In an interdisciplinary event that merged dance, spoken word and foreign policy, Dance Diplomacy with Battery Dance NYC delivered captivating performances and a riveting discussion on the role of art in public diplomacy, specifically with regard to the Middle East and Islamophobia in America. The event took place in the Wallis Annenberg Auditorium last Friday and featured dancer Hussein Smko, journalist Riyadh Mohammed, Battery Dance founder and artistic director Jonathan Hollander and Annenberg professor of public diplomacy Nick Cull.
Hollander and Cull, who is also the director of Annenberg’s Master of Public Diplomacy Program, gave opening remarks and explained their shared goal of bringing people and culture into the foreign policy process. Since founding Battery Dance in Lower Manhattan 41 years ago, Hollander has promoted the company’s double mission of artistic excellence and social relevance. In 2006, he launched Dancing to Connect, a program that uses dance to build international relationships and is on track to send dance teachers to a total of 60 countries by the end of 2017.
Hollander’s focus on Islamophobia and the Muslim experience began in 2012 when the program expanded to Iraq, and a longtime Baghdad-based student who took lessons over Skype was killed in a bombing. From this student, a network of dancers in the Middle East began to expand.
“Each one of our stories has to do with meeting people who then introduce us to other people,” Hollander said. “The whole process is organic; none of it is strategic. It’s why we have the ambition and passion to keep pursuing this wonderful dream.”
Following Hollander’s introduction, Smko performed a piece he had choreographed titled “Echoes of Erbil,” a tribute to his home city of Erbil, Iraq. He opened by singing a Kurdish song about the motherland and loss before launching into a deeply personal routine that expressed his often polarizing experiences of living in both Erbil and New York City. Treating his own hands as foreign objects, Smko engaged in a physical banter that represented his own internal dialogue as a Muslim immigrant.
“The thought behind the choreography is about life in Erbil and the person I was there versus the person I am here,” Smko said. “With my hands and gestures, it’s like talking to yourself, in a sense.”
Mohammed took the stage next and shared three spoken word memoirs about growing up in a war-torn Iraq, from how he nurtured his love for film to how his high school was shut down amid the contentious political climate. He also spoke on his personal struggles in moving to America and coming to terms with the discriminatory implications of his foreign-sounding name.
Smko then returned for a second performance that conveyed what a person goes through during wartime — Smko himself said h has been through five wars — and how one copes with trauma. The piece was rife with aggressive movements that imparted a sense of urgency and angst.
“There are all these ways in which a dance company can activate a relationship and communication with different audiences,” Hollander said in the subsequent panel discussion. “Being so involved in Arab countries, we feel very comfortable with the Muslim world. But we don’t think about [our differences]. For us, the communication is very fluent through dance.”
Finally, Cull led a panel discussion with Hollander about the nature of the global political environment and his personal involvement in fighting discrimnation against Muslims.
“I felt the need to speak out against certain values,” Hollander said. “As someone who travels the world as an ambassador of America … I think my role is more in the country, to speak to Americans about the truth that I know about human beings.”