Writing a Dance on Stone, Part 2: The Gorshey Tibetan Folk Dance

- through Francois Leclercq

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Standardization, codification and notation are ways of consecrating the culture of dance. There are many examples in history. At the same time, these same efforts to unify, categorize, and develop authoritative systems can have a chilling effect: the fossilization of a living being, the watering down of nuanced distinctions in favor of a recognized generalized form. The case of a Tibetan folk dance called Gorshey provides an example of a very ancient dance: fast and furious; danced to a percussive eight-beat rhythm that quickens with each successive section; in suits with extremely long sleeves; creating a unique and flamboyant spectacle on the landscape where the dance takes place. Songs accompany these dances, performed by men and women singing together in a call-and-response fashion. Historically, Gorshey was sung and danced by participants. Nowadays, all kinds of recorded music are used.

Today, the Gorshey folk dance has become somewhat controversial as a sign of Tibetan political resistance, and its practice is banned in some places, both inside and outside the historic region of Tibet. Gor means circle, and elle means dance, aptly describing the circular formation of the dancers as they hold hands. Gorshey's origins are debated, but he appears to predate recorded history, traveling easily over a wide area of ​​historic Tibet.

Gorshey is a social dance deeply rooted in Tibetan culture, performed during various celebrations, such as festivals, weddings and religious gatherings. It promotes community spirit, joy and shared experience, transcending individual differences and uniting participants in a common rhythm, a lively dance, a frolic. Gorshey is a joyful dance.

The dancers move in a circle counterclockwise, with varying steps and formations, depending on the region and occasion. The basic step involves hopping on one foot followed by stepping with the other, often accompanied by arm swinging gestures and chanting. Different communities have their own styles and variations, adding unique flavors to the dance. For example, some incorporate acrobatic elements, while others emphasize complex footwork. Some of the first films made in Tibet by Westerners depict raucous Gorshey dances. Botanist Joseph Rock (1884-1962) made excellent films about the Gorshey dances.

Gorshey Tibetan folk dance. From globaltwincities.com

Although China recognizes and promotes various ethnic dances, including Gorshey, concerns exist over potential homogenization, appropriation, and standardization initiatives by the Chinese government, such as the incorporation of ballet techniques. These could, even if inadvertently based on noble motives, erase the specific cultural nuances and meanings embedded in the dance. In fact, some efforts in dance notation may contribute to cultural erasure. A cultural dance should have an influence on the participating cultures, not on a dominant power.

The situation Gorshey finds himself in today is a long-standing one and is a complex story of dance, national initiatives, and the adoption of Western modalities of dance, dance research, and dance notation. It is important to remember that modern China is not that ancient. The establishment of national dance policies, ethnic policies and labels, as well as an arts system that trains artists nationally, emerged in the 20th century.

Among the most influential figures in the development of the modern Chinese dance establishment was a most unusual dancer and scholar, Eileen Issac, a Trinidadian national, born into a Chinese expatriate family and whose mother had enrolled her to ballet lessons at the age of seven. At age 15, she moved to London, where she studied with top classical ballet dancers, including Sir Anton Dolin; in creative choreography, Dame Marie Rambert; and finally with a German master of raw expressionism in choreography, Kurt Joos, famous as a mentor to the late, great Pina Bausch.

Ballerina Dai Ailian, pioneer of Western dance practices in modern China. On china.org

Some time after entering the London dance scene, Issac changed her name to Dai Ailian, an invented Chinese name most likely suggested by Dolin as more exotic and useful on stage as a dancer, and emphasizing her Chinese genetics. It was at this same time that a talented Irish dancer named Edris Stannus joined the Ballet Russe, becoming Ninette de Valois. Dame Ninette then founded the Royal Ballet. Dai Ailian, a formidable force in the development of modern Chinese dance culture, built her reputation on a fake Chinese stage name given to her by a ballet director in London. This symbolizes much of what is problematic about Dai Ailian and his pioneering, if misguided, efforts to build a national Chinese dance culture. It also shows a China ready to embrace Western ideas in dance, dance research and performance.

This larger topic is too broad for this article, so I'll jump straight to Dai Ailian who is leading a national survey and recording of folk dances for China. Words matter. Citizens of regions that are home to what China now calls its "56 ethnic minorities" do not consider themselves China's ethnic minorities. This was the construction used by Dai Ailian. She writes about Gorshey – obviously a very ancient Tibetan dance – as something that grew out of Chinese dances of the Tang dynasty (618-907). This is a pure fabrication, and as such it is doubly confusing. The subject of the influence of Tang Dynasty dance on the rest of Asia is a brilliant and unexplored one. Here it is presented as an assertion, a rationalization, as national propaganda about the origins of the dance, appropriating Tibetan dances as essentially Chinese. Dai Ailian (Eileen Issac) accepts him unconditionally – something a stranger could possibly do; something that a member of that ethnic group and culture would likely take issue with in a recording of their own dances.

