Performing arts and music as a bridge for cultural understanding
Article by Aleenah Ansari, Feb 27, 2017
On Saturday night, the stage of Meany Hall was full of Bollywood performers from UW Kahaani who shifted between Bharatanatyam, a classical dance form from South India, to a hip hop section featuring the Kanye West track “Mercy.” The audience was packed with students, alumni, and community members representing cultures from around the world who gathered to celebrate the diversity of the UW community through the annual CulturalFest Performance Showcase.
This event is hosted each year by the Foundation for International Understanding Through Students (FIUTS), an on-campus organization that strives to connects students of all backgrounds and focuses on empowering people to be experts of their own culture.
“FIUTS’ mission is to connect local and global communities,” FIUTS executive director Era Schrepfer said. “We feel like it’s important to provide a lot of different opportunities for people to meet each other in the spirit of engaging individuals in cross-cultural dialogue that is geared toward seeking understanding.”
FIUTS fosters active community participation by offering over 200 events a year that range from culture conversation groups to trips to nearby Portland. The Performance Showcase is an opportunity for FIUTS to share its work with the broader community through performances that provide a more holistic understanding of culture not found through a webpage or book.
This year, the FIUTS student board hoped to diversify the representation onstage by including performances from places that hadn’t been represented in past showcases, like Mongolia, Ethiopia, Hawai’i, and Malaysia.
“I want people to learn more about the diversity and different cultures that are here, but I also hope that people who have a unique heritage can feel like their cultures are represented,” said Kyki Li, co-chair of the FIUTS Performance Showcase committee. “I hope that people see that others value the diversity in different cultures and feel more confident in their culture, preserve it, and be proud of it.”
Although culture and identity are very nuanced topics, UW senior Saki Uwagawa, a co-chair for the Performance Showcase committee, believes that performances and visual art are effective outlets that allow people to engage with cultural traditions while increasing their international understanding of other cultures.
“You don’t need language [because] it’s through visuals, and that’s why I think it’s very powerful,” Uwagawa said. “It’s a great way to bring people together and introduce people to our community.”
To help audience members gain some context about the performers’ cultures, most performances were prefaced by a short introduction or interview video with a few of the performers.
“We really value the introduction videos because that’s where a lot of the background information and story comes in,” Li said. “After people watch them, they will understand the performance on a different level, and hopefully through the lens of people who are practicing them.”
In addition to providing an outlet for sharing tradition and culture, the CulturalFest performances can allow students to see themselves represented in the students on stage. This was true for Christine Wolf, a UW senior studying math and computer science who has regularly attended the Performance Showcase since her freshman year.
“[My family] was connected to Chinese culture, but I still had a fairly Americanized upbringing. I always enjoy coming here and being able to see how culture is reflected through people who have been brought up in a more traditional setting,” Wolf said. “It allows me to see where my background comes from. I still experienced it, but not to that degree when I was growing up, so I always enjoy seeing other people embrace and represent it.”
Students on stage are proud to share their culture and tradition, sometimes with a modern twist. Hui Hoaloha ‘Ulana, a Hawaiian dance group whose name translates to “a group woven together in friendship,” performed hula kahiko, a more traditional form of hula characterized by chanting and drum beats, as well as hula ‘auana, a modern form of hula characterized by the use of string instruments. In the introductory video, UW student and group member Sarah Nishikawa invited attendees to notice the differences between the traditional and modern dance styles, particularly related to the costume changes. Contrastingly, some groups like Yingyue focused on maintaining the tradition of their Chinese dance through their costuming and inspiration from a traditional Chinese poem.
“I like to see when the groups put a really interesting spin on their culture,” Wolf said. “The ones that are a blend of the modern and ancient styles, or taking something they already know and putting a new spin on it, is really cool to see.”
The event is meant to capture and create community by encouraging people to learn from each other.
“We need to look to people who come from other places as opportunities to learn and grow as people, and stretch our understanding of what the world means,” Era said. “It reinforces the things that make us the same, but also celebrates the things that makes us different.”
If students are interested in getting involved with FIUTS, the FIUTS office in HUB 206 is a great place to learn more about future FIUTS events and engage with people from different perspectives.
“At the end of the day, we all want to belong somewhere,” said Siddharth Rath, a UW Ph.D student and emcee for the night. “FIUTS facilitates that in a big way for those of us who come from a variety of cultures.”
Reach reporter Aleenah Ansari at email@example.com. Twitter: @aleenah_ansari
Thank you to the following sponsors for their support of FIUTS CulturalFest 2017!