prev   home   next
    Cultural Differences and the Dynamics of Collaboration



Internationalizing New Work in the Performing Arts created a laboratory—decentralized at seven sites across country—for exploring issues of cultural difference in collaborative work. It was anticipated that the collaborations that brought together U.S.-based artists and artists from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Mexico could produce any number of outcomes: the identification of common ground, the forging of new artistic territory, or the recognition that there was no basis or possibility for collaboration.

The work of the initiative revealed that cultural difference manifests in a variety of ways, often complex and multi-layered. Five key findings emerged concerning cultural differences in the dynamics of collaboration, which are discussed in the pages that follow:

  • Finding #1: Definitions of collaboration—and perceptions concerning its inherent value—vary across cultures and communities of interest.
  • Finding #2: The sources of cultural difference in an international collaboration are often unanticipated. Gender, age, class, personality, and artistic discipline can be as significant as geography and culture in determining project outcomes.
  • Finding #3: The development of translation resources must be undertaken with careful attention to issues of equity and creative flow.
  • Finding #4: Institutions have a critical role to play in creating environments where issues of cultural difference can be explored and mediated.
  • Finding #5: The commitment of artists to “the work” and to the maintenance of standards of excellence is a powerful force in sustaining collaboration and moving projects toward completion.
    Defining Collaboration

Attitudes toward collaboration differed among initiative participants. This had an impact on the expectations artists and institutions brought to the collaboration and the ways they encountered and mediated difference. A few artists questioned the very value of collaboration; most saw it as a process whose inherent value was understood and recognized.


The relative importance placed upon innovation and experimentation in a culture’s art forms appeared to have an impact on how artists approached the collaborative process. Some Asian and American initiative participants saw this as part of an East/West dynamic. The “language of collaboration” appears to be more familiar to U.S.-based artists and institutions than their Asian colleagues, observed Kathryn Libal, site ethnographer for Northwest Asian American Theatre (NWAAT). Zai Kuning, a performance/installation artist from Singapore who worked at NWAAT, said, “Collaboration is more a term of the West and America. It involves democracy…the struggle is always an artist looking for a position within the group or getting comfortable protecting themselves from things they don’t wish to do.”

Yet others advanced a seemingly opposite perspective, suggesting that collaboration is something of a lost art in the West. Judy Mitoma, director of UCLA’s Center for Intercultural Performance noted, “Collaboration comes out of a shared knowledge to achieve a goal. In some countries, everything is collaboration. In U.S. culture, with its emphasis on originality and individuality, we place less emphasis on collective collaboration.”

Whatever perspectives artists brought to the collaboration, the process was continually under negotiation in terms of artistic vision, process, and final product. “Defining collaboration continues to be difficult,” noted Libal. “Cooperation, sharing, trust, compromise, willingness to listen are key components to the collaborative spirit.”


Power issues surfaced frequently during collaborations, and this more often had to do with artistic discipline than it did with cultural differences. When processes of creation within a particular artistic discipline confer specific degrees of authority, this needs to be acknowledged and negotiated at the outset.

A case in point was Balseros, an operatic work co-commissioned by Miami-Dade Community College, Cultural Affairs with the Florida Grand Opera and the South Florida Composers Alliance. “In Balseros, several elements hindered the collaborative process,” noted site ethnographer Tim Bucuvalas. “Perhaps the primary problem in the collaborative process was that the two primary artists were accustomed to working in different types of theatrical models [as composer/conductor and playwright/director], each of which is governed by a different set of rules….[A]lthough the collaboration was ultimately successful…I must note that not all successful collaborations are necessarily easy.”

As projects moved toward a performance, issues of authority and control often came into sharper focus. At the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, for example, a director had to be hired from outside the collaboration to mediate authorial differences that developed between a playwright and choreographer as the production entered rehearsal. Although there was often friction and uneasiness when one person emerged as “the boss” and worries arose about how this might compromise the collaborative process, strong leadership by one individual sometimes proved to be a mechanism for insuring equitable contributions by all the partners. In the case of a five-artist collaboration supported by NWAAT, for example, the skills of the writer/director helped move the production from “fragmentation to cohesion” and created a framework in which the voice of one of the more reticent artists could be heard. “The director was able to weave text, movement, and music in a way to draw her back into the production and more fully into the project,” Libal reported.

