[Podcast] The Power of Ancient Dances: Interview with Joseph Houseal (1/2)

Joseph Houseal is an ancient dance specialist. He is the director of Core of Culture – a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to safeguarding intangible world culture and assuring the continuity of ancient dance traditions where they originate.

Joseph Houseal with Choegon Tulku in 2015 in Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh. Image courtesy of Joseph Houseal

It seems that in Joseph’s world, there is no boundary. He was born into a Catholic family in the United States. Initially trained as a ballet dancer, he went on to study philosophy of dance in London and Noh Theatre in Japan. At Core of Culture, Joseph has overseen dance preservation and research projects in many parts of the world, including Ladakh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal.

In this episode, Joseph talked about their first project in Ladakh, where he worked with Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche and documented ‘a visual glossary’ of Cham dance for the Drikung Kagyu Buddhist sect. Joseph also shared their project in Bhutan between 2003 to 2008, the last five years of the absolute monarchy and before the Kingdom was fully opened to tourism. Joseph explained why, to the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, dance is so important in the understanding of Bhutanese culture, and why the King was not satisfied with Tibetology.

In the second part of the episode, we focused on questions like whether dance is art (an issue he has encountered among certain art historians ), and its relation with established art forms, especially with painting. Joseph elucidated how thangka is used as a meditation tool in Vajrayana Buddhism. He also articulated beautifully the role of Cham dance in Bhutanese culture – how it is related to the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol), and why dance represents the highest mystical attainment. In the end, Joseph talked about ancient Greek theatre and ballet, and gave his opinions on how the west lost connection with the gnostic experience.

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© 2020 by Guoying Stacy Zhang