"I always had an idea in the back of my head about dropping myself into another culture: I'd learn about its customs, dance and music, put it all together with my own dance vocabulary, use local composers and...see what happened," Helander says. She had just completed work on a multi-generational piece that included dancers between the ages of five and 78 years old, and it seemed logical to swing with that community-oriented momentum -- only in a whole new, global direction. That was the beginning of the Hearth to Hearth project, a four-year series of cultural-immersion works by Helander inspired by Boulder's four sister cities.
One thing led to another. Piqued by the mysterious lure of Tajik culture, Helander first took her cross-cultural dance idea before an enthusiastic City of Dushanbe board. "I thought, now there's a culture I don't know anything about," she says. They decided to work together, but when the Jalapa, Nicaragua, board got wind of those plans, its members wanted to be included, too. The same was true for those representing Yamagata, Japan, and Lhasa, Tibet. "I said, no way I'm doing four cultures at once," Helander recalls, and that's how it all turned into an ambitious, year-by-year endeavor. Once performances of Voices of Tibet, the last program in the series, are staged this weekend at Chautauqua Auditorium, the project will finally come to an end.
Allowing a full year to prepare for each leg of the project may seem generous, but Helander says it was necessary. Travel and cultural exchanges made en route were mandatory parts of the process. "It's an intense amount of work for something you're only performing twice," she notes. But funding and research both take time, along with untangling all of that gathered information into actual dances, music, and set and costume designs.
For Voices of Tibet, Helander traveled with company members last October to Nepal and India, where they lived and interacted with exiled Tibetans in a number of settings. In Nepal, she spent time with a Boulder friend's family -- his mother, sister, brother and five-year-old niece -- in their one-room apartment. Her appreciation of their familial warmth and enfolding sense of community became some of the culminating dance work's main inspirations. "It doesn't matter if it's your child or my child or the village's child -- all are welcomed into their homes," Helander says.
She especially enjoyed time spent with the mother, Omala Lama, a tiny old woman who spoke no English and whose head reached only up to Helander's chest. "On our last day, I took her shopping, and she had the biggest grin on her face, walking around with this tall blond. She just loved showing me off." But her bond with Lama went further than simple friendship: Helander recorded the Tibetan woman chanting prayers and uses her voice, embellished by other sounds, on the dance soundtrack. "After we finished the tape, we called Kathmandu and played the tape over the phone," says Helander. "She loved it."
From Nepal, the group traveled to the Tibetan Institute for the Performing Arts in Dharamsala, India, where traditional Tibetan arts and culture are being preserved in spite of the conditions of exile. There Helander taught Tibetan company members modern dance and learned Tibetan dance from them in return. But, again, much of her actual inspiration for dances sprang from observations of everyday life in a strange place: "I was amazed in India by what they carry on their heads. Once, I looked out the window and saw two women -- one had a bowl on her head and one was carrying dirt in a big basket. I thought they were so beautiful, and I made a whole piece out of that ten-second experience.
"And one piece I just had to do: It has a pile of people, two bikes and a rickshaw -- it's pure chaos. There were so many cab rides I took there where I'd be looking at all the stuff going on, and I knew it was chaotic, but it worked -- we didn't hit a cow or run over any children. Even though it's totally frightening, everyone always misses each other. That piece is purely for fun."
With so much rich creative grist, it was no problem for Helander to go into the studio upon her return and translate it into a show. "You just walk in, hook up, and it's ready to come out," she says. And for her, the final product of the lengthy exchange wasn't simply about re-creating Tibetan culture for an American audience -- there are Tibetans to do that. "It's all about celebrating two cultures coming together; it's not about 'This is yours' and 'This is mine,'" Helander says. Like all work done for Hearth to Hearth, Voices of Tibet not only is apolitical in view, but it's also powered by the concept that we're all just people under the skin, though we have distinct cultural gifts to share.
It's been a long haul for Helander, but now that the project's complete, she doubts her work will ever be the same -- the cross-cultural bent is here to stay. And she has one last fantasy. "It still feels like there's no closure," she says. "There's one piece missing: I'd love to go back and show them what I've done." But she says this with reservation, admitting that the expense of such a venture would be daunting for any self-producing artist like herself. Still, she says, "we're not talking slick venues. We're talking about Third World countries -- where you don't drink the water and you're going to dance on dirt." But that's something Helander, for one, could live with: "Right now I'm all talk and no money. But it's good to talk."