Remembering 'Iconic' Beate Sirota Gordon, 1923-2012

UPDATE: On April 28, Asia Society will celebrate the life of Beate Gordon with live performances, video clips and speakers. For details, click here.


We at Asia Society were saddened to learn of the passing of Beate Sirota Gordon, a longtime member of our family, who died Sunday at her home in Manhattan at the age of 89.

From 1970 to 1991, Gordon served as Asia Society's director of performing arts and then later director of performances, films and lectures. Gordon made it her mission to introduce North American audiences to the best performers Asia had to offer.

"Beate brought amazing traditional artists from Sri Lanka, Burma, Indonesia, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia," said Rachel Cooper, Asia Society's director of global performing arts. "She was a stickler for the most authentic and exceptional artists. She often worked with scholars to contextualize the work, and commissioned writings on the traditions she presented."

But Asia Society was just one chapter in a remarkable life, captured brilliantly in this New York Times obituary. In her early 20s, working as an interpreter on General Douglas MacArthur's staff during the United States' post-World War II occupation of Japan, Gordon wrote women's rights into the Constitution of modern Japan, and is now recognized as a "feminist heroine" in the country. Gordon wrote The Only Woman in the Room, a memoir which looks back on this and other episodes from her life. 

"Beate was iconic — from her work on the Japanese Constitution to her groundbreaking work bringing performing artists to audiences across the U.S. as part of her work at the Asia Society," Cooper said. "She is famed in Japan for her work with MacArthur, and had a major impact on Asian performance, from traditional Burmese music and dance to Butoh-esque contemporary Kazuo Ohno. She will be remembered for inspiring a generation of artists and audiences on two continents."

Former Asia Society president Bob Oxnam, who worked closely with Gordon, submitted the following on his former colleague:

Beate Gordon is dead? I was shocked to hear the news. It seemed impossible. And then, a smile began to well up inside of me. Beate was the most alive person I ever met. She would not want mourning and weeping.

I was reminded of what a wise friend once said to me: “The only thing they can’t take away is the love you give away.” By that standard, Beate was the love-giver par excellence and that love flourishes today in the hearts of thousands around the world.

Of course, we all know that Beate singlehandedly created the modern Western appreciation of Asian performing arts. She had exquisite and demanding taste and a list of premiere performances that no one else will ever match. But the essence of Beate was not just what she did, but rather how she did what she did. She joyously linked people across the globe and created a beloved network of artists, art lovers, and wonderful souls.

And she lived what might be called a narrative life, relishing telling the stories of what happened along the way. I am reminded of two little Beate tales from the 1980s:

One day, after introducing Beate on the Asia Society’s auditorium stage, I accidentally tripped on the stairs, bouncing down a couple of steps, finally catching myself on the handrail. Seeing that I was okay, Beate offered a polite smile and erased my embarrassment by saying, “Bob, you did that so gracefully.”

When I travelled abroad as president of the Asia Society, I often encountered prominent Asians who said, “You work at the Asia Society? That’s the organization Beate runs, it must be great working for her.” I never corrected them, and when I told Beate about such encounters, she just gave me a knowing smile.

And so, when I think of Beate’s passing, I wipe away the tear in my eye, and think of  her radiant smile that will live on forever.

And this came in from another former Asia Society president, Vishakha Desai:

It’s an understatement to say that Beate Gordon was a legend in the field of Asian performing arts. She traveled the farthest corners of the region in search of the wonderful, and the rarely seen forms of dance and music at a time when most people in the U.S. were barely aware of the names of Asian countries, let alone their rich traditions of performing arts.

I first heard about the amazing impresario Beate Gordon when she invited Birju Maharaj, the great exponent of the north Indian classical dance form to perform at the old Asia Society for the first time in the early 1970s. I was a young museum professional and a classical Indian dancer myself. One of the accompanying artists of Birju Maharaj, a good friend of my family, came and stayed with us for a few days. She couldn’t say enough good things about Beate. It was clear from her expression that to be invited by Beate Gordon to perform at the prestigious Asia Society was one of the highest acknowledgements an Asian performer could receive.

As I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, I continued to marvel at Beate’s capacity to bring to America the most unusual  and authentic  dance performers from Asia as I was the beneficiary of her intrepid travels and research, mainly as an audience member. I remember seeing the Chhau dancers of Eastern India and a great Noh Master from Japan in Ann Arbor, and feeling jealous that someone had the job of finding such wonderful gems from all parts of Asia!

When I went to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, after my graduate studies and became the head of public programs, one of the first things I did was contact Beate at the Asia Society to collaborate with her to bring some of her rare finds, Asian masters, to Boston. And finally, I had the great pleasure of being her colleague at the Asia Society as I joined the institution as director of the museum while she was getting ready to retire after more than two decades at the Society.

