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Essay, 10-20: Ways of Doing
Inside Chinese Modern Dance
By Jennifer Copaken
Copyright 2005 Jennifer Copaken
Photography by Steven Baillie
If the current feast
of offerings is any indication of a trend, U.S. audiences will have
ample opportunity to witness China's explosion of contemporary arts
first-hand. From ballet interpreting film to choreographers deconstructing
elements of traditional Beijing opera, artists from China are pushing
the boundaries within and across genres. China's father of rock
music, Cui Jian, predicted as much. In a 1990 conversation with
Sinologist Ross Terrill, he postulated, "Nationalism will give way
to internationalism. I don't want China to be thought of as a country
that can offer Chinese food and nothing else. I'm interested in
what Chinese culture can contribute to the world." Last week's performances
of Hong Kong-based City Contemporary Dance Company's "365 Ways of
Doing and Undoing Orientalism," reviewed here
by Maura Nguyen Donohue, will certainly fuel the dialogue surrounding
this exciting era of creative experimentation in China.
City Contemporary Dance Company in "365 Ways of Doing and Undoing
Orientalism," choreographed by Willy Tsao, Xing Liang and Sang
Jijia. Steven Baillie photo copyright Steven Baillie and courtesy
leave the work of critiquing this specific piece to my DI colleague.
Here, however, I'd like to take a broader look at some of the factors
affecting art-making in contemporary China, as well as some of the
assumptions that may frame our experience of these new works. Like
any piece of choreography, "365 Ways of Doing and Undoing Orientalism"
should not require an outsider's extended re-mix "program note"
to explain or interpret it. I'm simply suggesting that a look at
how contemporary dance has taken root in China over the past 15
years may broaden one's appreciation -- or deepen one's distaste
-- for what these artists present.
The conditions under
which art is created, both logistical and political, inevitably
touch the work, albeit in subtle ways. In the United States, choreographers
do not assume government support. Even the most avant-garde artists
depend on some combination of government grants, corporate sponsorship,
private patronage and touring in order to continue making and presenting
work. Savvy grant writers and fundraisers must understand the resources
available to them -- their ideals, their values, their motivations
-- in order to match a particular artist with an appropriate funding
source. Even within a good "match," it is often necessary to sketch
a blueprint for proposed new work that respects the needs of a particular
funding source. How much does this process affect the work? American
choreographers would probably protest sharply, "Not at all!"; to
pander to a granting source would be antithetical to the very ethos
of contemporary dance. But in an era of dwindling resources for
dance, there is strong motivation for artists to keep those who
fund them happy, especially if they hope to be repeat grant recipients.
Artists in China, however,
face a slightly different challenge. For many Chinese arts organizations,
not just dance companies, the days of the "iron rice bowl" are numbered,
if not over. Whereas in the recent past, artists could depend on
the government for support, current policy changes require them
to take on more and more financial responsibility themselves. The
local government in Guangdong province, for example, home of the
Guangdong Modern Dance Company, will not continue to fund what in
many ways have been ideal conditions for dance artists. In the late
'80s and early '90s, it would be commonplace to find dancers, choreographers,
lighting designers and musicians living together with unlimited
access to studios and performance venues. Lifetime salaries were
guaranteed. The price for these near-Utopian conditions? Government
The government's assumed
right to intervene might be overtly exercised or merely looming.
In an essay written for Ruth and John Solomon's "East Meets West
in Dance: Voices in the Cross-Cultural Dialogue," Claudia Gitelman
bears witness to the former. Gitelman taught an eight-week course
at the Guangdong Modern Dance Company in 1991. She describes how
government censorssuggested various "improvements" before a piece
was deemed suitable for public performance. In a PBS "Frontline"
segment, Matthew Corbin Clark details the notorious 1990 incident
in which the Ministry of Culture warned Cui Juan that his song "Balls
Under The Red Flag" would have to be eliminated from his concert
at a 450-capacity disco club in Shenzhen. In typical Cui Juan style,
he responded to their intrusion with an extra long encore performance
of the offending song. Authorities responded by canceling his concert
the following night.
Sometimes this intervention
takes a much less obvious form. For example, a glossy 1996 fifth
anniversary program published by the Guangdong Modern Dance Company
includes a mission statement written by Yang Meiqi, the company's
founder and first general director. She states that the company's
dancers "came together because they have a common belief: proclaiming
the value of individuality and yet respecting the collective energy,
following the artistic instinct and at the same time, accepting
the social responsibility." When questioned about this statement
in a recent interview, Willy Tsao, GMDC's current artistic director,
explains that it was probably written for the benefit of government
officials at the time. Tsao is quick to add that now, nearly a decade
later, this kind of government control has eased. Government officials
seem content to cede authority over content as they release themselves
of financial responsibility. Accordingly, the current environment
requires individuals to step in to keep these arts organizations
afloat. Such individuals tend to be those with an enduring passion
for the arts who also have access to the funds and expertise necessary
to support them. Willy Tsao is an excellent example of one such
individual. His commitment to contemporary dance has been both tireless
At the moment, Tsao
is the artistic director of the three major contemporary dance companies
in China, the ones which are afforded the greatest exposure both
within China and abroad: City Contemporary Dance Company (based
in Hong Kong), Guangdong Modern Dance Company (based in the southern
city of Guangzhou) and Beijing Modern Dance Company (based in the
political hotbed of Beijing). To western sensibilities, this might
seem absurd. Particularly in the United States, we are accustomed
to a kind of cult of personality around which a dance company forms.
