Nearly 100 participants across 8 schools and institutions
Aimed to extend the American values of inclusion, individual empowerment and freedom of expression to a diverse group, ranging from classically trained ballet dancers at one end of the spectrum to wheel-chair bound and cognitively impaired students at the other
Conducted by a team of seven comprising Artistic Director, Jonathan Hollander; Production Designer, G. Benjamin Swope; and Battery’s dancers, each of whom double as teaching artists and choreographers: Sean Scantlebury, Robin Cantrell, Mira Cook, Bethany Mitchell and Razvan Stoian.
Battery Dance carried out its acclaimed Dancing to Connect program in the South Korean city of Gwangju over nine days in February, 2017. The program was conceived of and supported by the U.S. Embassy Seoul and its local partner, Asia Culture Center, one of Asia’s newest and most well-equipped centers for the arts. This was the Embassy’s first collaboration with ACC and benefited from the meticulous preparation, care and handling that was invested which ensured the successful outcomes that were reached.
The mission of the program was ambitious: applying the American values of inclusion, individual empowerment and freedom of expression to a diverse group ranging from classically trained ballet dancers at one end of the spectrum to wheel-chair bound and cognitively impaired students at the other. The Company worked with North Korean defectors, some of whom had never attended school during their complicated young lives. They also worked with ‘mail-order brides’ from the Philippines. Most striking about the program was the fact that these groups were mixed, pairing abled and disabled, mainstream and NK defectors, South Korea-born with new arrivals. The variety of experiences entwining created something quite special, and it is safe to say that there was not a dry eye in the packed audience at the Asia Culture Center during the final performance of the program.
One of the side goals of the program was to help the disparate schools and community groups in Gwangju engage with the ACC. In meetings that took place in November, 2016, as a precursor to the program, Senior Cultural Affairs Specialist Eun Kyong Choi and Battery Dance Artistic Director Jonathan Hollander heard from several sources that the ACC was inaccessible to the community. Certainly that was not the case during the week that Dancing to Connect took place; ACC could not have been more generous with the provision of two beautiful dance studios and a state-of-the-art theater, along with thoroughly professional technical staff. The presence of ACC President Mr. Bang Sun-Gyu at the final performance and his adulatory response to the program may be a harbinger for better times to come with regard to community outreach programs by the ACC.
There were make unique aspects of this program. Ms. Choi wisely engaged the support of five Embassy interns, some veterans of previous years, and others finishing out their terms of service. These young people jumped into the program with fervor and impressive language skills. One even translated from Chinese since most of the NK Defectors had lived much of their life in China and had limited Korean (and no English) to draw upon. In that particular group, led by Mira Cook, it was common to hear English, Korean and Chinese being spoken simultaneously during the workshops!
One of the most striking elements of the program was the achievement of the disabled students whose parents were deeply involved in the program, coming every day and sitting through the 4-hour-long workshops. It became apparent that the parents had anticipated a very ‘lite’ experience for their children; certainly not the highly physical, deeply immersive program that Robin conducted. To see students whose mobility appeared to be severely limited, even in pedestrian mode, actually dancing and focusing 150% on complex movement sequences, was truly heart-rending, and the parents were often wiping tears as they watched their children exceed all expectation. A short video clip may be found here.
The night of the final performance followed a day of snow and foul weather, so everyone was concerned about the turnout, despite excellent media attention and signage. The ACC has yet to establish a robust schedule and a loyal fan base and thus the Embassy staff and Battery Dance were trepidatious as to how many bodies would fill the seats and cheer on the students. However, these concerns were unwarranted. The theater was filled to capacity and the opening speech by Chargé d’Affaire's ad interim Marc Knapper was enthusiastically received.
Gwangju Metropolitan Ballet Company’s artistic director, Ms. Shin soon-ju, thrilled with the opportunity her dancers had been given to be stretched in their thinking, technique and mode of movement through the work with Battery Dance’s Sean Scantlebury, expressed her interest in having him return to choreograph a longer work for her dancers in the future. While the Company was in Gwangju, one of the ballet dancers was selected to perform a solo role in Battery Dance’s choreography, proPULSion, and executed it beautifully with only three rehearsals.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, Curtis Chin, a member of Battery Dance’s International Advisory Board and a frequent writer of OpEd pieces in the international news media, flew in to witness the last day of workshops and the performance at the Asia Culture Center. He subsequently posted an article on the importance of cultural diplomacy and cited the Dancing to Connect program as a powerful example. Our third tour to South Korea again proved the continual importance of developing cross cultural understanding: challenging preconceptions, building bridges, empowering one another. Working, collaborating and creating in Gwangju provided impactful experiences for all parties involved.