When working across cultures, issues of disciplinary mix take on added complexities. The characteristic distinctions that Western artists often make between forms and disciplines may not apply in other cultures. In African performing arts traditions, for example, there can be a more holistic relationship among dance, music, and theatre without the confines of the Western divisions of discipline or genre. In such cases, respective roles and responsibilities must be carefully understood as the collaboration unfolds.


Many initiative participants viewed their participation within a broader political framework, and this had an impact on how both artists and institutions approached their work. Sometimes projects moved forward because something larger was at stake. “This collaborative process is a way to facilitate communication between two countries: the United States and Mexico,” said Jorge Piña, former theatre director at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. “When you have governments fighting each other but you have grassroots organizations that are working with other grassroots organizations, you see communication flowing back and forth…and communication flows faster and stronger when the arts are given the chance to speak.”

In a parallel fashion, some institutional participants structured collaboration as part of a broader agenda to achieve social cohesion within their local community. “It is about stimulating an entire ecology of arts agencies,” said Michelle Heffner Hayes about the process of bringing small and large Miami-based organizations into partnership in support of international artistic collaborations.


Artists often move toward deeper and deeper levels of commitment as they traverse “stages of encounter” that typically characterize international collaborations: encounter/commitment, exploration/negotiation, and composition/production.

Artists consistently expressed a desire to work at deeper and deeper levels once a commitment to work together was in place. Artists recognized the need to move beyond the superficial overlay of forms and the importance of not appropriating cultural forms and techniques in ways that could be construed as culturally insensitive.

“We are not cutting and pasting forms that already exist,” said Keith Terry (U.S.) about his collaboration with I Wayan Dibia (Bali). “We are developing ideas using the essence of the two forms, Kecak and Body Music…and that is the kind of thing that we must always remind ourselves: not to misrepresent the elements of the cultures. The work should speak much deeper than just putting forms together.”

Zhou Long, a performing artist from China, similarly articulated the desire to work deeply by identifying the essential “spirit” of his tradition. “During a collaboration with an international artist, the most important thing is not to express your traditional culture, but to work together. I believe that collaboration is an organic joining of forms from different cultures. When you work in international collaborations, it is more important to draw the spirit of your tradition and bring something else to explore.”

    The Working Process



Language Barriers: Basic communication among artistic participants who were not fluent in English was one of the first issues that had to be addressed during the collaborative process. While many sites used translators/interpreters, others chose to work with international artists who were bilingual and English-speaking, easing the need for constant mediation through an interpreter. Still others found that the “universal” nature of the arts obviated the need for constant interpretation during periods of artistic exchange.

Accuracy of Translation: The capabilities and accuracy of the interpreter proved to be a lynchpin for success in multi-lingual situations. “The [interpreter] has to be a faithful echo,” noted musician/performance artist María Elena Gaitán, who has also worked as a court interpreter. “The person serves as a cultural mirror. That person has to be sensitive to the culture, in both languages. Organizations must understand that there is a standard for [interpretation], and it is not your overworked bilingual secretary.”

For interpretation to be effective, interpreters must have some understanding of the performing arts and familiarity with its vocabulary. For example, when translators were not conversant with the performing arts, their translations fell short. More successful was the use of bilingual artist participants as interpreters or the use of outside interpreters who were also artists.

“Universal” Communication: Sometimes participants found they could transcend the barriers of language through their art. For example, during an APPEX rehearsal where most of the participants were Chinese speakers, the three English speakers (a Vietnamese American, a Japanese American, and a Caucasian American) reported that rich communication took place even though linguistic exchange was being carried out entirely in Chinese. “I’ll never forget the flag dance,” said a participant. “We [the English speakers] kept saying ‘What?!’ But within twenty minutes we had the dance.”

Some artists said that while not having a common language was frustrating at times, it was not an impenetrable barrier. “Language is the last barrier,” said Peng Jingquan (China), at an initiative convening. “We try to understand, respect each other by spending time together. But even when we are sitting together without any [common] language, we judge by our eyes, touch by hands. We know each other.” I Dewa Berata (Bali) similarly observed, “Language is not as important as the feeling [between artists].”

Collaborations that featured choreographers and musicians appeared more likely to “transcend” language barriers. For example, Ivonice Satie, a Japanese-Brazilian dancer/choreographer who spoke Japanese and Portuguese but little English, reported that she experienced few communication difficulties in her collaboration with two U.S.-based artists. “Dance is the language,” she said. “Transmission takes place by demonstrating, watching, repeating.”

