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How the Language of Dance and Movement Transcends Cultures

The award-winning choreographer and Lion King dancer talks about his plans for a new work celebrating Omani and East African cultures

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Ray Mercer, a New York-based dancer and choreographer, will develop a new dance performance for Smithsonian as part of the Museum of African Art's groundbreaking partnership with the Sultanate of Oman.

Ray Mercer is one busy man. The award-winning dancer and choreographer is currently juggling nine commissions across the country, serving as resident choreographer of Howard University's dance department and performing six days a week in Broadway's The Lion King. From now until April, he is spending his days off in Washington, D.C., developing a new dance performance to celebrate the African Art Museum's recently announced educational initiative, "Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean: From Oman to East Africa."

The project is funded by a $1.8 million gift from the Sultanate of Oman—the largest gift in the museum's history—and will encompass exhibitions, visual and performing arts, lecture series and other public programs to explore the historical and cultural linkages between Oman and East Africa. The multi-year partnership will kick off in 2014, as museum kicks off the celebration of its 50th anniversary.

Mercer's group dance piece will debut in April 2014, interpreting elements of Omani and East African cultures through a personal lens. We spoke with the choreographer to find out more about the work in progress.

Were you familiar with the cultures of Oman and East Africa before you took on the project?

When I was first asked [to choreograph] by the Museum of African Art, I wasn’t too familiar with Oman culture, so it was a little bit daunting—and still is. I was excited but apprehensive at first. I’m learning about the culture and the history behind it. Now I’m having a great time!

How are you going about the research?

I work with archivists at Howard University who’ve been doing a lot of the research into Oman and East African culture. I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I feel like I’m in history class all over again! But the most important thing for me is to be clear that I am a choreographer. A lot of this would just be my interpretation of some of the historical events and cultural things that I’ve run across, because in my opinion they could have went to Oman and brought back dancers and done the traditional thing. I just wanted to take certain aspects of Oman and East African culture and do it through my eyes, choreographically, while being very sensitive to their culture. It’s important to me that this is not me trying to recreate traditional folk dances.

What are some of the cultural elements you plan to incorporate? Why did they jump out at you?

What I decided to do is love and marriage and death, things that we mourn, things that we celebrate. What could I do that wouldn’t be a history lesson but still could be entertaining, that when the audience walked away they could be moved? I thought about it for a while and I said, well, the things that tie us are the humanistic things.

I decided to do one of the rituals—the initiation of women, the rite of passage for women. Death is another [element]; in Oman, they celebrate or mourn the dead in a ritual called Dan. I want to create a piece surrounding that. Also, wedding, a celebratory thing where two people come together. The last one I’m still debating, going back and forth, doing the research and working on it.

What’s your process for distilling culture into choreography?

One of the most difficult things that you have to do is know the history and approach it in a way that’s very sensitive to their culture. I have to realize and take into consideration the do’s and don’ts of costuming, music, certain prayer dances. As a choreographer I’m used to doing exactly what it is I want to do. I go in with a commission and here’s my idea and I set it on the dancers. Now I really have to be sensitive about what I do, historically.

So the costuming, the set, the music, the rituals all have to be authentic, but the movements of the dancers are all your own?

Exactly. The movement, the aesthetic, the style is all my own. But in that same framework, I want to be sensitive to the culture.

I also want to tie all this together. I’ll have a narrator who will introduce each dance with background on the particular piece, the movement, the culture. It’s going to take you through a journey, telling a story.

What do you feel dance conveys about these cultures that other art forms can’t?

In cultures around the world, you find dance that celebrates so much. It celebrates life, it celebrates death. It’s celebratory. When you can’t talk, you can dance. That's what connects us as human beings. Hopefully I will be able to do that in the evening of work that I’ve planned.

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