How could Merce Cunningham possibly be the artistic director of
any company besides the Merce Cunningham Dance Company? Or Bill
T. Jones? Or Elizabeth Streb? Or Shen Wei? These choreographers'
movement vocabularies, processes and intentions are intimately tied
to who they are as individuals and how they define themselves as
artists. They hire dancers who can help illuminate these visions,
creating a vast range of what we consider to be contemporary dance.
But this assumption of how the system works is our western and particularly
In its current incarnation,
contemporary dance in China did not emerge out of cults of personality
or visionary artistic genius. Granted, in the early half of the
20th century, history records examples of individuals who experimented
with modern dance (sometimes referred to as "New Dance") in China,
such as Wu Xiao-bang and Madame Dai Ai-lian. In an essay contributed
to the Solomons' anthology, Chinese dance scholar Ou Jian-ping attributes
the failure of modern dance to take root during this time to a combination
of factors including economic, social, ideological, educational
and aesthetic ones. Willy Tsao adds that the primacy of Confucianism
in Chinese culture has historically caused the Chinese to look askance
at art forms that expose or celebrate the human body. Acrobats in
Beijing Opera, he explains, were considered lower in status than
singers or musicians. Tsao reasons that this tradition of suppressing
the body may have something to do with why an art form that uses
the body as a means of expression had a difficult time gaining momentum
Regardless of why, it
was not until the late '80s and early '90s that contemporary dance
began to evolve on a larger scale. When it did, companies formed
organically out of the existing system of dance training and arts
institutions, not around particular individuals' aesthetics. Of
course there are exceptions to this rule, and I'll come to those.
Perhaps these exceptions offer hints of what lies in store for the
future of contemporary dance in China.
But first, let's address
another question related to the original one of how logistical and
political contexts affect the process of choreography: How does
the particular system of creative process in China's three major
contemporary dance companies influence the work? For one, the choreography
is eclectic, both in style and content. Not only are companies not
created around one artist's vision, but also these companies value
the notion of dancers as choreographers in their own right. This
value is distinct from the current trend among contemporary choreographers
to credit their dancers with contributing to the creative process.
Literally, the triumvirate of contemporary dance companies under
Tsao's direction encourages dancers to create their own pieces and,
sometimes, to collaborate within a single work, using their highly
trained peers to realize their choreographic visions.
In lieu of a single
aesthetic vision, Tsao describes his role as artistic director as
follows: "I offer my vision of modern dance, which is freedom of
expression. I'm not dictating style. Each company has a resident
choreographer, and all the dancers are choreographers. The reason
I was invited (to be the artistic director of all three companies)
is not because they want the work of Willy Tsao. That's an American
conception for a company to be created around one choreographer's
work. We work with much more of a sense of collectivism. It's much
easier for Chinese dancers to come together to both create individual
work and submit to others' aesthetic values. The dancers are willing
to rehearse and work hard for one another." Tsao sees this value
as a core value of Chinese contemporary dance. It is less about
a particular movement style and more about a willingness to glide
in and out of the role of dancer and choreographer so that a company
can work as a collective.
One result of a system
that values the co-existence of many choreographers within a single
company is that the programs presented may not seem cohesive. But
to place a value judgment on this seeming lack of cohesion may be
less important than understanding the factors that lead to a perception
of it. Consider the endless combinations of life influences on these
choreographers. Putting dance training aside for a moment, these
individuals bring vastly different personal histories and experiences
to the creative process. "365 Ways of Doing and Undoing Orientalism,"
for example, was created by three choreographers: Sang Jijia, Xing
Liang and Willy Tsao. Sang Jijia was born in Tibet, sent to Beijing
to study dance, and has spent significant time in recent years working
with William Forsythe in Switzerland. Xing Liang studied dance from
a young age, lived and worked in Beijing, then Guangzhou, then Hong
Kong with stints abroad in the U.S. and Europe. Willy Tsao discovered
modern dance as a young adult studying abroad in the United States.
And these surface distinctions are only the beginning of the individual
differences among these three artists. Their personal experiences
arm them with unique perspectives regarding why and how to choreograph.
For example, discussing
a piece he presented at the Beijing Modern Dance Festival, Xing
Liang told Asiaweek's Ellen Hobson in 2000, "The choreography tends
to reflect the intimacy and need for self-preservation that living
in such a small, crowded place (i.e. Hong Kong) inspires. Beijingers
are more concerned with what's going on around them, exploring the
nature of the society they live in. We may all be Chinese, but our
lives are different." In our recent interview, Xing acknowledges,
"Installation artand William Forsythe are my strongest influences
at the moment. Installation art is actually a lot like choreography.
