Cultural differences become art to perform, not barriers to cross

What's great about the teachers at Leland & Gray Union is that they think outside the box," says Ann Landenberger, who teaches English and theater at the small middle/high school in rural Townshend, Vt. Apparently, the teachers think outside the hemisphere as well.

In 2000, Thomas Connor, a history teacher at L&G, returned from his fifth trip to the Far East with an idea: Take a group of Townshend's students to China on an arts exchange.

It was met with enthusiasm by Ms. Landenberger and L&G's musical director, Ron Kelley. In short order, the Freeman Foundation granted them $62,000 for a pilot run.

Journey East 2000 was an afterschool program designed to orient students to Asian culture in preparation for the arts exchange. In April 2000, a pioneer group of 22 L&G students traveled to China and Mongolia and performed an original musical and theatrical program over a two-week period. That fall, L&G welcomed students from the Mongolia College of Performing Arts to New England.

Thanks to a three-year grant extension, Journey East has evolved into a school within a school. Students now spend a full semester enrolled in an intensive Asian studies curriculum, complete with survival-language training and a series of production workshops.

The group then spends a month abroad collaborating with Chinese and Mongolian performers.

"In these critical times, it's amazing the power of the arts in crossing cultural and language barriers," Landenberger says.

"Whether we're teaching them a square dance, or they're teaching us a scarf dance, the collaboration is a constructive environment," Mr. Connor says.

Connor's son Devin, a Journey East alumnus, says, "Things can be pretty secluded in Vermont. Not every high-schooler has this chance." Fellow alumna Jessica Cobb adds: "You can read about it in a book, but it's a different story when you're there."

This year's China-to-Vermont exchange was canceled because of tumultuous world affairs and SARS, but the next group of students is already assembled. They plan to pack some jazz for the 2004 trip east.

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