Peng Jingquan, Owan Kiyoyuki, Higa Norihiro, Nguyen Thu Thuy and Mao Tip Moni


Fluency and Equity: A lack of fluency in English proved frustrating for even some bilingual artists. Since collaborations took place in the U.S., English invariably was the privileged language of communication. “It takes a while to think, to make the question,” noted Sen Hae Ha, a Korean dancer/choreographer. “The topic changes by the time you are ready to speak,” similarly observed Nami Yamamoto, a Japanese-born American dancer/choreographer.

This problem came into particularly sharp relief at Global Interchange, a major gathering of artists who participated in the initiative. Although there were multiple interpreters present—Spanish, French, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese—interpretation progressed slowly because interpreters were bilingual in English and one other language. Multiple series of interpretations were therefore necessary to ensure comprehension among the group. “Interpretation is a tedious process for all and affects how focused people can be,” said a participant. By the end of the three-day meeting, when artists were presenting suggestions to the Ford Foundation about future support of international collaboration, “language exhaustion” set in. “The conversations became English-centered to the extent that the bilingual English, French, and Spanish-speaking artists asked the English-speaking artists on the stage to finish reading the suggestions they were assigned to read.”

Aesthetic Differences: One of the hardest cultural issues to bridge is aesthetic difference. Reflecting on the difficulties that sometimes must be bridged in this area, Japanese composer Somei Satoh, noted, “For people from the East, music comes from silence. People from the West think music and silence are opposites. Japanese people think silence is like motherhood, the silent womb. People from the West think that silence is just silence.” Heather Hitchens of Meet The Composer found this aesthetic variation to “be key and the hardest part” in a collaboration. However, in initiative collaborations, partners who wanted to work together found something in the other’s work that drew them to the other person’s aesthetic. This aesthetic disjuncture may be more of a problem in curated collaborations where a third party brings together artists who may not be familiar with one other’s standards of what would be considered a work of artistry, beauty, or fulfillment.

Cultural Stereotypes: Initiative work caused many participants to confront stereotypes they harbored about specific cultural groups or performance traditions. An African artist said he came to the initiative assuming “all Americans cared about was money, guns, and jeans.” An artist from Malaysia said she came to the U. S. with a sense that she was coming to “the enemy camp” and only over time, as she got to know people, did she begin to “separate the American people from the American government.” An African-American artist experienced a “bolt of lighting” when he visited Haiti for the first time and had to confront his own “romantic exoticism [and] racism,” as he grappled with his preconceived notions of things African and with the “repulsion” he experienced toward third-world poverty and squalor.

Similarly, at the conclusion of an APPEX residency, an Asian artist spontaneously confessed that he had been taught to hate people from another Asian country and that throughout the residency he had studiously avoided working with two artists from this country (even though this was not apparent to participants). Choking with tears, he apologized to the artists, and they, too, wept as they all embraced.

Stereotyping also surfaced frequently around assumptions about “traditional” art forms. Traditional art forms from other cultures are often viewed as static and unchanging versus contemporary work that is seen as innovative and even improvisational. “We in the United States don’t necessarily know the difference between contemporary and traditional and how that gets defined in an African cultural context,” said Baraka Sele, an Africa Exchange primary partner. “A lot of times when we thought we were looking at traditional work, we were actually looking at contemporary work. That confusion comes because, a lot of times, contemporary artists in Africa infuse their contemporary work with traditional elements. And because we don’t really know what that means, don’t have definitions, don’t necessarily know the aesthetic, we’re often confused.”

Furthermore, the term “traditional” is often wrongly associated with “folkloric.” This confusion can be demeaning to international artists who may work in traditional genres but employ innovation and creation. “Our company doesn’t want to be bound and shackled by tradition or confused in any way as folkloric,” explained David Abílio, artistic director of the Song and Dance Company of Mozambique. “We have to reflect the present and continually reinvent ourselves.”

Equity Considerations: From the very beginning, initiative administrators were acutely aware of equity issues and worked hard to insure equity of language (through the use of translators) and equity of compensation (by configuring stipends to deal with differential taxation and cost of living).

Geographic Locale: Yet equity issues were inescapable, especially given that collaborations took place on American soil and were generally instigated by U.S.-based artists and institutions. This created what one ethnographer characterized as an “imperialistic pressure.” Almost all the grantees have worked to address this issue, trying to find ways in which at least some of the collaborative activity can take place outside the U.S.

