Riga, Umea and European values

Inta Balode

The human chain of about 14 000 people standing in the streets of Riga in really freezing day of January 18 and passing books from the old to the new building of the Latvian National Library. Seven Chinese dancers for around and hour dancing in line close to each other in The Sami-Chinese dance project which premiered in Umeo, toured Sweden and I was lucky to see it in Dansens Hus Stockholm on February 15. With politically wrong mind you would think something like that: Latvia’s economy must have gotten so bad that there are no trucks to deliver the books so only simple human labor is the solution; Swedish dance scene and demographic situation is experiencing serious crisis, so the import of Chinese dancers and choreographers has started. Politically correct mind knows that fortunately the issue behind those actions is much brighter – both Riga (Latvia) and Umea (Sweden) are the European Capitals of Culture 2014. However, looking at those two events included in the opening programs of the Capitals of Culture 2014 tempts to speculate on shared/trendy/politically correct European values.

A value called “chain”.

Dancers in The Sami-Chinese project choreographed by Tao Ye and performed by “TAO Dance Theater” most of the time stay in line, they keep almost perfect line while performing active moves with their bodies and heads. There is almost no use of legs and arms which are often the basic tools of expression in many dance styles. No matter how intense things are, they keep the line.

The book lovers passing the books in Riga keep the chain, there should be no stops, no interruptions; books should keep travelling. No matter how cold it is, no matter who is the person next to you, the chain keeps on transporting the books.

I saw the performance in Stockholm because I was there for a Nordic Baltic dance publications/organizations network meeting as part of kedja Writing Movement project. “Kedja” – means “chain”. No matter how well or not well dance writing is doing we should keep the connection, the interest, i.e. life.

“The chain” is the value. Though “keeping the line/the chain” is also a very contradictory concept. This might be the provocation of the Sami-Chinese dance project. It can be as well the line of choice coming out of joy and belonging or coming out of being desperate; the line of power control – once you step out, the head is chopped off; the line of holding position in the protests; the line in army parade etc. United Europe for people (for powers?) to be stronger? “Third countries” are involved for the EU to be even stronger? Wonderful connection, influenced connection, forced connection, connection out of the fear and darkness? All of those one can see in the performance. Dancers stay close to each other and move as if fighting desperately through the thick and foggy space. Light occasionally falls on faces, hands, legs providing some Rembrandtlike frames and then back to amorphous moving space. Keep the line, keep the direction!

A value called “friendship of nations”

The friendship/non-friendship of the nations has always been important both on a human level and as a tool for political manipulations. How many important arts projects lately have had representatives from only one nation? How many arts projects in Europe are not linked to any EU funding at all? In the current situation being friendly and collaborative definitely is a financially good idea. Of course, collaboration is also interesting for the artists, the audience members can get taste of several cultures during one night; it is interesting for funders and producers, and politicians look good and producers can sell more tickets. Friendship is good.

Values of “practical” and “symbolic”

The Sami-Chinese project is created under the label of Umeo as the European Culture Capital and it tours promoting Umea, Chinese contemporary dance, Sami music, Sweden, Nordic darkness, European open and inclusive spirit etc. It passes the message about contemporary dance as being an art form bringing all that together. What the project symbolizes – asks my Latvian symbolic mind? I believe nothing in particular – it is just a good idea, just a good project with potential practical and ideological outcomes (touring, new commissions, visibility of organizations and artists based in Umea, visibility of “TAO Dance Theater”, tourism attracted to Umea, interest in Chinese dance, inclusion of Sami people etc.).

Rig likes symbolic actions. The book chain doesn’t have the touring potential but it was a very visible event. Not only patriots and librarians were passing the books – Latvians, Russians, tourists from there and over there, by passers, may be even pets were excited about being part of the book river called “The Way of Light – the Chain of the Book Friends”. However no matter how emotional and big the event was it was a single symbolic action. Latvian writer and journalist Krist?ne Želve commented the program of the European Capital of Culture on www.satori.lv and compared it with one night stands – touching, emotional, powerful and with hangover next morning. Once the euphoria is over everybody restart bloody fight for financing.

Value of “neutral”

An audience member asks the choreographer Tao Ye – what about minimalism in your work? He says that when he started choreographing he had no idea about what it is, but he definitely knew what is lacking in this world. He also says that he is not a representative of Chinese culture collaborating with a representative of Sami culture – they are two individuals, two artists working together. So if the project is called Sami-Chinese dance project it means that the artists are getting used for the political or/and marketing purposes?

I was thinking – if the choreographer searches for what is lacking in the world, searches some lost (or never existed) spirituality how should I interpret seven amazingly trained dancers performing in a line and being deprived of individual faces (most of the time dancing with their back to the audience). Is it about the revival of the ancient sense of ritual where people are anonymous fields of the manifestations of the nature powers? Or is it about the author manipulating his objects (in this case humans) – the concept which is pretty much denied in contemporary arts? Are we lacking neutrality or individuality?

Also – even if the Bible was the first book to travel Riga book chain, nobody would see it as a religious event. It was a very old book traveling, catholic catechism was a book that was the first one printed in Latvian, so it is a value and at the same time neutral enough.

No national, ethical, religious, racial, sexual, age dividing – if you want to politically correct. On the other hand – use all of that in a smart way in order to sell something. Talk about all the tensions arising among those issues in politically correct way and everyday perception – and you are the politically correct contemporary artist.