Trajectories of Tradition and Travel

I spent the last few days in Egham, Surrey (actually I slept at a Bed&Breakfast in nieghboring Virginia Water, but that’s another story), attending a conference on “Performing Arts in Contemporary Asia: Tradition and Travel” (see the program here). It was a meeting of ethnomusicologists and other scholars of theatre, music, and dance in and related to Asia from around the world,  co-hosted by CHIME (European Foundation For Chinese Music Research) and the newly-founded APAF (Asian Performing Arts Forum), held at Royal Holloway, a college of the University of London.

The Founder's Building of Royal Holloway

Of course I had an idea that there exist countless performance traditions in Asia. But hearing lectures about—sometimes even seeing live on stage—things as divers as randai (a martial arts-based dance from West Sumatra), odissi (a re-created “traditional” Indian dance), brass band music at weddings in Shaoxing (a tradition that dates to the 1920s), or Korean fusion gugak in London, to name just a few highlights, is a different thing.

There were also numerous performances in the Handa Noh Theatre (one of the two venues separated by a bridge): from nanyin Southern Chinese classical music by Cai Yayi to Sudipto Chatterjee’s fascinating lecture-demonstration on Lalon Shah Phokir, “the 19th century Bengali Sufi saint and song-maker” or “Man of the Heart” (a project soon to be continued in Berlin…). Also, some workshops (I learned, for example, some basic jingju (“Beijing Opera”) movements, including the use of “water sleeves”, completed the overwhelming weekend.

Workshop "Chinese opera gestures" by Kathy Hall of the London Jing Kun Opera Association

The most interesting event for me, however, was a performance by the “London Korean Drummers”, due to the daily rain unfortunately not on the lawn in front of the theatre but inside. They presented both some samulnori as well as more lively pungmul while marching around the stage.

Performance of the London Korean Drummers

Then Joseph Patricio made the congress dance with his workshop of pangalay, a “fingertip” folk dance from the Philippines that involved (more or less) refined and slow movements of the wrists and ankles. While moving together in line, we grew a bit closer together, sharing these communal moments of blissful imperfection and fun.

These four days were not only a good occasion to get back in touch the assets of rural Britain (silence at night, hash browns and baked beans in the morning, rain in the afternoon) but also to meet some interesting people working in my field (or slightly different ones). On Friday afternoon I participated in the poster session with a poster on various ways of staging pansori nowadays and the possibilities of temporary communities to emerge in performance: “Creating Communities: Korean Music Theatre Pansori Between Preservation, Promotion and Revival of Tradition” (for an abstract see here).

I had prepared my material on the computer only, but as the other presenters installed their beautfully designed posters, I realized that I would actually need one, too. Thanks to the campus copy shop and the secretary of Sutherland House, I managed to improvise a kind of collage that contained most of my ideas—see for yourself (click to zoom):

Creating Communities: Korean Music Theatre Pansori Between Preservation, Promotion and Revival of Tradition

That afternoon I had a number of fruitful talks with various people, could practice a bit of Korean, too, and generally had a good time. Although I also like the thrill of performing the engaged academic in front of a crowd, this format certainly has its advantages. This is true especially with a rather homogeneous audience because while having individual conversations you can get more into detail or cover rather basic facts depending on how much the respective person is interested, has already heard about pansori etc.

These talks also gave me more of an idea what might be of interest to people who are not particularly interested in pansori per se. On the other hand, I found a few of the presentations I heard rather difficult to follow when “indigeneous” terms (whether in Chinese, Hindi, Thai etc.) were not introduced properly—in most cases a brief explanation in powerpoint would suffice, also to let me know how the respective word is romanized. I understand that some degree of lingo is necessary to foster bonds among specialists in rather small fields of expertise, still some more clearity would have helped in many cases.

But I don’t want to end on a somber note. The conference offered a lot of insights on current research (the location of the academic—in many cases, though not in mine, also a producer of some sorts—needs to be taken into account), introduced me to many forms of music and theatre I had never heard about (much fodder for comparative research…), and of course included interesting meetings with people from various fields, opening up my perspective that at times seems to be rather narrow. And it was also good to see that there are a few people interested in pansori (and in my work, too) out there.

— 6–9 July 2011 (水~土)

  • Performing Arts in Contemporary Asia: Tradition and Travel, 16th International Meeting of CHIME and Inaugural Conference of APAF, Royal Holloway University of London, Egham/Surrey, 06 – 09-07-2011.

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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