From East to West, from West to East — Controversies in Cultural Exchanges

by Anna Thuring

Asian and Western performance cultures have interacted in multiple ways for centuries. After Western colonization of many Asian areas, their traditional theatre forms have been exploited and appropriated in the West. In the best of occasions, they have been admired and used for inspiration, in worst cases, ridiculed, censored, or used superficially. Western colonialism has had a deep impact on theatres in Asian countries by enhancing realistic theatre, yet bringing in demands of social change. Latest developments include Pan-Asian performances and hybrid forms that can to some extent be labeled self-exoticism or self-exploitation of traditions for productions intended for global market.

Chinoiserie, Japonism, Orientalism, and Asianism

First Western encounters with Chinese culture in the 17th century reflected in performance, although not immediately. Particularly, the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century sought inspiration from the Chinese texts that had been mediated earlier by the Jesuit monks. In England, the first China-inspired play, Conquest of China by the Tartars, was performed already in 1675. The most known examples, however, are Voltaire’s L’orphelin de la Chine (1753) and Arthur Murphy’s The Orphan of China (1759). These early theatrical examples are text-based works without any practical knowledge of the performance conventions. However, certain amount of visualization started to emerge on the stages with the help of commodities that were traded from Asia to Western countries. Eventually, Western colonialism that affected many Asian countries from the 17th century until mid-20th century made also local cultural and performance forms available for commodification. Provided that they were not totally extinguished by Western colonizers as immoral or backward.

Chinoiserie or China-mania is a term that is used to refer to the Western fascination for more or less traditional Chinese visual and decorative art products. The term can be extended to creation of Western performance pieces in which Chinese themes, aesthetics, costumes, stage design and props or occasional native performers or consultants are used. It is to be noted that the appropriation can be also appreciative, even to the point of glorifying the Eastern traditions as older, deeper, or otherwise superior to the Western ones.

Japonism(e) as a term and phenomenon follow this same pattern, only that the trend started later, in late 19th century when Japan was opened up for Western trade in 1853. Here, again, the visual and decorative arts were the first to conquer the market. Especially popular were the affordable woodblock prints that often portrayed famous kabuki actors or scenes from kabuki plays thus creating a crude image of traditional performance aesthetics.

Neither Japan nor China was colonized to the same extent as India and most Southeast Asian countries. It should be remembered that, even if cultural appropriation of the colonized cultures was widespread, also genuine interest and respect for different traditions existed among Western scholars and laypersons who convened in Oriental Societies and published travel reports in their annals. In 18th and 19th centuries, ‘Oriental’ was used to signify a huge geographical area from Middle East to Far East. During those days the term ‘Orientalism’ did not have the same connotation that it has now, after Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism. Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978) and subsequent post-colonial research that brought the discussion further and also to the field of performance studies. For Said, the Orient was a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, and remarkable experiences. ’Orientalism’ is a power concept through which Occident established its authority on the Other, the Orient, and also the seemingly neutral academics and writers contributed in maintaining this unequal power structure.

Terms Chinoiserie and Japonism(e) can be used to refer to performances that sought inspiration from Chinese and Japanese literature, dance, and theatre between 17th century and the early decades of 20th century. However, since the terms refer to specific geographical areas and periods, they do not cover all influence from Asian countries. Indian aesthetics, mythology and literature did inspire Western artists and their influence can be seen, for example, in court masques both in England and in France.

It is possible to use Asianism(e) as an umbrella term that covers the vast area of Asian cultural inspiration. Part of Asianism can be seen as Orientalist in Saidian sense, i.e. participating to the colonial exploitation, subjugation, distortion and commodification of Asian cultures. Yet, some representations of Asianism can be seen as having a more sober, honest and even humble, attitude towards the foreign cultures.

Performing Orientalism

In the 17th and the first half of the 18th century Orientalism was mostly performed in private elite environments, such as courts or wealthy bourgeois homes, where also the (authentic) luxury items from the Orient were collected and consumed. China (Noverre: Les fêtes chinoises, 1751) and India figured in some court ballets and masques but it was “Near East”, the Ottoman Empire that became politically far too “near” was loaded with Orientalistic fantasies of cruelty and excessive sexuality (Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail, 1782).

