The Unity Myth

Can a person become five at the same time? Can five become one? Dancer/Choreographer Daniel Kok presented Cheerleader of Europe at IGNITE! 2016 to question the myths around the concept of unity, integrity and their power politics.

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Daniel’s questions are on the most apparent level directed at the European countries as to how they perceive unity. Dramaturgically, he breaks his performance into two major factions. One, when he is imitating a performative approach in order to establish statements, by largely using irony as a tool in his physical and facial expressions as well as his dialogues, which take up the form of either rap songs or slogans or army commands.

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Two, when he delves into a more casual conversational mode — even personal narratives. In fact, a personal narrative is what he starts his performance with — already making a very debatable political statement with that.

The first approach is directly satirical in its implementation of stereotypes of gender and race — both physically and verbally.

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But the casual conversation takes some time to be perceived as less benign than how it starts. These are loaded conversations that makes one look at Daniel’s piece with certain complexities. The phase, in which he invites audience members to join a short interview-like conversation with him (a form that also reminds one of ways that such political content is often treated by mainstream media — trying to sum up complex subjects in three sentences) indeed turn into a more vicious debate when it is performed in Europe.

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But when a piece like this is presented to an Indian audience, there are multiples levels of complex emotional reactions that the artist might be playing with. In many ways, the discriminatory Indian socio-political structure and the recent upsurge of right-wing nationalism as well as its West-facing economic programs can be compared with the nationalist economic crisis that is taking place over years in the so-called European Union.

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There can be manifold reading of the work, as Daniel explains through the piece as well as his conversations with the Gati team outside the performance space. Take for example the fact that he starts his piece with a memoir of his time spent as an army officer in charge of an incompetent regiment. He speaks about his frustration at their inefficiency at arriving at the unified collective pride that is required at every army consolidation. The narrative ends in a hyper-macho feel-good pep-talk — more like a corporate manager than an officer (and that shows the complicated roles we take up within a collective in order for it to function effectively). The pep-talk is enacted in the performance with the audience allowing themselves to be treated as the regiment. But how is that participation that the audience allows themselves to be subjected to? Some of them find it hilarious, some act reluctant and some tag along without much thought. Then how would such a prescription for unification play along when it comes to real people? What sort of magical confetti shower has the ability to wake the EU up, at its micro-level membership population, to the non-existent Euro-pride?

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For that matter, what is unity? What binds even a small a group of people together and make them feel as one body? These are extremely relevant questions even for a functioning artists’ collective!

But does the artist really wish to address this issue around unity or does he have something else at the back of his mind when he narrates his story? When it comes to Asian performances, the gaze of the Western audience often searches for narratives, memoirs, expressions, classicism — a certain essence of ‘third-world life’, when it comes to certain countries, a lithe body-type and  flowing physical expressions when it comes to certain others.

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Daniel’s narratives as well as his role-playing as a tough army-man — at the same time enacting a certain queerness in his movement otherwise — play a satire on his own identity as an Asian performer. It also asks questions about the identities of the audience members in terms of how they perceive his jig. In fact, as an audience member, there is a subtle feeling of being made fun of throughout his performance!

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Even the role of cheerleader, which Daniel sees as representing a fake, bright portrait of the Western solidarity, has many dimensions. A Western cheerleader is an objectified white woman body that acts as an entertainer — almost a clown, who exists only at the moment of happiness and that existence is limited in reacting momentarily and appreciatively to a ‘more skillful’ action that is the matter of ‘real pride’ to a massive, virtual collective. When Daniel says “Who better to play the Cheerleader of Europe than the neutral Asian?”, it sounds like a triple-edged joke.

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He could be talking about the way a large faction of Asians are perceived by the rest of the races — held down under the same umbrella of Mongolian identity. He could at the same time be commenting satirically at the way Asians are exoticized and objectified by the Western art community.

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But then (as he hinted in the performance in his dialogue that he wanted to know more about Europe due to the fact that he wasn’t a resident there, but he aspired to!) he could also be addressing the fact that even if he wished, he couldn’t become a cheerleader in Europe thanks to his Asian male identity.

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However, it feels like there are two ways of protesting against exoticism. One way is enacting the exoticized and pointing out the irony of the system — as Daniel seemed to be doing very efficiently. But at times, it also is interesting and useful to think about another way of working in spite of that exoticism, working towards finding one’s own dance language, no matter what the rest of the world tends to compartmentalize you as. And when Daniel says he would like to work further and extensively on this piece in terms of turning it into a non-verbal physical expression, it is in a way more interesting from the viewpoint of a ‘contemporary dance audience’, if such a thing exists, pardon the compartmentalization!

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Photography: Sharan Devkar Shankar

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