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Bringing New Vitality to Uyghur Performance: The RISE Collaborative at the Seattle Asian Art Museum

Audience and Perhat at SAAM

August 22, 2016

By Darren Byler

On a Tuesday evening in March, American and Uyghur dancers wheeled across the rough stone floor of the Seattle Asian Art Museum. They were moving to the rhythms and countermelodies of a Uyghur ecstatic tradition: the Dolan Muqam. Building slowly from an arrhythmic introduction, high and echoing around the room, gradually this form of traditional Uyghur music emerged into a full-formed twirling dance around a taut rhythm. The sound and tense rhythms that filled the room came from the voice and resonator guitar of a single man: the Uyghur rock star Perhat Khaliq.

Of course the space was also filled by a sold-out crowd, people pressed close on carpets and chairs that surrounded the room. Uyghurs had come from all over the state. They came from Portland and Vancouver. They came to celebrate Uyghur music and dance. They came to see Khaliq and the RISE collaboration – an experimental performance and video piece conceptualized by the American visual artist Lisa Ross in creative partnership with Uyghur ethnomusicologist, traditional dancer and choreographer Mukaddas Mijit. The creation of the work was made possible by a residency at the Watermill Center in rural Long Island, New York where the three artists came together from France and China. It was Khaliq’s first visit to the United States and after his longstanding friendship with Mijit, it was the first time the two had created a new work together.

Mukaddas Mijit preforming

Surrounded by dancers from the Indah Walsh Dance Company, Uyghur ethnomusicologist, traditional dancer and choreographer Mukaddas Mijit performs during the RISE Collaborative at SAAM. | Photo by Adrienne Dwyer

In New York, Ross invited Indah Walsh, a New York City-based contemporary dancer and choreographer, and members of the Indah Walsh Dance Company to join. Together with Mijit and Khaliq, the eight performers produced a series of stunning performances of video, music and dance that culminated in the Seattle premiere of the work.

The evening began with a short video work created by Ross in the Uyghur oasis city of Turpan. Shot in the early morning hours in the heat of summer, the film, which was edited by Monica Gillette, drew viewers into the intimacy of Uyghur public life. In the summer, people in Turpan sleep outdoors on their roofs in order to escape the heat. In Ross’s film Rise, the inspiration for the collaboration itself, we see Uyghurs awakening to the world, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, picking up their blankets and beginning their day.

In the dance performances that followed, these scenes of intimacy were reformulated, building slowly from waking scenes to a recitation of Uyghur Sufi poetry from the great poet Meshrep, until they burst into a crescendo with the ecstatic Dolan Muqam and then resolving in a Uyghur lullaby sung by Mijit.

As Khaliq performed the long traditional dance piece, the dancers invited the audience on to the dance floor. Within seconds dozens of Uyghurs and other members of the audience were dancing in pairs and tight circles. This was music that was an intimate part of Uyghur lives – something that they knew almost instinctively. The effervescence of their response to the music was contagious – soon everyone was on the dance floor.

RISE collaboration at Seattle

Watch the collaboration here!

In a discussion at the Ellison Center the day before this performance, Khaliq had noted the way this music became a part of his life. He said that when he was seven or eight years old he had gone to see the first great Uyghur rock star Ekhmetjan perform his version of the Uyghur classical Sufi music on electric guitar. This experience had a profound effect on him; he immediately wanted to learn how to play guitar in the same way. Over time he came to understand that the intimacy and vitality with which Ekhmetjan played within traditional rhythms is what attracted him to this sort of music. Going electric was a way of bringing tradition into the present.

As he discovered rock and blues music Khaliq said he felt a strong resonance with feelings generated by traditional music like Dolan Muqam. He said that when he watched ZZ Top perform, he felt that the way Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons entered into a trance state of ecstatic movement was something similar to the way he felt when he plays Dolan Muqam. As he pantomimed the movement of shoulders moving to the beat of the blues, he noted the analogous embodied movement of Uyghur farmer-musicians in the Dolan area of Southern Xinjiang. To him there was something universal about the power of music to move humans into states of rapture and reverie.

ISE video project during a panel discussion in Thomson Hall

Visual artist Lisa Ross (right) talks about her RISE video project during a panel discussion in Thomson Hall, Spring 2016. The panelists joining Ross, from left, are: interpreter and English PhD Candidate Mutallip Anwar, Uyghur rock star Perhat Khaliq, moderator and University of Kansas Professor Arienne M. Dwyer, ethnomusicologist Mukaddas Mijit. | Photo by Valentina Petrova

Mijit also spoke about the way tradition is something that can be known and performed intimately. She spoke of the way Sufism was infused in her home community in Northwest China through music and dance, but also through the stories people told. Her own grandmother, who she has featured in short film called Rahime, had also participated in this tradition. In the film, life itself comes to be seen as a practice, infused with mythology.

For Ross, coming to Uyghur traditions as an outsider gave her a way of framing the vitality of Uyghur worlds. Her earlier projects have focused on Sufi shrines in the deserts of Xinjiang. Through that work she came to appreciate the way traditions and rituals can give life to objects and spaces. Her video work on the moment of awaking in public spaces in Turpan, thus could be read as an extension of her interest in the way the animating presence of Uyghur traditions fill spaces with unique forms of vitality. Beds on roofs invert the dichotomy often placed between the public and private making us reconsider ideas of community and intimacy.

Khaliq ended the evening at SAAM with a special encore performance of songs he had sung on The Voice of China. The audience gathered around him on the floor, crowding in to get as close as they could. They knew just how special it was to be in the presence of such a vital performer of Uyghur living traditions.

As the jury for the Prince Claus Award had noted in 2015: Khaliq has breathed “new life into traditional Uyghur musical forms, both conserving and extending this unique cultural heritage” and he has brought “his music beyond his community … demonstrating that music can be used to communicate authentically with millions of people … bridging culture differences, touching people’s hearts and minds.”

That evening at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, the RISE Collaborative had taken up this spirit as well. We all felt it. We were in the presence of something special. As Khaliq sang his last songs, a little Uyghur-American girl, with a look of awe on her face, whispered nearby, “Hey! I know that one.”

Audience and Perhat at SAAM

Perhat Khaliq speaks to the audience at SAAM before performing songs from his time on The Voice of China. | Photo by Lisa Ross