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The Trek From Performer to Producer

Monday, August 06, 2012   (0 Comments)
Posted by: ISPA
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Congratulations to ISPA Member Rachel Cooper (Asia Society) on her recent feature in the New York Times detailing her transition from performer to producer. The article was published on August 4th, 2012 and may be read below, or on the New York Times website here.

From a very young age I remember dancing around our family living room in Montebello, Calif., to the music of Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, inspired by my parents’ love of world arts and culture.

Rachel Cooper of the Asia Society in New York says she has found that "being the catalyst can be just as creative and fulfilling as being an artist.”

Dancing was where my body and soul were happiest. My highest career aspiration was to become a professional dancer/choreographer. But what do you do when you realize fairly early that you may not have the talent in such a competitive arena?Read MoreIn college came a rude awakening: that maybe I wasn’t good enough to dance for a living. When I started concentrating on Balinese dance, it became even more evident. As a blond-haired Caucasian, I didn’t exactly fit the desired image. Also, dancers in that tradition tend to be thin and tiny-boned; I am built sturdy, and there’s not a tiny bone in my body.

I started out attending the University of California, Berkeley, which had a good dance program and some superstars of philosophy and anthropology. I took classes in all three.

After my freshman year, I won a scholarship to World Campus Afloat, now called Semester at Sea. We spent four months on a ship with teacher-experts who lectured on the culture and arts of the regions where we’d make ports of call, from Japan to Senegal.

On shore, we attended performances, met the artists and visited their villages and schools. On board, the ethnomusicologist Philip Sonnichsen taught, among other things, gamelan, the music of Bali, which later played such an important role in my life. When I told Philip about my career quandary, he suggested I transfer to U.C.L.A., which offered a program called ethnic arts, now the world arts and culture department. So I did.

The interdisciplinary program interwove six distinct departments. The ability to look at culture from 360 degrees was the greatest lesson I learned there.

My first experience as a performing-arts administrator was as associate director of the Asian Performing Arts Summer Institute at U.C.L.A. under Judy Mitoma. We brought in master artists from Indonesia, India and Japan to teach us. In my mind, making the transition from performer to producer involved getting outside my ego to realize that it’s not a compromise, that being the catalyst can be just as creative and fulfilling as being an artist. It’s about feeling part of something greater than yourself.

IN 1979, by then living in Berkeley, I was a co-founder of Gamelan Sekar Jaya, a Balinese music and dance company consisting of Americans. To make ends meet, I taught dance, theater and music at a private school. The rest of the time I devoted to Sekar Jaya, organizing rehearsals and performances, bringing artists in from Bali and fund-raising. Eventually, we became the first non-Balinese gamelan orchestra to perform at the Bali Arts Festival. The group still performs; I’m still on its board.

In 1983, I moved to Jakarta to understand Indonesian culture more deeply. I taught English to Indonesian government officials. Jakarta was a creative crossroads of Indonesia, and I spent time with other expats working at nongovernmental organizations and in arts development. I learned to network across disciplines, with groups as diverse as bankers, oil industry people and urban planners.

Five years later, I returned to America. Not long after, I was hired to help organize the performing arts component of the Festival of Indonesia in the United States. It seemed crazy to accept — I’d never done anything on such a large scale — but even crazier to decline the opportunity. We eventually raised $2 million and brought more than 200 artists to tour 30 states.

My success with the festival came to the attention of the Asia Society in New York, which hired me in 1993 to head its performing arts program.

Now, as the society’s director of global performing arts and special cultural initiatives, I am based in Manhattan and work closely with our 12 centers in the United States and Asia, developing projects that promote in-depth appreciation of Asian arts and culture.

In the decade since 9/11, I’ve produced continuing programs throughout New York as part of "Creative Voices of Muslim Asia.”

At a recent concert, Arif Lohar, the Pakistani folk singer, gave such a rousing performance that the audience jumped to its feet and danced in the aisles. Even as the producer, I couldn’t help but join in.

As told to Perry Garfinkel.

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