Asian Harmony in Serbia: A Tokyo University of Foreign Studies Cultural Dance Troupe Performance
by Leith Casel-Schuetz
Serbia is one of the last places you would ever expect to find a student-driven non-professional dance troupe that specializes in Philippine folk dance performances. But the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (TUFS) Cultural Dance Troupe, composed of talented Japanese students and graduates of the university’s Philippine Studies Program, actually went to Serbia on a mission! In fact, the troupe returned from a highly rewarding tour to Belgrade in early December 2011.
The opportunity arose when Madame Etsuko Tsunozaki , wife of the Japanese ambassador to Serbia and a personal friend of Prof. Michiko Yamashita, the professor-in-charge of the Philippine Studies Program at TUFS, learned that the dance troupe also performs Japanese folk dances. And so the invitation arrived for the troupe to perform in Serbia under the theme Asian Harmony, with three distinct goals: (1) to acknowledge the sympathy and solidarity shown by the people of Serbia toward victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, (2) in celebration of the 35th anniversary of the Japanese Studies Program at the University of Belgrade, and (3) to demonstrate a strong ASEAN presence in Serbia. The troupe was given the name Silangan Cultural Dance Troupe for this particular trip, in order to emphasize the Oriental background of the performers and their dances, since they were performing in Europe. Remaining true to the theme of the trip, the troupe demonstrated considerable versatility by performing Japanese, Indonesian and Philippine folk dances.
The first performance took place at Sajam, a large festival hall where an annual international charity bazaar was held, sponsored by the International Women’s Club (IWC) of Serbia (chaired by Madame Tsunozaki), whose members are the wives of diplomats in Serbia and Serbian women who hold important positions. There were 39 booths from different countries and it was the very first time for a Philippine booth to be present. Dance troupe accessories and stage props were used to decorate the booth, which was manned by Ms. Verica Milakovic, Honorary Consul of the Philippines in Serbia, (the Philippines has no diplomatic relations with Serbia currently) with the assistance of other members of the TUFS group. In order to even have goods to sell at the bazaar, some members of the dance troupe flew over from Manila loaded with Philippine products such as banana chips, polvoron, dried mangoes, dried guayabano, etc. and native products such as accessories made of capiz shell and wood, all of which were financed from the common fund of the troupe. Most products sold out midway during the bazaar. Meanwhile, the dance troupe did 3 separate performances at the bazaar according to the country represented: Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Other performances were held at the Japanese Ambassador’s residence, the Sumice Sports and Cultural Center, and the University of Belgrade. The performance at the Sumice Sports and Cultural Center was attended mainly by members of the largest opposition political party in Serbia including its leader, Mr. Nikolic, and members of the diplomatic community. University officials and members of the diplomatic community, attended the performances at the Japanese Ambassador’s residence, and the same audience including students attended the performance at the University of Belgrade.
The dance troupe fulfilled its mission very well. A representative of the dance troupe thanked the people of Serbia at each performance for their help during the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami last March 11, while short footage of the disaster was shown. During a couple of performances, one of the members did introductions in Serbian, which were admired and applauded warmly by the audience.
The Japanese dances performed by the troupe highlighted the 35th anniversary celebration of the Japanese Studies Program at the University of Belgrade. It was also an opportunity for Serbian students not only to practice their Japanese conversation skills with members of the troupe and have a direct Japanese experience, but also to start lasting friendships across the seas.
Among ASEAN countries, only Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar have embassies in Serbia. So it was with considerable pride that the dance troupe help set up the first Philippine booth at the International Women’s Club bazaar together with said countries to form the ASEAN section of the bazaar. The addition of a traditional Indonesian dance to the repertoire won the admiration of the Indonesian ambassador, who was always present during any performance. The Philippine booth aroused Serbian public interest toward Philippine products, while Philippine dance performances heightened their admiration for Philippine culture. In addition, several Filipinos living in Belgrade proudly attended each performance and enjoyed rare visual reminders of their cultural heritage.
The troupe’s first tour in Europe was very fulfilling because their performances proved that they were not only ambassadors of goodwill for Japan, but also for Asia at large.