Towards the end of 18th century, various colonial exotica started to be available and affordable for larger groups of people. But it was in the 19th century industrialism, urbanization, and increased trading and communication networks that created a new, fertile environment for full-blown Orientalism for the masses. In the higher end of the scale, Orientalism was performed in romantic opera and ballet (Petipa & Minkus: La Bayadère, 1877; Delibes: Lakmé 1883), as well as in operettas and musicals (Gilbert & Sullivan: Mikado, 1885; Owen-Hall: The Geisha, 1896). In theatre, Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1891) created a veritable ‘Salome-mania’ that guaranteed livelihood for tens of exotic Salome dancers in music halls and variety theatres until the first decades of 20th century.

Occasionally, Oriental Societies contributed to the scene with their own closed performances or performance-lectures. In the lower end of the spectrum, variety shows and music halls feasted on Oriental themes and characters played or parodied by Western performers. ‘Yellowface’ (as compared to ‘blackface’) is the term often used for these portrayals. For all layers of society, Colonial Exhibitions and World Fairs offered glimpses to Asian and other exotic cultures and their performances. Sometimes the performances could be highly skilled, as the group of Cambodian dancers who performed in the Colonial Exhibition in Marseille and subsequently in Paris in the early years of the 20th century. Even in these cases, the exotism was orientalized in the reception, and Western emulators, such as Cléo de Merode, were lauded for their versions of these ancient art forms.

Orientalistic performances prevailed until the beginning of the 20th century. Orientalism was rarely challenged even if there were beliefs that promoted the Asian wisdom emerging from the ancient cultures, considering them as superior to the modern Western shallowness. On the average, traditional performances were not seen as being on as high a level as theatre and dance in the West. They were considered as representations of old and stagnated cultural heritage. In the field of theatre, drama based on play texts was the Western norm and since Asian performance did not comply with this notion, they could not possibly offer much for the Western repertoire.

Dance was more digestible but it was also art that was easily over-exoticised and over-eroticised and also adopted to the Western tastes by dancers who were not of Asian origin but who cleverly created themselves new identities that combined “knowledge” of ancient, sacred traditions and fed voyeurism by scanty clothing or semi-nudity (Mata Hari). Emerging modern dance also used the exotica (Ruth St.Denis’ and Ted Shawn’s Denishawn Company), so did the Ballets Russe (for example Scheherazade, 1910; Le Dieu Bleu, 1912) and Suedois (Siamese Dance, 1919) Line between popular entertainment and high culture here is thin. Many of these performers were seen both in private drawing rooms and on music hall and variety stages, as well as in bigger theatres in highly promoted spectacles.

It is notable that the Orient did not have a voice of its own. In the cases of authentic Asian artists, dancers and acrobats, they did not speak and articulate their ideas. The subaltern, indeed, could not speak and the dominant Western culture did not care to listen.

Meanwhile in the East: Western as Modern

Colonialism created a global world. Colonizing cultures brought their performance forms and sometimes touring performers to the colonized countries. In India, for example, this resulted in many interesting hybrid forms where Shakespeare’s plays could be played in traditional popular styles. The elites of the colonized countries played an important role in adopting the cultural appetites of the colonizers either in local context socializing with them or while studying abroad.

Asian countries have their traditional performance forms that, even if they have kept up a long tradition, are also contemporary and have renovated and reinvented themselves constantly through centuries by incorporating different cultural elements. Question of modernizing Asian theatre and performance is thus very interesting. Modernizing does not mean Westernizing in all Asian countries. Yet, especially, in Japan modernization of theatre strongly equals Westernization. Starting from Meiji period, in 1867, Japanese wished to catch up with Western culture and technology and a number of students were sent to Europe and U.S.A. in order to learn about the latest (mostly technical) innovations. Young Japanese artists who often were from wealthy and privileged background also sought their way independently to cultural hubs in the West.