Gender Considerations: Culturally-linked gender issues were another source of difficulty during collaborations. Africa Exchange, for example, reported that while women’s representation in the performing arts is improving in the U.S., “it is still an issue in African nations.” The ethnographic team at the GCAC also made note of gender issues, “Problems did surface between the [Chicana] playwright and the [Mexican] choreographer which the playwright attributed to culture and gender differences between herself and her Mexican colleague. Although she never confronted him on the issue, the playwright thought that the choreographer had problems with the language she used, which she termed Chicano vernacular and is characterized by frequent code switching [between English and Spanish] and borrowing [of vocabulary]. The playwright also felt her Mexican colleague had a problem with her aggressiveness.”

Generational Issues: Disparities in age were another source of power imbalance, which had a cultural dimension. For example, at UCLA’s APPEX program, when a senior Asian artist/scholar participated with a younger but highly accomplished artist from the same country, the younger artist deferred to the older one, even though the older man’s skills were much more intellectual than performative. While this was distressing to many of the American artists, this was not an issue for the younger Asian artist, who respected the hierarchy of age without resentment. This deference and lack of resentment was confusing and even maddening to some American artists.

    Finding Common Ground

Despite the many factors that had the potential to derail collaborations—including language barriers, cultural assumptions, aesthetic differences, genre differences, and the imponderables of interpersonal chemistry—many collaborators did find common ground. Commitment to the work, flexibility, ability to connect on a personal as well as an artistic level, and readiness to make extended time commitments all seemed to be important factors in moving the work forward. The facilitating role of the institution was also significant.

Commitment to the Work: The prospect of the “work”—whether it was the exploratory stages of intercultural exchange or the products that might emerge from such interactions—often inspired artists to move beyond cultural difference. “What we trusted in each other was the quality of integrity in work,” said American dancer/choreographer Victoria Marks about her collaboration with Chinese actor/playwright/director Xu Ying. “We didn’t know the context and history for each of our given gestures. What references traditional theatre forms in China for Xu Ying, is an interesting adaptation of personal narrative for me. What does happen is my habits are circumvented. I look at things with new eyes.”

Ida Ayu Wimba Ruspawati corrects Pradit Prasartthong during her workshop


Flexibility: Flexibility, the ability to listen, and mutual respect were key elements in moving a collaboration forward. According to José Manuel Galván, director of Surcos de Oro/Watered with Tears (GCAC), “The first attitude I had to adopt was to be flexible, to listen, to try to see where the designers were, where the creators were, and the producers…I think that professional respect, respect at the human level, is something that we need to touch in this process of collaboration.”

“There’s always this trepidation, going into these arranged marriages, that it’s not going to be a good fit,” said Lourdes Pérez, a Puerto Rican singer/songwriter participant in the GCAC’s final collaboration, De Viajes, Fronteras y Mariposas (Of Journeys, Borders, and Butterflies). But after she completed the collaboration with the Mexican choreographer, Serafin Apunto, she noted, “We both have definite identities as musicians and choreographers, but at the same time we have been very flexible. And I would say that the collaborative process itself is an art because it doesn’t matter how good or how definitive you are, if you don’t have the flexibility, this process won’t work. This flexibility and interest in what each one is doing is what it’s about.”

Personal Connections: When collaborators were able to make a personal connection this often facilitated their ability to come together on aesthetic issues, despite cultural and other differences. Sometimes this was accomplished when people met together in informal social settings—eating together, recreating together, and sometimes living together. “The bottom line is we got together on a very interpersonal level,” said filmmaker John Pai (U.S.) about his collaboration with dancer/choreographer Mew Chang-Tsing (Malaysia). “It was not our individual artwork that originally brought us together. It was something more hidden and something more intrinsic to each of us. It wasn’t the art form. It wasn’t light. It wasn’t dance. It wasn’t movement. In that discovery, we found similarities in our dissimilarities.”

Extended Contact: The complexities of international collaboration and the multiple levels of difference that must be traversed mandate working situations where deep levels of exchange are possible. Time—for exploration and negotiation, play and argument—is essential. Multi-stage residencies and long-term residencies were among the ways participating organizations structured activities to allow for this much-need element.

