American choreographer and social activist honoured by the German Federal government
While dancing in India, be it Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Odissi, Lavni or any classical or folk dance form, dancers wear ghungroos (small metallic bells when tied together make music). These ghungroos, worshipped and taken great care of by the dancers, are placed at the feet of Lord Nataraj, the god of dance. Before wearing them, a dancer touches it to the forehead as a blessing of the god of dance.
In international dance forms, there are no ghungroos. But I believe there are many people who are like ghungroos. They bring people together. They come with great values and morals. With their warm and affable personality, they bond the dance community and the dancing world together. One such extraordinary ghungroo swaroop (similar) person is American choreographer and social activist Jonathan Hollander who was recently honoured with Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany that Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier bestowed upon him.
The prestigious award has been previously presented to dancers Pina Bausch, Sasha Waltz and John Neumeier and soprano Renee Fleming. Now, it has been given to Hollander in honour of his leadership in bringing together young people across borders through cultural exchange. Hollander has been cited for impacting the lives of people in America and Germany in a remarkable way.
I called him a ghungroo because he is one person who has dedicated his entire life to dance not just as a dancer or a choreographer but as a bridge who believed in “dance beyond boundaries”. And this strong belief of his has taken him world over, performing and teaching.
At the award ceremony, a short film on the illustrate work of Hollander was shown, giving everyone present an impression of why Jonathan is deserving of this prestigious honour. His passionate commitment to international understanding, to societal solidarity and to strengthening civil society in order to face social, political and cultural challenges was brought to light through the film.
Hollander is also the president and artistic director, Battery Dance Company and Dancing to Connect. He established Battery Dance Company in 1982 as the Downtown Dance Festival. Today, the Battery Dance Festival (BDF) is New York City’s longest-running free public dance festival. Audiences are traditionally drawn from the large downtown working population and residents, families, tourists, senior citizens and dance fans from the greater NYC metropolitan area. Each year, the festival draws over 12,000 people.
BDF provides a unique opportunity for outstanding dancers and choreographers to present original works of high artistic merit in a free public forum. The festival revels in the panoply of dance that the city offers with strong emphasis on the inclusion of diverse dance styles and an international roster of performers. American choreographers such as Michelle Dorrance, Paul Taylor, Mary Anthony, Elizabeth Streb and Darrell Moultrie have all presented their works alongside pre-eminent companies from Asia, Europe, South America, Africa and the Caribbean.
While receiving the Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Hollander said, “I feel extremely humbled receiving this honour which has earlier been given to veterans and stalwarts from the art world. But I also know that with awards comes responsibilities and with an award as prestigious as Cross of Merit, the pressure is even more. I promise that I will keep working towards the field of dance and take to it to a new level and break all boundaries and borders.”
German Consul General David Gill, before honouring Hollander, said, “In my last position as the chief of staff for the former German President, Joachim Gauck, I signed many proposals for the Order of Merit but usually did not know the dedicated people behind the files. Now as the Consul General, I have the privilege to meet those wonderful people and have the joyous duty of presenting them with the award.’
He further added, “Today, we are gathered to honour Mr Jonathan Hollander’s commitment and his very special and outstanding contribution to the German-American friendship as well as to exchange and understand different people all over the world. What’s fascinating is to see Jonathan’s rooted commitment in social, liberal and humanistic values.”
From very early on in life, Hollander was socially conscious and developed an interest in international cultural exchange through dance and body. Thus, at 25 years, he founded Battery Dance and some years later, the festival which is New York City’s longest-running dance festival and recently celebrated 37 years.
For more than 10 years, he exported its spirit to Germany. Out of the 2006 project, Dances for the Blue House, the educational programme, Dancing to Connect, arose. This fascinating initiative toured over 54 countries. What makes this project so extraordinary is the way it speaks to relevant issues such as the confrontation of the past with the extinction of European Jews by Nazi Germany, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent reunification of Germany as well as of the continent.
His current programme, Dancing to Connect for Refugee Integration, launched in 2016, contributes not only to the integration of refugees but also creates a sense of familiarity among young people, between those who have not had to experience war and terror and those who arrived traumatised in Germany. By dancing together, the participants lose their sense of mistrust, insecurity and fear and instead experience empathy for each other and at the same time convey fundamental values such as human dignity, respect and tolerance.
To me, Sir Jonathan Hollander is a friend. Let me congratulate and thank him today, particularly for being aware of the value of the friendship among the people of different countries. He has many friends all over the world as also many admirers who love him and his work.
But I feel Sir Jonathan, through his cosmopolitan and future-oriented work, makes a major contribution to solidarity across borders. He act not only as a choreographer but also as a social activist. He is a promoter of intercultural exchange and a source of inspiration for all of us. The energy and constant enthusiasm he generate while launching new projects is impressive and we do hope for more to come. Heartiest congratulations, sir.
Sandip Soparrkar is a World Book Record holder, a well known Ballroom dancer and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honoured with two National Excellence awards and one National Achievement Award by the Govt of India. He can be contacted on [email protected]