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Flash Preview, 2-27: Chinese Modern
Blazing the Modern Trail with Guangdong

By Jennifer Copaken
Copyright 2001 Jennifer Copaken

(Editor's Note: Guangdong Modern Dance Company makes its New York debut tonight at the Joyce Theater. We asked Jennifer Copaken, who first worked with the company in 1995, to introduce Dance Insider readers to Guangdong, China's first modern company.)

GUANGZHOU, GUANGDONG PROVINCE, China -- I have eagerly anticipated the four months I am about to spend with the Guangdong Modern Dance Company. By the time the mini-van turns left onto Sha He Ding Road and left again onto the gravel alleyway leading to the company's studios, living quarters and small theater, I know lots of facts about the company's history.

I know that Yang Mei-qi (the company's founder and principal of the Guangdong Dance Academy) learned about western modern dance during a visit to the U.S. in 1986. Her proposal to start the first officially recognized modern dance group in China was met with significant resistance by the Chinese government, but she persisted and finally won the government's approval. With help from the Asian Cultural Council and the American Dance Festival, she launched the Guangdong Modern Dance Company in 1987. The first company had 18 members chosen from among some of the most accomplished dancers throughout China, including ballet, Chinese folk and Chinese classical dancers. I know that a range of American and European teachers have come here to teach for time periods ranging from one week to several months, their common goal being to "give the young dancers the tools with which to create a modern dance language based on their own traditions and cultures" and not to "impose American (or European) dance on Chinese bodies." I know that many of the original company members have left and been replaced by new members; some emigrated, while others went abroad to learn more and work in the dance world outside of China. One went to Beijing Dance Academy to jumpstart a modern dance program. Others have left dance altogether. One dancer went abroad to study and recently returned to become the company's in-house teacher and choreography workshop leader.

But the mini-van stops, and I am determined not to focus on facts.


I remained in China for eight months (double the original plan), returning to the U.S., reluctantly, in May of 1996. Here are some impressions and stories which have remained most clearly embedded in my consciousness:

1. One of the company's original dancers told me the story of how he passed the audition to get into the Guangdong Modern Dance Company. Two people held a long, bamboo pole in the center of the studio, each holding an end as in a limbo contest. The pole was only about two feet off the ground. The dancers were told to start at one end of the room and travel to the other. They could deal with the obstacle however they pleased. They eagerly lined up to perform incredible, athletic feats to cross over the pole: gravity-defying split leaps, tour jetes, perfect Peking-opera style jump turns, acrobatic tricks and flips and cartwheels. So this dancer waited until the end, figuring there had to be a trick. He'd never seen nor heard of modern dance until know, but he guessed they were looking for something different. How else would they choose? Much to the other dancers' shock, he simply walked to the center of the room, matter-of-factly stepped over the pole, and continued walking across the room. He was the only dancer from that audition who was invited to join the company.

2. Mei Mei was the name of a little girl, maybe four years old, who lived on the Guangdong Dance Academy grounds with her family. Her parents worked during the day, and she would entertain herself outside (of course watched over by the many "ayees" or "aunties" in the community) until they returned home. Her favorite toy was a brown cardboard box. Each day, the box transformed into something new. One day, it was her pet dog. Another day, she sat inside it and told me it was her car. Alternatively, it became a house, a bicycle, a doll, a monkey, and a flower.

3. The physical setting and daily routine were, in many ways, idyllic. Unlike dancers and choreographers in large American cities who must juggle grant writing, teaching yoga, organizing cross-town rehearsals and class and other day jobs, the dancers in Guangzhou have everything they need in one place. The company is situated on the grounds of the Guangdong Dance Academy, a pre-professional boarding school for dancers as young as eleven years old. Live musicians play for their classes, sometimes an entire quartet of traditional instruments. The studios have wood floors and are designed with multiple windows and open doors. The music drifts to all corners of the community, even the construction sites in and around the school. Each day has its own score, a blending of pipa, metal hammers on metal pipes and bulldozers scooping mounds of rocky earth.

The dancers, musicians, administrators and students all live and work within this enclosed community. At the center stands a large courtyard/basketball court. Simple concrete buildings, two or three stories high, surround this courtyard. Some serve as dance studios, others as dormitory-style living quarters. The young students live approximately six to a room. The company dancers each have their own place, a single room and private bathroom. Another section of apartments houses an array of artists and workers: the lighting designer and his family, the technical director, the costume designer and her family, the company secretary.