In the late 19th century, realism and naturalism dominated Western theatrical expression and the social themes that were dealt with in contemporary plays found resonance in Japan. Henrik Ibsen’s and Björnstjerne Björnsson’s plays were particularly popular but also Shakespeare’s works, Russian contemporary plays and French boulevard comedy pieces were performed. Even the popular theatre tapped to the Western variety and music theatre tradition. Takarazuka Company with its repertoire of occidentalist melodrama playlets and cabaret style was established in 1913.

Some Western theatre influence spread also to China with Chinese students who studied in Japan (Spring Willow Society) and to Korea. In Japan, Western plays were translated and performed in small academia-connected theatres and theatre societies and the aim was to present the plays in modern, realistic style which also meant that actresses started to play the female roles. Eventually, also kabuki theatre was given shots of renovation, especially Ichikawa Sadanji II being active in the process.

The instigators of the new theatre (shingeki) traveled to Europe and U.S.A. and met with theatre professionals there in the beginning of 20th century. However, their productions were not performed in the West where their realistic style would have already been outmoded by new trends aiming for renovation of the Western theatre by tapping into the more physical and theatrical styles of both Western and Asian performance traditions.

Ichikawa Sadanji’s kabuki company toured in the USSR in 1928 and performed in Moscow. Another important and authentic performer from Asia that was widely advertised and warmly received both in USSR, USA and Europe was the Beijing opera star and female role player, Mei Lan Fang. But some decades earlier it was the small outcasts of Japanese performance world that were to define the Japanese theatre for the renovation-hungry Western theatre crowd. With the exception of some specialists, the Western theatre renovators were not aware the status of these performers and their performances in Japan nor did they react to the critical remarks of the Japanese embassies or occasional Japanese intellectuals. It was the different theatrical aesthetics and physicality of the performance that inspired and offered alternatives for text-dominated realistic theatre and boulevard comedy of the day.

Craving for Inspiration

Some of the reports and books that were published by Oriental Societies in the 19th and 20th centuries dealt with performance. Some writers tried to relay informative descriptions, some labeled Asian performance as primitive compared to Western performance. In the turn of the century and in the early years of 20th century, there were only a few Western theatre persons that had had a first-hand experience of Asian theatre. One of them was Paul Claudel, French ambassador to China and subsequently to Japan. In his letters, books, and newspaper articles he conveyed his impressions that eventually led him to apply elements of Asian and especially Japanese theatre into his own plays. He even wrote a noh play that was performed in Japan.

The other theatre people devoured performances of the group of Sadayakko and Otojiro Kawakami, dancer Hanako in the first decades of 20th century and Tokujiro Tsutsui and his company in the early 1930’s. And, of course, the group of Balinese dancers that inspired Antonin Artaud in 1931.

The Kawakamis started their tour from the West Coast of United States in 1899 and travelled through the country. The aim of the group was to perform Japanese theatre of shinpa style (modernized, yet kabuki-based, often melodramatic traditional theatre that preceded shingeki and used also some low-ranking kabuki actors) and study Western theatre. American promoters of the tour insisted that Sadayakko, a former geisha, should be made the star of the company following popularity of female divas that dominated the stages in the West. The female impersonators of the group just would not do. Sadayakko turned out to be a powerful performer and after the U.S. tour, dancer Loie Fuller brought the group to London and to Paris where they performed successfully in connection with the 1900 World Exhibition. The Kawakamis eventually toured on their own in Europe for a few years before returning to Japan and contributing to new theatre there. Hanako (Hisa Ōta), another female performer whom Fuller discovered and took under her wings in 1905, stayed in the West for twenty years, touring widely with a group that performed plays filled with melodrama, geishas, samurais, sword fights, vengeance themes – and harakiris. The same elements were the key to success for the Kawakamis. Hanako’s repertoire included also some orientalist melodramas written by Fuller under the pen name Loi-Fu.

