Interview with Dr. Laurel Victoria Gray

Za-beth hosts Dr. Laurel Victoria Gray in a workshop and showcase on April 26th in Arlington, MA. Dr. Gray will teach two workshops: "Azerbajani "Nalbeki" Choreography" and "Introduction to Uzbek Dance from Bukhara". See Za-beth's event page on Facebook for more information.

What first attracted you to Uzbek and other Central Asian dances?

From childhood, I felt an affinity for all things Eastern, or at least the things I could find in my hometown of Spokane, Washington. My favorite composers were the Russian Orientalists like Borodin and Ippolitov-Ivanov. I searched for books and recordings in our main library for everything I could find about these mysterious cultures.

In 1979, while enrolled in a Russian translation class in grad school at the University of Washington, I learned there was a group coming to Seattle from Uzbekistan. Of course, everyone in the class wanted to talk to Russian speakers. I volunteered to provide transportation for them and discovered that Seattle was a sister-city of Tashkent; in fact, it was the first of the American-Soviet sister-city relationships. When I drove to the motel where the Uzbeks were staying to pick them up, there was a young woman standing in this little garden area behind the hotel. She was the first Uzbek person I had met and she was none other than the People’s Artist of Uzbekistan, Kizlarkhon Dustmuhamedova. And if that wasn’t kismet I don’t know what was! Neither of us had any idea of what was to come and that we would forge a lifelong bond.

When the Uzbek dancers performed that night at Seattle University, Kizlarkhon’s dance absolutely riveted me. I knew I had to learn this dance. Thus began a lifetime pursuit that is much too lengthy for this interview but documented elsewhere. (Editors note: Read more about Dr. Gray in Habibi magazine here.) 

While we're at it, what exactly is the Silk Road and why is it important, historically?

The “Silk Road” may sound like an exotic fantasy, but in reality it describes a network of caravan routes that extended from China to the Mediterranean. The term "Seidenstraße” (Silk Road) was coined in 1877 by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, but the trade routes themselves are quite ancient and go back to the 2nd century BC.

From a geographic perspective, the heart of the Silk Road is Central Asia, so it includes places like Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, and so on. This is why it is so strange that recently the belly dance community has appropriated the term “Silk Road” for their troupes or concerts when their dance styles have little or no relation to these traditional cultures. There seems to be no awareness that Silk Road territories are inhabited by real people who have real dance traditions.

In a broader sense, the Silk Road represents cross-cultural exchange. More than just trade goods traveled along those trade routes;  music, dance, fashion, religions, languages, innovations, ideas, and philosophies moved along the Silk Road as well. This is a positive reminder of how humanity can benefit from peaceful interactions..

Your troupe, the Silk Road Dance Company, has been together for almost 20 years. What's your secret? 

As any Artistic Director can tell you, it can be challenging leading a dance company. When I lived in Seattle, I participated in several groups, co-founding one, and then establishing my own Tanavar Dance Ensemble in 1982. These experiences helped me in the formation of Silk Road Dance Company (SRDC). The ensemble has evolved throughout the years, aided by our Company Handbook that was originally created by Keylan Qazzaz, who was our Assistant Director for ten years. The handbook serves as a guide to expectations, procedures, and the benefits of participating in SRDC.

We have high professional standards that require a tremendous amount of work and dedication from our dancers. For this reason we have a six-month apprentice period to make sure that new dancers understand the demands and expectations required by participation in SRDC. Frankly, not everyone makes it through this probationary period, but it does prevent disappointment down the line.

Most important is our communal commitment to creating “Cultural Understanding through Beauty and Delight.” Everything we do must serve this mission.

There's been some online debate about whether Western (read American) dancers should be performing dances of other cultures. In your opinion as a scholar, performer, and choreographer of folkloric dance, what preparations and considerations should Western dancers undertake if we want to perform such dances? 

 Respect for, and knowledge of, the Cultures of Origin should guide our presentations. This is, after all, the Information Age, so all kinds of resources are now at our fingertips, things that were almost impossible to find in the past.

In addition to doing the homework of studying a particular culture, it is also imperative to work with a teacher and not rely exclusively on YouTube! Videos can provide wonderful inspiration, but a video cannot correct your dance mistakes or curb an “American accent.” And even the most beautiful videos can be misidentified or can contain misinformation. Use discernment and try to verify information from different sources.

Dance can open the door to understanding between cultures. It helps dispel the stereotypes. When audiences watch a performance from another culture, it gives a sense of the soul of that culture. It humanizes “the Other” and helps people see them as human beings with the same kind of joys and yearnings and sorrows as any other human being. All of a sudden they’re not the enemy anymore.

But this is a huge responsibility. In places like Iran and Afghanistan, there are no professional women’s dance ensembles giving public performances. These dance traditions survive privately and informally, in the home. These forms are being preserved abroad, often by women who are not Iranian or Afghan. The positive aspect of this is that the dances are surviving and may eventually make it back to their homeland. The downside is that any errors in transmission create a false impression of the dance tradition.

For example, Afghani dance has nuances, gestures, and subtleties that go beyond simply spinning around in one of those beautiful dresses, but this is often all one sees in American stage performances. Likewise, some genres of  Iranian dance presented in the US have been diluted with belly dance movements and costuming elements. Yes, innovation is natural with dance, but we must all take care that the original traditions are not lost and discarded along the way.

Dance is the most ephemeral of the arts. It resides not in books or on canvas, or even in musical scores, but in the human body itself. Like a genetic heritage, it must be passed on from teacher to student, from one generation to the next. And if that fragile lineage is broken, the dance is in jeopardy of being lost.

Is it possible to study Uzbek dance in its home country?

For decades now, dancers who hear about my travels have asked when I would create a tour to Uzbekistan. Not everyone is an intrepid traveler, so in the past, conditions were not right. Under the Soviets, visas were very hard to get and contact with the locals was discouraged. Even the officially invited delegations that I led faced many challenges. 

Happily, the infrastructure for tourism has blossomed in independent Uzbekistan. Thanks to a wonderful partnership with Silk Road Treasure Tours, we have created the very first dance study tour to Uzbekistan that will take place in August 2014. Participants will be able to learn first-hand from native dancers while experiencing the culture. The regional differences in styles make perfect sense when one realizes the distinctions among these places. And watching people as they go about their day-to-day tasks reveals much about the quality of moment and provides a genuine context for the dance.

For more information on Dr. Gray and her dance company, see the following sites:

Laurel Victoria Gray

Silk Road Dance Company