Last week I had the privilege of previewing several sections of a new work by Bill Wade’s Inlet Dance Theater. They were in residence in Playhouse Square’s Launch program, which gives a local performing arts group the time, space, and resources to develop new work. Bill and his company had done a residency on Easter Island a few years ago. Since returning, they have been working on choreographing an evening-length piece inspired by the cultural experiences they had there. The Launch program was supporting the completion of that work.
What I saw was wonderful – original and deeply moving work. I can’t wait to see the whole piece. But what I heard, from Bill’s thoughtful, passionate recounting of his and the dancers’ experiences, was in some ways even more meaningful to me. Inlet was the first modern dance company to ever visit Easter Island. In their time there, the Americans learned much from the ancient native traditions of dance and music – unchanged over the generations. But when the Inlet dancers performed for the Islanders, the Americans got a lesson in humility and diplomacy. One Islander saw the many different kinds of movement in the Americans’ work and was puzzled about what the tradition was that generated the movement. When Bill said there was no one tradition (“We made it up ourselves”) the individual was astounded. “They make it themselves!” was repeated again and again in amazement. And the impact of this reaction on Bill was to recognize that he and his company were not just artists exchanging creative ideas, they were ambassadors for American culture. This created a sense of deep responsibility that he had not felt in quite the same way before. And it also surfaced something that we, as Americans, don’t often remember; that what makes us so different from the rest of the world is the fact that we don’t all come from a long and shared tradition. We make our culture ourselves – and it is as complex and various and changing as we are. And the freedom we have to create here makes our culture forever new, and therefore undefinable, except in the way that we relate to and share with those outside our experience.
In the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion program, we are learning that the international artists we help bring here gain a perspective on America that most of them do not get in their home countries. Almost without exception, all of the artists who have spent time here (11 to date) have said, in one way or another, “America is very different from what I expected. The people are kind and generous and they care about us and about one another.” In a way, everyone who interacts with our program’s visitors is an ambassador for American culture. Cleveland is working on many levels to reclaim its place as an important international city. If we are all part of the continual process of making our own unique American culture, it seems to me that we need to share Bill’s sense of diplomatic responsibility as cultural ambassadors – here in our own hometown.