We worked together for less than two years, but my association with her work for more than two decades allowed us to form a rich bond very quickly. We often talked about the issue of “authenticity” in the changing world of contemporary Asia and how one can determine quality if it was not simply about the “purity” of an art form. Beate had the uncanny ability to spot the star quality of avant garde Japanese dancers such as Eiko and Koma whom she premiered in 1976, while also recognizing the immense beauty of a voice of a Korean pansori singer.

Today, when Asian dance and music seem ubiquitous all over the United States, it’s hard to remember that  Beate Gordon played a singular role in introducing the finest forms of Asian performing arts to American audiences through her role at Japan Society and at Asia Society for more than three decades.

Although my professional connection with Beate was entirely in the field of Asian arts, I feel equally privileged to have known as a true feminist who helped draft the section on women’s rights for the Japanese Constitution. As a daughter of an early feminist who fought in India’s independence movement, I realize that we stand on the shoulders of great women leaders of the earlier generation for whom it was far more difficult to stand for the rights of women.

Beate is a national hero for the women of Japan who continue to fight for their place in the society, and she will remain a role model for all of us who care deeply about the role of arts and culture in promoting greater understanding in the world.

While we mourn the passing of the great Beate Gordon, we celebrate her long lasting legacy as a cultural leader and a committed humanist.

Senior Advisor and former Director of the Asian Cultural Council Ralph Samuelson wrote the following on Gordon:

Beate Gordon represented something so rare in our world today — an individual with a genuine understanding of beauty and the human heart; a person of broad knowledge and expertise spanning many fields; one who could synthesize disparate ideas into a meaningful whole; and for U.S.-Asia dialogue, a pathbreaking visionary. Personally and professionally, Beate valued truth and quality above all else, and she was uncompromising in her quest for both.

Beate Gordon had a significant impact on my own life and career. As a graduate student in the early 1970s, I was introduced and drawn to Asian performance traditions to a large degree through artists who were touring the United States under the auspices of her program at the Asia Society. Topeng from Bali, p’ansori from Korea, kathak and chhau from India, Edo-bayashi and Awaji puppetry from Japan—all became a major part of my education and helped me understand peoples and cultures beyond those of my own direct experience. Studying further in Japan, I could see that Japan's growing interest in the artistic traditions of Asia owed much to her pioneering Asia-U.S. efforts. And during my years at the Asian Cultural Council, I often looked to her esteem for other cultures and her exacting standards of excellence as an inspirational model.

Today the American public is generally familiar with numerous performing arts traditions of Asia, and Asian art forms have had a strong influence on the work of contemporary composers, choreographers, directors, designers, and other arts professionals. It is no exaggeration to say that Beate Gordon played the leading role in introducing us to these art forms and in showing us how they can be presented in a manner that is always respectful, never condescending or exoticizing. Her concern for artists and the traditions they represent and her devotion to educating the international community about the arts of Asia nurtured a true sense of respect and understanding across borders. She taught us much, she taught me much. Thank you, Beate.

Eiko Otake, dancer choreographer, submitted the following on Gordon:

Beate brought performing groups from so far away. Many of them had never left their villages before. How stunning these dancers, musicians and actors were! In addition to performances in New York, she also toured these artists to other cities in the U.S. Thus for two decades, many presenters and audiences were surprised, impressed, and affected by the art forms coming from very different cultures and lives in Asia. People were also educated by how she presented these artists.

Attending Beate's concerts, Koma and I learned so much about performing arts and about Asia. We felt connected to the rituals, bodies and faces of these people who came from places much further than Japan, distance-wise and lifestyle-wise. We grew up in Japan as Japanese, but in New York we felt we were becoming, or rather uncovering ourselves as, Asians.

It was also at her concerts that we witnessed many American artists and audience members really taking in such different cultures from what they grew up with. For so many, Beate was a guide to a new world, a world which operates in a very different manner from that of America. Each village is the center of the world for those who live and dance there. This was the time before the internet; the world was further apart and people lived more differently from other cultures, knowing much less about each other. In New York, Beate would call us, and many others, speaking politely but with a command, and say, "Magnificent dancers and musicians are here. You have to come see them." Always extending more invitations. A person to person, eye to eye, body to body, this was how Beate had significantly affected the American psyche — at least that of artists and art audiences. Luckily, this mission of Beate is very much inherited and continued by the Asia Society’s current performing arts curator Rachel Cooper.

Beate , you were a big tree. Many gathered near you to be encouraged. We met lifelong friends through you. You brought us many different kinds of nourishment from anywhere you extended your roots. Koma and I devoured what you gave us.

Beate — Koma and I miss you. Thank you.

Asahi Shimbun reminiscence about Beate Gordon, 3/30/13 (PDF)

Check back soon for more remembrances of Gordon, and please feel free to share your own thoughts in a comment below.

In the meantime, please enjoy this video of Gordon speaking at Middlebury College in 2007:

And here, you can watch Gordon deliver the 2011 commencement address at Mills College, her alma mater:

About the Author

Profile picture for user Dan Washburn

Dan Washburn is Asia Society's Chief Content Officer. The Financial Times named his book, The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream, one of the best of 2014.