In 2012, the U.S. Department of State and the Brooklyn Academy of Music invited Seán Curran to participate in DanceMotion USA, a project that sends American dance companies overseas to facilitate cultural sharing and deep engagement with local artists.
Seán Curran Company, a modern dance group from New York City, traveled to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and the Kyrgyz Republic where they participated in residencies and showcased their work as an act of cultural diplomacy. These countries were chosen for their dialogues with the United States, which have been dynamically developing in recent years. Over the course of the trip, the American company had the opportunity to hear the Ustatshakirt Plus Ensemble, a musical group from Bishkek, the largest city in the Kyrgyz Republic, perform in a private concert setting. Curran was struck by how the Ensemble’s music shared rhythmic and melodic characteristics with the Irish folk music that is essential to his own cultural background. As he listened, he “felt transported to his distant roots.”
From the artists’ chance meeting developed an opportunity for international cultural exchange and, happily, friendship. Curran, his dancers, and the Ustatshakirt Plus Ensemble created a work that, in Curran’s words, “looks back in reverence but travels on … toward Whitman’s ‘new City of Friends.’ “
In fact, Walt Whitman’s 100 year old poem I Dream’d in a Dream provided some of the inspiration for this international artistic collaboration:
I dream’d in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth;
I dream’d that was the new City of Friends;
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love— it led the rest;
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,
And in all their looks and words.
I had the pleasure of seeing the results of this cross-cultural engagement when Seán Curran Company and the Ustatshakirt Plus Ensemble took the stage for each group’s Northrop Auditorium debut on October 24, 2015. While audience members took their seats, the dancers—who spanned a spectrum of body types, skin colors, and movement styles—walked onstage and laid on benches set out across the stage.
Their costumes—loose-fitting, brightly-colored, and patterned—augmented the vibrant and texturally-layered scenic elements, such as the intricately patterned, deep red and black tapestry that hung from floor to ceiling upstage. After all of the dancers had entered the space and took a spot on a bench, they immediately left. Then the Ustatshakirt Plus Ensemble entered, taking seats upstage, and began the program with an upbeat, percussive musical performance. As the musicians began their second number, the dancers returned.
Over the course of an hour, Curran’s company curved, swept, and bounced their way in and out of intricate spatial arrangements and intimate partnering sequences. The movement—which aligned with the compositional structure and quality of the music—shifted from series of walks, chugs, ponies, or grapevines to brilliant episodes of bounding leaps, hovering turns, and punishingly complex rhythmic footwork.
All of the performers worked with an intense focus—given the complexity of the music and movement, it seems impossible for them to have done otherwise—but never came off as isolated. Often, they smiled at one another. Most of the time, the dancers moved with deliberate, grounded energy, though there a few points in the program when the facial expressions they made to one another indicated they might have been a bit unsure about something. In those moments, I found myself growing tense as I watched the action onstage unfold.
During and after the performance, I reflected on the act of cultural diplomacy in which this particular creative process was rooted. I wondered if the arts actually are an ideal entry-point for cross-cultural communication and understanding. The exceptional work of art produced, paired with the friendships developed, suggests that these artists represented their countries and cultures in a sensitive, effective way. The satisfied sighs and refreshed faces leaving Northrop Auditorium after this performance reinforced that individuals are affected when they engage with the arts. Through projects like this one, the bond between artists grows stronger and more global. Works of art that would be otherwise impossible are created, and audiences across the globe have the opportunity to experience them.
Dream’d in a Dream suggests that through art, we can achieve cross-cultural communication and understanding. But, do artistically successful outcomes like this one also indicate diplomatic success?
The artwork that was created may not have directly impacted any shifts in foreign policy; yet, it did serve as an example to audiences and critics. Even in the face of political or social tension, individuals from different cultural backgrounds can connect on a human level to make a deep and lasting impression on one another.