The female diva culture waned in the West by the WW I. At the same time, Japan’s role as a serious military power increased and its image ‘masculinised’. The Tsutsui Group brought the samurais back to the centre stage in their performances in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm and even in Helsinki. As performers, they were no more authentic kabuki players than the Kawakamis and Hanako but the performances were similarly tailored to the Western audiences. Tsutsui, a kenkegi (sword fight show) performer of Osakan origin, had tried his hands on shinpa and knew enough of kabuki to perform the role of Benkei in Kanjin-cho which was part of the groups repertoire. The performances were compilations of dances and short plays derived from kengeki, kabuki and shinpa repertoire.

Of the Japanese performers, it was especially the Kawakamis and Hanako that made strong impression on the theatrical renovators of the first decades of the 20th century. Their performances were seen in different occasions by Edward Gordon Craig, Konstantin Stanislavski, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Alexander Tairov, Max Reinhardt, and Charles Dullin. Some of the stage conventions filtered into their directorial work.

It is not certain if Jacques Copeau, the instigator of the French theatrical renovation, was exposed to these shows but he, like many theatre persons during the time was reading Gordon Craig’s The Mask periodical that contained Craig’s admiring texts on Japanese theatre. Copeau also knew Craig personally. It seems that Copeau got his strong admiration for Japanese noh theatre through Paul Claudel and contemporary Orientalist literature and translations. This led him to initiate the production of the Japanese noh play Kantan into his Vieux-Colombier school. The play was rehearsed by his collaborator Suzanne Bing and the students and performed only once in 1924. Copeau’s daughter and student Marie-Hélène Dasté and her husband Jean Dasté continued the interest in noh and played their version of Sumidagawa in 1947.

Bertolt Brecht saw Tsutsui’s performances in Berlin in 1931 but it seems that he was more influenced by Mei Lan Fang’s performances that he saw in Moscow in 1935 and subsequently used his impressions to develop his own theories. Brecht also used Arthur Waley’s translation of the noh play Taniko as a basis of his play Der Jasager/Der Neinsager (1930). Unfortunately, not he nor the other German or French or British theatre persons did not see Ichikawa Sadanji troupe’s kabuki performances in Leningrad and Moscow in 1928 nor is there evidence that Stanislavski, Meyerhold or the other luminaries of Soviet theatre were in the audience. However, Sergei Eisenstein was there and wrote down his impressions in an article. A few years later (1933) A. Iakovleff and S. Eliseev wrote an informed, illustrated book on kabuki. However, this book was published in France where the writers had moved as exiles from Soviet Union. The writers were some of the few ones who could point out how little the thus far seen Japanese performances resembled real kabuki. The French audiences had to wait for the first full and authentic kabuki experience for 40 years.

Authentic, yet for the Western audience tailored performance was the group of Balinese dancers at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1931. Antonin Artaud was in the audience and his enthralled reaction to the performance spread in the French theatrical circles in spite of the fact that, much like Brecht, he looked the performance as an affirmative for his own theories. In both Brecht’s and Artaud’s case a plenty has been written on what they actually saw and how little they potentially understood or cared for the performances that are currently associated with their theories on performance.

During 1920’s and 1930’s, Indian dance was revealed to Western audiences by Uday Shankar, who found a way to combine Indian dance with Western performance techniques that made traditions more palatable for international audiences. Ram Gopal followed along the same lines slightly later. In spite of the strong theatrical power of their performances, both Shankar and Gopal influenced mostly dancers or, at least, they were not reveled by the directors to the same extent as the Japanese performers or Mei Lan Fang.

Grabbing the Natives

Another interesting phenomenon in the interactions is that Asian artists, residing and studying in the West, caught the attention of Western intelligentsia. It was automatically assumed that these individuals were familiar with their country’s traditional performance. Dancer Michio Itoh is a good example. He came to Europe to study Dalcroze’s techniques in Hellerau, Germany but because of WW I, he moved to London where he met the poets William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound who had become keen to learn about noh theatre and recruited him to perform in Yeats’ noh-inspired play At the Hawk’s Well in 1916. Itoh danced the role of the Hawk and choreographed the work. The movement was not based so much on noh that Itoh was not particularly familiar with at that time, but on his studies of Western modern dance sprinkled with then popular Egyptian imagery. There is no doubt that Yeats’ and Pound’s interest in noh was genuine but it was also selective. Itoh introduced them two Japanese art students who were living in London and who unlike he could read and recite noh texts. The auditive world of noh was too much for the poets. The subaltern was again silenced and the idea of using recited Japanese poetry discreetly abandoned. Subsequently, Itoh made a successful career in the United States as a dance teacher, choreographer of musicals and performer who studied his own Japanese traditions and used them in his solos. In United States, he also performed At the Hawk’s Well with Japanese dancers and the play ended up into modern noh repertory in Japan.