Ma Shouze, an original company member who was my classmate at the Laban Centre in London, leads company class each morning. After two years studying in London, Shouze returned to become the company's in-house teacher. His class borrows elements from our teachers in London: some Limon-based exercises, some release work, and even a balletic tendu combination. But there is something very unique about it. The arms often follow circular patterns. And there is something more: a kind of musicality and flow that seems very natural to this room of dancers -- steady, delicate, but strong.

The class follows a familiar structure, beginning with floor work, then a standing warm-up. Shouze seems to enjoy playing with these warm-ups, sometimes "choreographing" them so that each line starts four or eight counts ahead of the next. The result, both for those of us taking class and those watching, is a feeling of continuous, undulating motion spread throughout the enormous studio. Then on to "across the floor" sequences and, finally, complex combinations full of twists and turns and direction shifts. The company travels abroad often and is well-versed in the aesthetic of contemporary dance "cool"; the dancers are careful not to "show off" their dazzling technique in class. Yet, Shouze's combinations usually offer them a moment or two to call it forth -- a moment of stillness, leg held at 160 degrees, that kind of thing. The dancers are quietly grateful for the opportunity, I think. They are amazingly quick to pick up new material.

After company class, we go together to a small, metal siding-enclosed room near the theater, where I lead two mini-lectures, one on a dance history and the other on recent developments in the European contemporary dance scene. I encourage discussion and debate as much as possible. Language presents an obvious challenge. I am not picking up Mandarin very quickly a word here and there, but not nearly enough to communicate concepts and ideas. Often, Shouze helps me prepare Mandarin/English vocabulary lists for the next day's topic. I rely heavily on the company translator, non-verbal communication, video images and humor to engage the dancers. In the beginning, it is difficult. Over time, our discussions become fun, enlightening and sometimes quite moving.

It was during one of these sessions, for example, that I first heard about earlier developments in Chinese modern dance (later, I would learn more details on this topic from Ou Jian Ping, China's leading dance scholar). In 1902, for example, a Chinese diplomat's daughter living in Paris studied briefly with Isadora Duncan. This young woman, Yu Rong-ling, performed Isadora's "Greek Dance" in the Royal Palace of Empress Ci Xi. Denishawn and Irma Duncan's Russian students performed in China twice, in 1925 and 1928. Later, a Chinese dancer named Zu-pei was introduced to an Isadora-influenced ballet teacher in Japan. He returned to Shanghai in 1934 to open the Xiao-Bang Dance Institute and gave his first originally-choreographed concert in 1935. He went back to Japan, where he was introduced to German modern dance, then back to China, where he created a series of politically themed dances. Eventually, Zu-pei opened the Heavenly Horse Dance Studio, where he tried to apply German modern dance concepts to Chinese themes and music. Madame Dai Ai-lian also studied German modern dance at the Mary Wigman and Joos-Leeder schools before returning to China.

A particularly moving moment: I show the group a "video dance" performed by CanDoCo, a professional British dance company comprised of both wheel chair-bound and non-wheel chair-bound dancers. The work is daring, athletic and, at times, hysterically funny. The piece ends; silence. I remember how my classmates and I felt the first time we saw CanDoCo perform live in London, confronting taboos and unleashing fresh, kinetic choreography which blew us away. It's easy to take the politically correct line that every body can dance, but this company pushes the boundaries. Here we watch a dancer with no legs who has developed his own technique based on tremendous upper body strength and agility. He dances with dynamism, musicality and sensitivity. Watching him perform, I felt the same adrenaline rush I felt the first time I saw Baryshnikov leap. The silence enveloped us, and we let it do so.

After this class, the dancers eat lunch and rest. Later in the afternoon, they re-convene back at the studio to rehearse. They take turns leading these rehearsals, depending on who is choreographing at a particular time. They are encouraged to make new pieces and enjoy many opportunities to perform in all kinds of settings. While I was there, the company performed for students at the local sports college, and they hosted a festival of contemporary arts which culminated in an evening of company members' work performed in their own small theater. During that week, they also performed an "environment" dance which took place on the basketball court. I remember the young dance academy students crowding onto their narrow, concrete dormitory balconies to get a better view. Some pointed and giggled when, in the middle of the piece, one of the dancers gets hoisted into the basket. Others simply stared, wide-eyed -- Mei Mei (and her, er, cat?) included.

