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A Creative Approach to Making International Friends

by Elisabeth Liljenquist

The BYU performing groups have touched the lives of millions across the world beginning in the early 1960s. “It makes a lot of friends for the school and the Church,” said Edward Blaser, BYU Performing Arts Management director. “It breaks down barriers.” Since 1971, the groups have toured one hundred countries and performed over thirty-five hundred times, making a lasting impression on nations worldwide.

For example, BYU is said to be the best-known American university in China. “Americans who go to China will hear about BYU and wonder, ‘Why BYU? Why not Harvard or MIT?’” said Blaser. Since 1979, China Central Television has taped every BYU performance in twenty-one tours to China. “They put them on the air many holidays of the year, so millions of Chinese see them,” he explained.

Performances are designed to appeal to families and promote good values. Because of 9/11, Randy Boothe, Young Ambassadors director, says his group is “committed to building bridges of understanding. We take great care to ensure that our students are prepared to represent the university, the Church, and our nation.” Prior to leaving, each group takes a culture class on the countries they will tour and even learn language basics. While touring, the groups reach out to the margins of society and “take performances to places where the people would not normally be able to see them—hospitals, orphanages, rest homes, schools,” according to Boothe. The tours also provide a unique outlet for students to share their talents. “It’s one thing to perform here on campus for this audience, but it’s quite another to try to please an audience in Stuttgart,” said Blaser.

After 9/11, however, the groups were kept close to home.“We decided, ‘Let’s reroute, let’s be cautious,’” said Blaser. Subsequently, BYU cancelled all international tours until 2003, rerouting to North America. BYU now takes extra precautions with student safety. “We keep a sharp eye on State Department bulletins, and we work closely with Church security,” said Blaser. BYU also added a terrorist activity section to its tour handbook. Although prohibited from traveling far in 2002, the groups still reached a worldwide audience in the Winter Olympic Games, which aired to an estimated 3.5 billion people. “We looked at it as the peoples of the world coming to us instead,” said Blaser. “We did over 150 performances in two and a half weeks.” Fifteen groups participated in the Olympics—several in the opening ceremonies and at the medals plaza. The International Folk Dance Ensemble, Living Legends, Young Ambassadors, and Dancers’ Company all participated in the Church’s production, Light of the World. Getting its groups in the Olympics took convincing from BYU. “The choreographers and the production people weren’t too familiar with BYU,” explained Blaser. “We kept inviting them down to see the groups, and we finally sold them.”As early as November 2001, the groups began rehearsing every weekend, then three to four nights a week as the games approached. Blaser noted the challenge of providing transportation for the students, “when every other bus in the state was reserved.”

This year, BYU performing groups were back on their spring international schedule—with tours planned in sixteen countries including France, Spain, the Ukraine, South Africa, and Australia—until 27 March, when BYU administrators and the Board of Trustees made the decision to cancel the performing groups’ international tours due to global unrest and prevailing anti-American sentiment. “It’s heart wrenching because we’ve spent so many hours preparing the shows and getting everything ready by attending culture classes, learning the language, and writing and translating scripts,” said Boothe. He noted that although he and the students are disappointed, he understands the concern.

For BYU Performing Arts Management, the cancellation means a lot of lost work in planning and the added burden to inform hotels, airlines, and dignitaries of the change. “While the decision is disappointing, we also understand it was made as a cautious and prudent step in light of current world conflicts,” said Blaser. “As we notified our presenters in all sixteen countries, they readily understood the decision and are hopeful we will return another time soon.” With insufficient time to plan stateside tours for spring, Performing Arts Management is working to schedule performances in Utah County.

Former Young Ambassadors

East Russia and Japan Tour—May 2001

Jason Celaya

The first thing we did was go to an orphanage in far East Russia. There’s a high rate of children without parents there—a high rate. There were a lot of kids and they were a little nervous and standoffish. They didn’t know if they should approach us, and they knew we couldn’t communicate with them. Our director said, “Let’s perform for them first.” So we went into a room and performed for them. We saw their faces start to light up, and maybe they only recognized a few of the songs, but after that they were jumping on us, hugging us to the point where an hour later when we were leaving, a lot of the kids were crying and saying “I love you” in their broken English. It was a great way to start out the tour.

Wyatt Darling

In Japan, we visited a school for the mentally retarded and physically challenged. We performed for them like we would for any school—of course their level of participation was different, but it was so amazing to see the way the Japanese people treated their mentally ill or their physically challenged. They were treated very well, and they received all of the training and resources that they should have. When we go to a school where there are little kids, or the physically challenged, the administrators and the faculty notice and feel the Spirit so strongly, because they know that this is a service and that we didn’t have to come and perform for these people who don’t really know, necessarily, what the show is about. I noticed that the faculty and the administration really took to heart what was going on.