, and a packed house inside. Not-withstanding the exterior look of a Chinesetemple, the National Theatre inside is like amodern German opera house, with the sametype of carpets, seating, and auditorium, rep-lete with marble from Italy and chandeliersfrom Austria. Indeed, Germans and Belgianscompleted the technical work for the Chinesearchitects, and the effect is surreal. Legacy presents new problems in dealingwith cultural reality. This is a hugely popularwork, whose premiere performance 25 yearsearlier took place on the day diplomaticrelations with the United States were cut andTaiwan forced into international isolation. Thework has become an emblematic statementof Taiwan’s national resolve. 283  Lin Hwai-Min, the company’s founderand artistic director, is a national figure, acultural icon. In the election of 18 March 2000 , he took against the Kuo-Min Tangrulers, became an adviser to the victoriousopposition, and thus contributed to the firstdemocratic transfer of power in a Chinesecountry in history. 11 Now known for languid,flowing dances that emphasize environment,spirituality, and sensuality, this early workisviolent, energetic, and politically charged.The company is lauded for representingTaiwan abroad (they tour frequently and in 2003 spent most of the year overseas). In Legacy , the national story of the Taiwan-ese is set to songs by the folk singer Chen Da,and tells an audience that now makes micro-chips to identify with an agrarian past of struggle against the elements, of fishing andrice farming as the basis of contemporaryaffluence. This of course is not true, and wasnot true even when the work was premiered, but the myth works best where it can be fixedto questions of nostalgia and authenticity.The effect is to encourage a folk history, thespirit of the Taiwanese being imbued withthese basic, nascent values at the point of srcin, as a configuring influence on modernTaiwan. This is a direction towards which neitherthe dancers nor the audience can really makemore than a well-meaning gesture. The in-vasion by the Nationalists is not even hintedat, nor the energy that enabled the creation of a manufacturing industry that really shapedmodern Taiwan and enabled organizationslike dance companies to exist at all. The final third of the work bursts intowhat could only be described as a Chineseversion of Riverdance , the spectacle overcom-ing the objections to the political content ashuge banners drop on either side of the stagepronouncing a desire for peace and pros-perity for Taiwan and its people. Waving redribbons, the dancers celebrate the unity of Taiwan, eliding the colonization by theNationalist Chinese and the subsequenteconomic development of the island. We arestunned by the spectacle, and in no positionto argue the historical accuracies. The atav-istic attractions of the dance, an intense 90 minutes without an interval, are enthusias-tically received. I wander out into the still busy square, where crowds are still cheering,conscious of the danger of the spectacle thatattracts, flatters, and distorts. Clarifying the Purpose Afterwards, talking to Chinese friends aboutthe experience and my discomfort with thesense of menacing nationalism, they com-plain. You in the West, they say, are so busy being individuals. We can set aside ourindividualism for something like this with-out a problem, and the loss of our identityinto this causes us no qualms because this isour story. Yet, goes my objection, this is notyour story: not about a sophisticated nationof high-tech industries on the fringe of a vastsuperpower coming to terms with its placeinthe world. Your dancers are trained in theschools and techniques of the West and theargument about solidarity with the ruralpast is merely a fantasy. They shrug this off,citing the superb performances and the evi-dent popularity of the company as evidenceof authenticity.The myth of connection between today’sdance and our primitive past has a stronghold, especially when the presentation is sosophisticated. The connection between thepossibilities of movement itself and the poli-tical ramifications once movements becomeformed and embedded in culture is so simpleas to deceive us at every turn. It seems thatwe can more clearly see the motivations of movement when we know why they areformed in their own particular way and howthey change into dance. This makes it more crucial that, ratherthan seeing dance as the extension of ourprimitive selves, we should understand thatit is determined by the forces of culturewhich, in all cultures, link themselves to anestablished political class. The model of theTaiwanese represents an example of this pro-cess, and the work seems so directly politicalthat its aesthetic qualities have becomesubsumed in an argument about the purposeof artistic practice. But the evidence suggestssomething other than the conventionally 284
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