In 1931, Stalin declared that the cultures of the peoples of the Soviet Union – a government that encompassed over one hundred ethnicities – were to be “national in form and socialist in content.” That is, no matter your style of dancing, singing, cooking, crafting, or dressing, the underlying message of all these activities would articulate the official ideology. Communism in embroidered smocks.
In turn, the State provided funding, visibility, and support for these propaganda-inflected national arts. Imagine the excitement on the face of a Soviet child in Moscow or Novgorod when his parents returned home from the bread line with a “little reward” for all his hard studying: tickets to the Uzbek folk jamboree! Brazvanyo!
This Friday (April 22nd), we here at Princeton have a similar opportunity to enjoy ethnic pageantry in the implicit service of a belief system. Instead of hailing the revolutionary proletariat, no matter what smocks they’re wearing, this Friday’s International Festival Cultural Show, from 8-10pm in the performance tent on the South Lawn of Frist, will be honoring our diverse yet meritocratic university setting which exists ostensibly under the aegis of prudently regulated free enterprise and democratic values.
This event, part of a day-long International Festival at the Frist Campus Center, is not just organized by any old bunch of international students here at Princeton, but – to quote the Wilson College Events Calendar – “by the Consortium of International Student Organizations under the auspices of the International Center.” For someone such as myself, who occasionally dreams of a life now denied him by the geography of his birth and the character of his era, all this talk of consortia and auspices in relation to “students” (real “students!” Students as only other countries can make them!) indulges my craving for that streak of fun I can’t help but suspect was available to some of the people some of the time during the 20th century’s various experiments with totalitarianism.
Need I even add at this point that I, critic with a commie fetish, will, when I attend the upcoming International Festival Cultural Show, from 8-10pm in the performance tent on the South Lawn of Frist, imagine myself in some Leninist Neverland where all is brave and ethical just outside the theater doors.
The International Festival Cultural Show consists of two interlocked events – the Dance Show and the Fashion Show. The program begins with several acts from among Princeton’s numerous ethnic/national dance groups, including Kaala, Ballet Folklorico, Naacho, Raks Odalisque, Triple Eight, and Capoeira. Then there’s the Fashion Show, where students walk the runway in traditional styles from around the world. Then there’s more dance acts.
I went to a rehearsal for the Fashion Show. When I arrived at the Mathey Common Room where the organizers were holding the run-through, all but one or two of the European students hadn’t shown up, so that the run-through consisted mainly of representatives of East Asian national costume, and a couple of Indian babes dressed in fine-looking sarees. The run-through was one of those inevitable instances in the ongoing effort toward great intercultural understanding where difference gives rise to comic tension.
The East Asia models were slated first in the runway order. Selecting a traditional tune whose slow-paced percussive crashes did little to inspire a sleek and glamorous gait or body language, the student models walked their deliberate paces with all the appearance of students who come from countries where everyday kids wouldn’t tend to replicate a runway modeling culture based on understated eroticism. But then it was the South Asian section’s turn.
This is where the two Indian babes in classy sarees come in. They gestured to one of the show organizers to put on the music for their section, an intensely sexy bhangra track with a sick beat and undulating melody. Then, like Technicolor starlets of Bollywood’s yesteryear promoting the first exciting products of homegrown Indian industry, these two young women worked that pretend catwalk with enough poise, charm, and seductive self-assurance to pitch tents for a whole refugee camp. They have this whole arrangement to their walking ,where one goes forward and then the other kinda does this quarter turn and they both smile, and then… you just have to be there to check it out.
While the strained interactions and otherwise missed signals between students with very different sensibilities of fashion performance made the rehearsal something of a funny thing to sit in on, I’m sure that by the time we all show up to the International Festival Cultural Show, from 8-10pm in the performance tent on the South Lawn of Frist, every nationality will have worked out its kinks on the catwalk. These models are hot and foreign. Hot, in part, because they are foreign. If Soviet fantasy or a commitment to multiculturalism or the talent of our school’s outstanding dance groups aren’t going to bring you out to the show, then at least pay heed to the International Festival Cultural Show’s unofficial motto, inspired by the late Edward Said: “Orientalism: It’s about ogling.”