Another example of using Japanese consultants in preparing a play is the French director, Firmin Gémier who staged Le Masque by Kido Okamoto in Paris in 1927. The stage design, the costumes and the mise en scène were done by a Japanese artist, Omori Keisuke, and the cast included Japanese actors who helped the other actors in their movements.

Meanwhile in Germany, foreign influences were diminishing with the rise of National Socialism during 1930’s. Yet, of the Asians, Japanese were welcome. The traditional forms were not necessarily to the taste of contemporary German audiences but one of Takarazuka Company’s groups made an intensive tour covering 26 German and Italian cities in nine days in 1939. James Brandon has discovered that the Hitler Jugend delegation that visited Japan in 1940 were arranged meetings and presumably also some demos with kabuki artists of the Shōchiku Company. The other major entertainment enterprise, Tōhō, had offered a musical revue Heil Hitler for a similar delegation in 1938. But news on these exchanges did not spread wider in German theatre community. The cultural actors that might have been interested in international exchange and inspiration were laying low or had left the country.

Interculturalism & Post-colonial Critique

WW II re-shaped the world drastically. Great part of the colonized Asian countries gained their independence and part of the national image formation was re-evaluation of cultural traditions. In India this led to a phenomenon called “theatre of roots” and revival of traditional forms that had nearly disappeared during the colonization and combining them with Western elements. Also touring educational performances that used traditional theatre and dance styles combined with political message were ubiquitous. Same trend can be seen in Indonesia where revival of the traditional forms became part of the national agenda.

From 1950’s on Western countries were developing a more equal stand towards Asian performance. Western performance professionals traveled increasingly to Asian countries and were able to see live performances. An interesting group of those who became enthusiastic about traditional Japanese theatre, especially kabuki, were young Americans who were working for the Occupying Force’s Cultural Mission in order to modernize and democratize the traditions. Western festivals started to invite Asian performers increasingly not as curiosities but as fellow artists. UNESCO and International Theatre Institute (ITI) played a crucial role as a financial supporter for exchanges, and events like Theatre of the Nations festival in France became important forums for exposure in which French and other Western audiences got to see kabuki dancing and noh already in the 1950’s. During these visits, there was still a tendency to see Asian performances as untouched remnants of old cultures. In some cases Westerners were seen as rescuers old traditions that were in danger of disappearance or contamination by increased tourism. Modern Asian performance did not interest the festival organizers much until 1970’s.

Equality of the exchanges was also questionable as Western professionals were financially more able to travel to Asian countries than their Asian colleagues and “shop” education and training from traditional masters. And incorporate pieces of their learning in their own “intercultural” performances.

Intercultural Performance and the Mahabharata Controversy

‘Intercultural performance’ became a widely used concept in 1980’s and can be defined as performance that borrows texts, acting styles, music, costumes, masks, dances and scenic elements and incorporates them in performances in other contexts. Usually, based on at least some first-hand knowledge and practice of the sources. This definition allows understanding that interculturalisation has happened and happens both ways, from East to West and from West to East. Examples are the modernization processes in Japan, China and Korea and the Asian influences on the Western theatrical renovation in the early 20th century or in the work of Girish Karnad and B.V. Karanth in India or Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa in Japan.

However, it is essential to keep in mind, as Phillip Zarrilli has stated, that these productions occur within the context of globalization, with its imbalances of power, and against the backdrop of historical colonialism. Indian scholar Rustom Bharucha is even more outspoken in insisting that it should be acknowledged that the implications of interculturalism are very different for people in impoverished, ’developing’ countries like India, and for their counterparts in technologically advanced, capitalist societies like America, where interculturalism has been promoted both as a philosophy and a business. Colonialism does not operate through principles of ’exchange’. Rather it appropriates, decontextualizes, and represents the ’other’ culture, often with the complicity of its colonized subjects. It legitimates its authority only by asserting its cultural superiority.

