Thinking globally, dancing locally
Choreographer, dancer, and teacher Wally Cardona, right, seen here with Cambodian dancer Proeung Chhieng, reached out to master artists around the world to create “The Set Up.”

Thinking globally, dancing locally

Wally Cardona's culture-spanning work, The Set Up, makes a stop at Vermont Performance Lab

GUILFORD — Dancer/choreographer Wally Cardona is currently an artist in residence at Vermont Performance Lab (VPL) in Guilford, where he is studying classical Burmese dance, as part of his multi-year project, The Set Up.

According to Sara Coffey, VPL's founder and director, “He is a choreographer who is deeply interested in the place of dance in our culture - where it is and why it is. Dance being the main motor of his thought process, Cardona actively creates projects for his dance practice that mutate in proximity to others, resulting in collaborations that are intimate and crowded, strange, and seemingly unrelated.”

This year, Cardona traveled to Myanmar to study with Saya Lei, a master of classical Burmese Mandalay style of dancing. That training is now continuing at VPL through the end of March when Myint Mo, a disciple of Saya Lei, has come to Vermont to work with Cardona.

“Saya Lei is in his 80s, so he really was not able to make the trip over to America,” explains Coffey. “His disciple Myint is continuing the traditions he established, and we are very pleased he was able to join Wally in Guilford.”

The public can see some of the results of their work together on Monday, March 30, at 7 p.m. in the Whittemore Theatre on the campus of Marlboro College when VPL, in association with Marlboro College, presents an evening of dance, video and discussion entitled “VPL in the Works: The Set Up: Saya Lei.”

The event is free and no reservations are required.

“This definitely is a work-in-progress,” says Coffey, as these two artists are still negotiating what the outcome of the final shape of the Saya Lei project may be.

The Set Up: Saya Lei is part of a larger work. Created jointly with American choreographer Jennifer Lacey over the past five years, Cardona's The Set Up is a series of eight dance pieces made in partnership with eight international artists viewed as “masters” of existent dance forms, as well as multiple contemporary dancers, composers, and musicians.

To create these dances, Cardona has immersed himself in the civilization and dance traditions of unfamiliar cultures.

He writes on his website ( that “each of the eight dances displaces contemporary practice by living temporarily within a distinct tradition of mastery.”

Coffey is quick to point out that Cardona may use foreign dance as inspiration, but he does not want to appropriate culture in a demeaning way that too many artists have used “the other” in the past.

“The end result is a piece that is not either his or of the foreign culture but something...I don't want to call it fusion, but something completely separate from what either was originally, but dependent on both,” she says.

Coffey, who studied Indonesian dance in college, saw the final product of Cardona's last Set Up venture, when he worked with a master from Indonesia.

“The result was terrific,” she says. “This was no east/west fusion exotica. Cardona does not mimic attributes of a foreign culture but rather creates a whole new kind of dance. Working with masters for him is process-building. What happens is a creative exchange of two equally viable traditions. I find Cardona's work to be highly sensitive to post-colonial realities.”

As Coffey elaborates at the VPL website, “ The Set Up starts with an encounter through dance. The project explores questions of appropriation, contemporary practice, and received politics. In The Set Up, Cardona and Lacey are displacing their contemporary dance practice by living temporarily within a tradition of mastery, putting their own cultural motor of doubt in relation to one operating under 'belief.'”

Coffey continues.

“The series' construction is a recurring re-examination of habitual aesthetic valuations, both physical and conceptual. It is purposefully designed to confront belief systems that are knowingly, and unknowingly, transferred from body to body, culture to culture, generation to generation. Creating perceptions that construct an image can be important (and hard) work. The Set Up is grounded more in the 'letting go' of an image: of self, of other.'”

Brought up in California and New Mexico, Cardona was a competitive gymnast and clarinetist before moving to New York City in 1986 to study dance at The Juilliard School, where he earned his BFA.

In 1997. Cardona founded WCV, Inc, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit dedicated to introducing audiences to new forms and ways of viewing movement, through experimentation, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and the creation of new work.

The recipient of many awards and fellowships including a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, in 2012 Cardona became one of 21 American performing artists to receive the inaugural 2012 Doris Duke Artist Award.

“Wally not only works with masters, he is also a master of dance himself,” says Coffey. “He creates complicated responses to form in nuanced projects. When this master of movement gets together with foreign masters, the result is pretty exciting.”

In addition to his work as dancer and choreographer, Cardona also currently teaches at The Juilliard School and The New School in New York City. He writes at his website that his interests in teaching lie in helping individuals cultivate their own creative process. His workshops explore, through physical practice, what it is to move from “natural” states to “performance” states.

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