Cultural Ambassador Project: Ralph Samuelson

2016-10-14

Ralph Samuelson, former ACC Director (1991- 2008), joined the Asian Cultural Council in 1976 and later established Taiwan as the ACC’s third representative branch in Asia. Since 2008 he has served as ACC’s Senior Advisor. A cultural leader, ethnomusicologist, and musician, Samuelson studied the traditional Japanese flute, shakuhachi, with the Late Living National Treasure Goro Yamaguchi and other distinguished teachers in Japan and has performed around the globe.

Highlights from Ralph Samuelson's Cultural Ambassador Project Lecture 

The ACC was established in 1963 by John D. Rockefeller 3rd and at that time was a private foundation known as The JDR 3rd Fund. Even though 17 years had passed since the end of World War II, Mr. Rockefeller was motivated by the conviction that the U.S. and Asia needed to develop a better understanding of each other.  The objective was to support artists and scholars in Asia to study in America, and to support Americans to study in Asia: a simple model of bilateral exchange. Later, the ACC began to support not only America-Asia exchanges, but also regional, multilateral exchanges within Asia. One of the early conversations we had when we set up our office in Taipei was to look at Taiwan as a cultural bridge between East and Southeast Asia, and we felt that a grant program here could really center more regional exchanges within Asia.

The ACC is basically a foundation that makes grants in response to applications received. This is a kind of passive grantmaking: you apply and we give you a grant, or not. But sometimes the ACC was able to actively develop certain initiatives that would help address issues of driving importance in Asia. This morning, I visited Wu Hsing-Kuo, and we talked about a project that ACC did with him in 2004. Here's the story…….

Where Peking Opera meets Cambodian basak

In Cambodia, there is a theatrical art form called basak, which was strongly influenced by Peking Opera. During the years of Khmer Rouge rule, Cambodia suffered greatly, and afterward many of the basak artists were gone. Even in the Royal University of Fine Arts' basak department, the teachers had lost much of their tradition. Recognizing the connection to Peking Opera, especially in the core techniques of movement and vocal production, the ACC asked Wu Hsing-Kuo: "Would you go to Cambodia and give a workshop in vocal production and basic movement?" He was so kind and replied, "Oh yes, I would love to.”

Although the workshop was only five or six days, the artists in Cambodia and Mr. Wu became very close; they formed a special bond. "Please come here for one month and teach us," they asked him. He not only agreed, but he said he would bring two or three other teachers with him. At the ACC, we worked with the Cambodian basak teachers and Wu Hsing-Kuo to make a plan for the workshop, but the Cambodian government would not permit Mr. Wu and his colleagues to teach at the Royal University (a government institution), nor would they permit the Cambodian teachers and their students to travel to Taiwan. Our friends from ACC Philippines saved the day. "There is a high school for performing arts," ACC Manila representative Teresa Rances told us. "It's in the mountains with a beautiful studio and dormitory, and in August there is no school--everybody can come here!" So, that's what we did: in the Philippines, Peking Opera met Cambodian basak. Wu Hsing-Kuo reawakened in 16 basak teachers and students a solid grounding in the foundation of their technique. Since then, their basak department has been able to continue on a stronger footing.

Revitalizing Tradition in Indonesia

In 2007, Lin Hwai-Min was invited to Indonesia to teach a workshop in choreography. The participants were young dancers who had trained in traditional forms but were trying to create something new. The dance leaders in Indonesia thought that Lin Hwai-Min would be an ideal person to guide them. ACC supported Mr. Lin to go to Solo (Surakarta) in Central Java to conduct the workshop. The dancers were primarily graduates of performing arts academies where they studied regional dance styles such as Balinese dance, Javanese dance, West Javanese dance, etc.

In the old days these dance forms were taught in a palace or a village community setting, but they are now taught in the academies. Lin Hwai-Min and the senior teachers in Indonesia were impressed with the young dancers' technique, how they moved so brilliantly. And yet, they were surprised to see something missing in the spirit of the dance. When Mr. Lin asked each dancer, "Please perform one of your traditional dances", they did so with recorded music. However, if the music was turned off, they had difficulty continuing their dance. This was disturbing to the senior teachers, who in their own training had internalized the integration of dance and music as one whole. The young dancers had lost what we might call muscle memory and the intimate connection to their music.

Lin Hwai-min realized that here in Indonesia he was discovering something that he had seen earlier with dancers in Taiwan and China--a loss of the internal spirit of tradition. He had already developed a series of training exercises and study programs for his Cloud Gate dancers specifically to address this issue, and he applied some of this approach to the students in the Indonesia workshop. At the conclusion of the workshop, he invited one of the most talented participants to train and perform with his company in Taiwan.

Asian Cultural Council