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Global perspectives #5

Confronting/Meeting the ‘Foreign’ in Cultural Research

Freddie Rokem
Tel Aviv University


How is the dynamics for confronting/meeting the foreign in cultural research activated? At which point do we cross the boundaries between the familiar and the exotic? And do we retain the hierarchies of center and periphery after a voyage into the unknown; or after the unfamiliar has entered our own hegemonic spaces?

Setting out by considering the blatant misunderstandings of foreign theatre cultures that major directors like Stanislavski, Brecht and Artaud ‘constructed’ after meeting with ‘foreign’ theatre cultures (and this is no doubt true of other artists as well), or even when Peter Brook directed the Indian epic Mahabharata, I will explore to what extent it is possible to unpack the dichotomy between the familiar and the exotic.

These reflections are based on my notes from a research trip to Kerala in southern India together with a group of students and researchers to watch and study the ancient form of theatre called Koodiyattam, actually the oldest still existing theatre tradition in the world. Coming to watch Koodiyattam in situ is comparable to finding a Greek island where the inhabitants are still actively performing ancient Greek tragedies according to the conventions that existed when these plays were written. Watching Koodiyattam is not typically something that tourists do, because if there are performances they take place in small villages, far from the beaten tourist tracks, and they are time-consuming: the first performance we saw lasted for nine evenings of 3-4 hours each. 

In order to discuss these issues I will focus on certain aspects of the gestural practices of acting in Koodiyattam theatre, and attempt to interpret these gestural components within other (though somewhat less foreign) cultural perspectives, mainly through the methods of acting explored by the Russian/Soviet avant-garde theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold. On the basis of this comparison I will draw some general conclusions about the transformation of the human body into a work of art through the art of acting/performance, the only art form where the artist transforms her body into a work of art.

Finally I will raise the question if this kind of comparative methodology, based on typologies of cultural and discursive practices, can confront the initial dichotomies between the familiar and the ‘foreign’. The lecture will be accompanied by visual materials.


Freddie Rokem is the Emanuel Herzikowitz Professor for 19th and 20th Century Art and teaches in the Department of Theatre Studies at Tel Aviv University, where he served as the Dean of the Yolanda and David Katz Faculty of the Arts (2002-2006). He is also a permanent guest Professor (Docent) at Helsinki University, Finland and has been a visiting Professor at Stanford University, the Free University in Berlin, the University of Munich, the University of Stockholm, UC Berkeley and UC Davis. He was the editor of Theatre Research International (2006-2009) and is currently the editor of Assaph; Studies in the Theatre, published at Tel Aviv University.

Rokem’s book Performing History: Theatrical Representations of the Past in Contemporary Theatre (University of Iowa Press, 2000; published in Polish 2010, German translation due in the coming year) received the ATHE (Association for Theatre in Higher Education) Prize for best theatre studies book in 2001. Strindberg’s Secret Codes was published by Norvik Press (2004) and Philosophers and Thespians: Thinking Performance, exploring the relations between the discursive practices of philosophy and performance was published by Stanford University Press (2010). He is co-editor (together with Jeanette Malkin) of Jews and the Making of Modern German Theatre (University of Iowa Press, 2010) He has published widely on European and Israeli theatre as well as on theoretical issues in theatre and performance studies, in academic journals and in books, and he is also a translator and a dramaturg.

Freddie Rokem is among the initiators new study program for integrating theory and practice in theatre and performance studies which received a grant from the Israeli Council for Higher education and which will begin its activities in the Theatre Department at Tel Aviv University in the academic year of 2011-2012.
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