This imbalance was not necessarily understood when Western directors started adding Asian elements into their productions in 1970’s and 1980’s. In France, Ariane Mnouchkine incorporated elements from traditional Japanese and Indian theatres in her interpretations of Shakespeare and Greek tragedy. But it was especially Peter Brook’s and Jean-Claude Carrière’s adaptation of the Indian epic Mahabharata that blew the top and created an important ethical and political discussion in 1985.

Rustom Bharucha had earlier lashed on Richard Schechner and his theatre anthropology in an article in 1984 accusing Schechner of ecclectism, unethical use of traditions and appropriating rituals for personal use. Schechner responded duly by accusing Bharucha for not having read his texts thoroughly. But it was the criticism of the Mahabharata that brought Bharucha to the front line of the discussion on cultural appropriation that was taking place in preparation and performances of the religious epic that was condensed into a marketable story for international audiences. There was only one Indian actor in the multinational group. Indian performers were consulted but also put aside and promises were forgotten when the dramaturgy developed. More than two decades later, Chinese-American scholar Daphne Lei summarises the discussion by saying that the most serious mistake was its neglect of context. She continues that the production was collaboration between the contemporary maestro and the great ancient epic, collaboration between the Western present and the Eastern past, not a collaboration between himself and contemporary Indian people and culture.

Even in the peak of interculturalism, there were Western attempts and approaches that aimed for more dialogical and equal co-operation between performance cultures. One of these was Eugenio Barba’s ”third theatre” with its bartering ideology. The Western performers went to different countries and locations bringing their own wares trading them with the local offerings. There was also an attempt to find common basic, pre-expressive, features from ”Eurasian” performance traditions.

Hybrid and Pan-Asian Productions in Global World

As the term ‘interculturalism’ became loaded with slightly suspicious and orientalist tint, scholars and artists started to seek other words for describing the constantly increasing repertoire of productions that mixed different traditions and performers from Asian and Western countries. ‘Multicultural’ and ‘transcultural’ were some options. Also term ‘intracultural’ was used to define performances that used different traditions in a particular culture. ‘Hybrid’ performance was one option and the term ‘intervowedness’ was coined up in Berlin where one of the most prolific historians of ‘interculturalism’ in performance, Erika Fischer-Lichte established an International Research Centre for Interweaving Performance Cultures in 2008.

The terms started to reflect global environment where Europe and U.S.A. were not unquestioned centres of performance world and funding sources. Japanese directors Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa gained international fame with their productions based on Greek tragedies and Shakespeare’s plays, starting already in 1970’s (Suzuki’s Trojan Women 1974; Ninagawa’s Medeia in 1978). They boldly combined both intracultural materials and international elements into entities that would appeal to global audiences, as did Karanth (King Lear and Macbeth in yakshagana style) and Garnad (kathakali Lear) in India.

Another, more recent, trend is Pan-Asian performance. The term ‘Pan-Asian’ is not without historical load. It was an essential part of Japanese war propaganda when Japan aimed for military hegemony in Eastern Asia during WW II. In contemporary performance, however, it connotes performances that are created in different Asian countries using different Asian cultural traditions and performers in same production. Good examples are Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen’s works (Lear 1996; Desdemona 2000; Trojan Women in Korea 2016) or Hiroshi Koike’s Bridge Project (at some point called also Pan-Asian Theatre that has tapped, for example, into Mahabharata with a mixed Asian cast and Balinese theatre). Under Pan-Asian category belongs also the 2009 production in which the famous kabuki onnagata role player Tamasaburō played the leading female role, nandan, in Chinese kunqu opera classic The Peony Pavillion in China. It would be naïve to think that Pan-Asian collaborations are always successful and without traits of cultural exploitation from one part or another but there is no denying that they have brought a new level to the discussion on flows between performance cultures.