The studios remained open in the evenings. The dance academy students practiced constantly. Sometimes I'd watch as they executed a single leap or barrel turn, over and over. Or they'd stand, inches from the mirror, practicing some very specific folk dance gesture. Often they watched one another, giving corrections and feedback. Sometimes the girls would hang from the ballet barres in a way that forced the arches in their back to develop even further. Some of the company dancers took advantage of this time. Two particularly dedicated dancers in the company, a couple, often used the time to work on their own piece, a haunting duet about sleeplessness. Sometimes, Shouze and I would use the time to play with material for the next day's class, experimenting with different sequences.

4. While I was there, other foreign teachers and choreographers came to visit. A German company, Rubato, was asked to make a piece for the company. My understanding was that even though Yang Mei-qi's goal was to nurture the dancers as choreographers, she was also eager to include works by established choreographers in the repertory. The two choreographers from Rubato were wonderful. I think they only had one or two weeks to make the piece, and they came with a very clear idea for its structure. But much of the actual movement they solicited from the dancers during improvisational workshops. For example, they asked the dancers to each come up with three different sleeping positions. Then they asked them to find a way to move from the first, to the second, to the third as seamlessly as possible. All of this was done on the floor. Then, they asked the dancers to transpose this position to a vertical plane but while maintaining the integrity of the shapes and movement. Finally, they lined the dancers up, one in front of the other, and directed them to move through their individual sequences simultaneously. The result was stunning: a human pinwheel with multiple movable parts.

Later, choreographer-performers Eiko and Koma visited the company. They did not make a piece, but they performed in the theater, including a post-performance discussion. They also led a series of butoh-like improvisations culminating in a trip to a local park. Each dancer found a special place in one area of the park: some in trees, others in the grass, others on the ground near a pond. For one hour, we improvised, using the images and experiences which had unfolded in the studio throughout the course of the prior week.

They also invited Chinese performers to share their work with the dancers in the Guangdong company. Wen Hui, an independent choreographer in Beijing, came to Guangzhou with her actor partner and performed a dance-theater piece which dealt with the issue of abortion. Wen Su, a woman who had taken a few modern dance classes with Wang Mei in Beijing (Wang Mei was one of the original company dancers who helped start a new modern dance group at the Beijing Dance Academy), also came to Guangzhou to make a piece on the company. She had worked in the realm of Chinese folk dance and won a commercial choreography competition.

Wen Su was never part of an official modern dance program; she is an example of one of those artists who created dances because it was naturally, in her bones, what she needed to do. When we spoke, she explained that she didn't really even know what modern dance was; she just found ways to make dances which were important to her within the dance worlds she knew. Her work was remarkably unique. She took a traditional folk dance done with handkerchiefs and inverted, distorted, and enlarged it. What was interesting about Wen Su was that she was completely unselfconscious about the commercial work she did. She understood that commercial work could be very shallow and limiting to an artist ("They tell you the song you must use and sometimes they even tell you the feeling they want before you start"), but she saw the creative potential. She explained that as a choreographer, you always have some limitation -- either time, or number of dancers, or abilities of the dancers. She saw commercial constraints as just another limitation which a good artist could use in the creative process. She said "commercialism" is about the state of mind of the artist. If you are lazy and just do the easiest, flashiest thing, then it's not art. But if you take the challenge seriously and work with rigor, there's no reason commercial work can't have artistic merit.

As I listen to this woman, ever-determined to hold onto her unconventional ideas and aware of the discipline needed to put muscle behind the words, I know that contemporary dance is alive and well in China. The Guangdong Modern Dance Company has given institutional credibility to the art form, so much that I have heard the modern dance program in Beijing has now been officially "recognized." I've also heard murmurings about yet another group coming together in Shanghai. Perhaps someday, the original company members currently working abroad will return to contribute new dimensions to the landscape. Perhaps the 21st century will prove to be a golden era in the history of contemporary Chinese dance. I don't know. But I know there will always be Wens and Mei Meis who will see the bicycle in the cardboard box, and who will keep the contemporary dance ethos burning.


Jennifer Copaken is a San Francisco-based choreographer. Her work has been presented by the Shanghai Ballet, Mulberry Street Theatre, Parparim Israeli Dance Ensemble, La Mama ETC, H.E.R.E., Karmel International Dance Festival and Kiya Dance Theatre. She has been published in Dance Theatre Journal and Dance Magazine. She received a B.A. in history and literature from Harvard and an M.A. in Dance from the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance in London. She is a former New York City public school teacher.


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