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Culture

Transcending Cultural Borders

Berlin is playing host to dance, theater, music and video artists from five continents in the one of the largest experimental performance festivals bridging the gap between different cultures and arts.

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Dancer Sophiatou Kossoko performs during "The Global Soul -The Buddha Project" by director Ong Keng Sen.

From a trans-African company of ritual dancers swaying on bamboo poles, a shrill drag show by a Samoan ensemble to a theater piece inspired by the Buddha, the performance festival "In Transit" at Berlin’s House of World Cultures offers a heady mix of cultures.

Held for the second time in Berlin’s landmark "pregnant oyster" building near the Tiergarten, this year’s festival takes place under the motto, "Customs: Nothing to Declare." Starting on May 30, the festival offers dancers, musicians and other performing artists from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Australia and America the opportunity to meet with European counterparts, watch each other perform, conduct workshops and eventually create new artistic forms of expression.

"Bringing different perspectives to Berlin"

Artistic director of the festival, Singaporean-born Ong Keng Sen (photo), acclaimed for his cross-cultural work, says this year’s motto is a reference to the wildly-divergent cultural contexts and artistic backgrounds. Many of the festival’s participating artists are newcomers to the European cultural scene.

Porträt Ong Keng Sen, Kurator IN TRANSIT 2003

Ong Keng Sen

"For me the festival In Transit is about bringing different perspectives from other parts of the world to Berlin, and hopefully this will cause some reflection about art, art-making, culture and the politics surrounding expression in the city of Berlin," the slim, dapper director told Deutsche Welle.

Keng Sen, who is the show’s curator for the second year, rose to fame in Germany in 1999 with his pan-Asiatic, culture-transcending theater production of "Lear". His motto of making work with an international dimension and relevance has brought him attention at art festivals and cultural events throughout Asia, Australia, Europe and the U.S.

Steering away from stereotypical thinking

This year, Keng Sen is presenting a new show called "The Global Soul-The Buddha Project" which deals with contemporary urban travelers in search of contact and identity; they are citizens of "jet-lag city," a reference to the mobility of our times. The show is inspired by Gautama Buddha’s search for enlightenment, and features dancers and singers from five cultures, China, Korea, Thailand, Senegal and Sweden woven in a taut kaleidoscopic tapestry.

Keng Sen believes it is important for a non-European curator to manage the Berlin festival. "If you have a European curator for something like this, he’ll usually treat the stuff to cater to European taste and merely reinforce categories. Whereas I think this is a kind of shock for the European public because we are jumbling up categories like say portraying a Chinese opera singer in a Adidas tracksuit in ‘Global Soul’."

Africa to Samoa to New York

The festival opens with a dance performance by avant-garde African dancer and composer Koffi Koko, an acclaimed representative of the contemporary African dance scene. Entitled "The Leaves that Resist the Wind," the performance featuring artists from Benin, Nigeria and Burkina Faso has undercurrents of West African slavery and voodoo rituals. Another highlight is a cabaret by a Samoan ensemble that fuses traditional island culture with contemporary fashion, sounds and visuals and focuses on the Fa’ afafine (Samoan for "like a woman"), the well-accepted third sex of Samoa.

A focus at the festival this year is New York as a melting pot, which readily absorbs new cultures, attitudes and perspectives. Keng Sen explains why the city was chosen: "Germany is a very homogenous culture, very different from New York where you are embraced exactly because you are a foreigner and the fact that you bring in exciting perspectives. It’s a place where the ‘other’ is welcome."

Focusing on Berlin's foreign fabric

Ping Chong, renowned director, script-writer, choreographer and installation artist from New York’s Asia-American art scene, will be interviewing ordinary foreigners in Berlin for his project "Undesirable Elements" and then gleaning a performance text from the interviews which the individuals will perform as an ensemble.

The program "Remapping Berlin" will see different DJs from Berlin’s foreign community, from Turkey to India, come together to form a new club for the festival, one that will respond to the notion of Berlin as a city in transit. Keng Sen explains that it’s where "the underground foreign forces of a city meet that the most exciting things emerge."

The curator is clear that the festival is all about breaking down the widespread attitude that works of art from other cultures are "exotic." Keng Sen says, "The first question people ask is ‘is this art or is this about cultural exchange?’. For me it’s talking about your culture and your ethnicity in a way where it transcends and goes beyond community expression to become art."

The festival "In Transit - Customs: Nothing to Declare" is on till June 16, 2003 at the House of World Cultures in Berlin.

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