A grounding rooted in one’s own cultural tradition or aesthetic proved to be an important indicator of potential success with intercultural collaboration. Yet that deep grounding also means that the conditions and process for genuine collaboration must be built slowly over time with a willingness to let go of that bounded expertise to work in and with another genre, medium, or culture. “In an intercultural collaboration, you have to come to it with a particular strength first and then be open,” said Philadelphia-based tabla player, Lenny Seidman. “In my experience, sometimes artists are so grounded [that] it is a struggle. It’s a real struggle to give up everything they know in order to embrace another grounding, another tradition. It is not simple. The intercultural collaboration takes a great deal of time to really do it and do it well with a lot of integrity.”

For Dibia and Terry this process took over a decade. “We do a lot of teaching to each other,” explained Terry. “We go back and forth a lot. Sometimes we will very specifically have parts in mind, and we will teach it to each other. Other times we will come together frequently as improvisers and one person may just start a vocal rhythmic line, for instance, and just repeat that. And then the other person will start hearing this other part and bring in a counterpart. It goes back and forth like that…It’s a gradual thing. It took ten years to get ‘Body Tjak’ to the stage, and I don’t think we could have done it any quicker.”

    Expectations and Maintenance of Difference

The Value of Confrontation: Initiative participants came to recognize that dissimilarities and conflict can be productive aspects of a creative collaborative effort. “One of the pitfalls in collaboration is to arrive at the lowest common denominator—something that everyone can agree upon. Everyone feels good about having done the work and we’re all friends. That’s a bad thing for my theatre company,” said Ruth Maleczech, co-artistic director of New York-based Mabou Mines. “We have a lot of fights about work we’re making. That’s a normal condition for us: there’s a lot of disagreement, a lot of egos on the line, a lot of differences of philosophy, opinion, and approach. We want to encourage our international collaborators to do the same thing.”

Respecting “Otherness”: Another pitfall is to exoticize the other partner or to think that through the work, you and your collaborators have transcended difference and are the same. Victoria Marks observed:

If I have the expectation that deep down we’re the same, I risk the chance, I believe, that I’m simply projecting and looking longingly at the other person in the hopes that they will be just like me, falling in love with myself. If I make sweeping, well-meaning assumptions, that puts me at risk of an Orientalist perspective—in danger of that colonizing instinct, ready to mistake an appearance of familiarity for familiarity. Working with Xu Ying, I learned to expect difference, to question even those moments that we thought we were together on something. From this place I found that there could be great joy in those moments when we laughed at the same thing or when we both thought a scene really kicked butt.

    Setting the Stage:
Administrative Support for Artistic Collaborations

When institutions function as active facilitators and creative partners, the goals of intercultural collaborative practice can most fully be realized. A philosophical commitment—both to the underlying principles of international exchange and to collaborative activity—needs to be in place before an organization embarks on international collaboration.

Among the multiple strands that must be undertaken are:

  • the clear setting of goals and protocols for the collaboration (structure, timetable, available resources, roles and responsibilities of participants);
  • cultural mediation to address equity issues and language barriers (orientations, up-front agreements about rights and responsibilities, availability of multiple channels for airing grievances);
  • resourceful administration to address the logistical challenges that accompany this work; and
  • creative oversight and guidance with an eye toward potential artistic outcomes.

The Phase I Report extensively chronicled ways that the institution can serve as a facilitator and creative partner in the collaborative process. While those findings are not recapitulated here, the work of Phase II confirmed the validity of the body of knowledge that emerged during Phase I around institutional best practices. For a more detailed discussion of administrative issues, consult the Phase I Report (available from Arts International or online:

    Future Considerations

The work of the initiative has brought into focus a range of issues related to cultural difference and has created fertile ground for the development and articulation of strategies that can support international work. Yet the absence of a process to follow artists longitudinally, after their participation in the initiative, places limitations on the ability to assess long-term initiative impact. In looking toward refining and building upon the work of initiative participants to date, the need for reciprocal opportunities for U.S.-based artists to engage with their international colleagues outside the U.S. has been widely acknowledged. This is as a critical step in addressing equity considerations within the collaborative process.

While international collaboration between performing artists is fraught with pitfalls, it is important to note that artists spoke passionately about intercultural collaboration as a process that engendered personal transformation, artistic growth, and the opportunity to have an impact in a broader social and political arena. Artists desired more, not less, opportunities to engage in this difficult but rewarding process of international, cross-cultural collaboration.


* - First published in “A Report on the Ford Foundation Initiative: Internationalizing New Work in the Performing Arts” Phase II: 1999-2002 (2002). Reprinted with the permission of Arts International.

    prev   home   next