Without putting too fine a point on it: a Trinidadian using an almost vaudevillian name, Dai Ailian, recorded the Tibetan Gorshey dance as a vestige of the Chinese Tang dynasty, in fact as a Chinese folk dance, part of China's 56 ethnic minorities. How legitimate can this be? And she used Labanotation, a system close to Western musical notation, invented by the designer Rudolf von Laban, during Ailian's young training. These records still exist and are complete recordings of Gorshey's dances in that they are recorded from start to finish, music included, accompanied by cultural notes, however biased.

Labanotation score for Tibetan folk dance by Dai Ailian, 1983. From ickl.org

One criticism of Labanotation is that it is fundamentally incommensurable with Asian dances, given that it is a Western mechanistic method. This is a parallel critique of Western musical notation used to transcribe non-Western music. The Chinese government is not interested in spiritual elements and therefore this mechanistic account of the dance was deemed appropriate. It standardizes and, at the same time, neutralizes the dances. Furthermore, it has become a way of codifying history; to own the dances.

Nowadays, Labanotation is mainly used in legal cases of copyright disputes; with the Labanotation record presented as evidence, proving ownership of a dance. Where China defines the dance in a way that the Tibetans would not define, they at the same time produce a mechanistic recording of their own that proves all their claims by becoming a historical document. The Chinese have long believed in the power of written records of history. Chinese culture has recognized the power of dance perhaps more than any other country. Writing dance history is a powerful path to appropriation.

These problems related to Tibetan folk dance have no parallel with those of Buddhist monastic dances. cham dances, which have been spared the treatment of folk dances. Although cham is regulated in China, as is religion, dance has not been reduced to something it is not. Cham is not part of secular dance performances as is the case in Mongolia.

The Gorshey dance still makes headlines because its public performance is banned in Chinese cities and, in some former Tibetan-majority regions, banned as an unauthorized public gathering. All in all, this is a kind of cultural erasure. The creation of a promotional UNESCO-style national dance, on a proscenium stage, face to face, in flashy costumes, danced by professional ballet-trained dancers from an archaic Tibetan folk dance that embodies the Tibetan identity is a strategic means of homogenizing, diluting, relabeling, exploiting and erasing a culture.

Choreographer Mark Bankin. Image courtesy of Mark Bankin.

In 2018, New York dancer Mark Bankin visited and then attended Beijing Minority University to study folk dances. It was there that he met Tibetan teachers of Tibetan culture and saw his first Gorshey dance at an impromptu outdoor performance in Beijing. He was struck by the characteristics of the dance and noticed the tensions between practitioners of ethical dances and the Chinese government. He became determined to record Gorshey himself, so that his version – which did not draw on the same Chinese ideals – could offer a counter-recording.

“Grandma dances” in China. From springwise.com

A word about China's obsessive control over dance expression. With an investigation and initiative to record the dances, it is only a few steps away from codifying the permitted versions of the dances, and from there, not far from making certain dances legal and illegal. The example of “grandmother's dances” in China is quite valid. Grandma dances are a popular description for simple, fun dances performed in outdoor groups in major cities, accompanied by cheerful music and enjoyed by older people. Quite pleasant. Over time, these gatherings became louder, the music wilder and more impactful, and the elderly more adamant about their right to dance together. Naturally, creativity flourished and grandmas began to invent their own grandma dances with new music and more varied choreography. The events became increasingly noisy and generated more complaints. . . until the national government intervenes and prohibits the creation of new grandmother's dances. He went further by introducing a series of government-sanctioned grandmother dances – I think there were 12 – taught on video by a nice enough guy wearing what looked like a computer technician's suit. airport. It is not at all an exaggeration to understand Chinese dance and ethnic policy as a policy of domination and erasure through homogenization and standardization.

Page from a Gorshey Dance Labanotation by Mark Bankin. Bankin transcribed 15 different Gorshey dances. Image courtesy of Mark Bankin
Page from a Gorshey Dance Labanotation by Mark Bankin. Bankin transcribed 15 different Gorshey dances. Image courtesy of Mark Bankin

Bankin later received a Fulbright scholarship to study notation and apply it to Gorshey dances. He attended the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse in Paris. It was there that Bankin produced 15 Gorshey dance segment notations based on dances he had seen, recorded, and established points of contact with the Tibetan diaspora. Bankin's notations are in search of a permanent home, where they can join the historical record of scholarship around these dances.

It's almost a David and Goliath story to think that a humble New York choreographer could right the wrongs committed against cultural practices in the Chinese political sphere, nevertheless, Labanotation being a form of dance writing that can withstand stand the test of time, Future scholars will see that there was another approach: that of a fellow dancer who was amazed by a dance and wanted to be sure that it could be preserved for posterity in its glory and power original.

Gorshey Dance. From chinaculture.org
photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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