The former is about constructing a relationship of space and objects;
the latter is about structuring movements. While installation art
seems to be still, it's actually very much alive and full of fluidity."
Xing's point that the
choreographers in question are Chinese but living different lives
may be an obvious one, but his words brush upon another issue that
influences the work being created by contemporary artists in China
today. To what degree do Western audiences have specific expectations
of these choreographers by virtue of their "Chineseness," and to
what degree do these artists feel free to either confront or ignore
these expectations? Specifically, do we still see Chinese artists
as a collective and exotic "other," or do we have the inclination
to view the art without any presumptions? Writing in 1992, Terrill
predicted that "eventually the perception of China's exoticism will
break down before the universals of the human condition, and the
knowledge of China will merge with the knowledge of ourselves."
More than a decade later, are we there yet?
Tsao has his doubts.
In press materials for "365 Ways of Doing and Undoing Orientalism"
he writes, "There seems to be a Western perception of Eastern dance
-- a stereotype of what an Eastern dance or dancer should look like
on stage, even when it comes to modern dance on a modern stage.
The misconception that the Western world is ultra-modern and the
Eastern world is traditionally bound takes a strong hold not only
in the minds of most of the Western critics and audiences alike,
but also in the minds of the government officials with whom I've
had to deal. A Western modern dancer is free to go where his or
her imagination leads, whereas a modern dancer from the East better
make sure that their work has some cultural references, otherwise
the dancer could be blamed for imitating the West, or forgetting
their roots, or simply making no sense."
In our recent interview,
Tsao offered an anecdote to support these convictions. In February
of this year at the Joyce Theater, the Beijing Modern Dance Company
performed "Rear Light," a piece set to Pink Floyd's "The Wall."
One night, in the middle of a performance, an audience member yelled
out, "This is not Chinese!" Later, the house manager apologized
profusely to Tsao and the dancers, explaining that this was not
behavior typical of the Joyce's clientele. Tsao, however, suspects
that this audience member may have given voice to a thought many
people have (perhaps on a subconscious level) but know better than
to shout out loud in public. Tsao suggests that Westerners have
two images of China -- one that is "mysterious but passe," another
that is the "suppression represented by Tiananmen Square." He emphasizes,
"We just want to show honestly what we're thinking today. We're
not trying to put up a facade. We even play jokes about it (in elements
of stereotypical Chinese culture referenced or deconstructed in
"365 Ways of Doing and Undoing Orientalism"). We don't carry too
much burden. We're just artists; we're not making a national statement.
An artist should not be burdened with that. These are simply dancers
who happen to come from China. They are individuals. You don't have
to try to see something Chinese. We're not representing China."
Tsao's points are well
taken. At the same time, how can an audience NOT try to see or understand
something about China when even the title of a piece appears to
ask us these very questions, even if the attitude is tongue in cheek?
Perhaps the creation of "365 Ways of Doing and Undoing Orientalism"
was a necessary step for Tsao and his co-choreographers. By directly
confronting their frustration with the presumptions they assume
a Western audience will bring to the performance -- even, as Tsao
explains, "making jokes about it" -- perhaps these artists can give
themselves a clean slate to choreograph without this burden in future
What else might the
future of contemporary dance in China hold? Terrill may have been
onto something when he wrote, "Only as free individuals emerge and
make their own choices, I believe, will the issue of rejecting or
adapting Chinese tradition, and that of rejecting or accepting some
Western influence, be capable of resolution." How these artists
define such "freedom" in the future will, I suspect, be a highly
personal process. For some, it may mean continuing to work within
the shifting institutional frameworks in China. As Xing Liang told
me, "I think the whole idea is about whether you have enough resources
and time to create a new work, whether it's in China or abroad.
In CCDC, I have a lot of freedom to work. They support artists with
manpower and all kinds of resources. The advantage of working in
China is that I know the dancers and culture better. When I work
abroad, there's a lot I have to learn and analyze."
For others, working
outside institutions but within China is the answer. Willy Tsao
supports this strain of contemporary dance development by producing
an annual Contemporary Dance Festival in China. Here, not only do
the highly visible companies perform, but also choreographers from
all over China have an opportunity to share work. Some have started
their own grass-roots dance groups; others have left one of the
big three companies in favor of pursuing their art independently;
still others have little professional training but tremendous inspiration
and drive from having been minimally exposed to contemporary dance.
These independent artists remind me of something the DI's Aimee
Ts'ao once wrote in her piece comparing performances by ODC and Scott Wells
and Dancers. She posed the question, "How can a small, very low
budget dance company deliver so much more in terms of choreography
and performance than a larger, established, financially stable one?"
My guess is that whatever the answer is, it may apply to an elite
handful of choreographers who have the inclination to forge ahead
without institutional safety nets. Finally, for some choreographers,
it seems that working outside of China is the path that allows them
to tap into their personal histories and passions most effectively.
Regardless of where
and how these choreographers choose to pursue their creative goals,
one imperative crystallizes: in order for these artists to flourish,
Chinese and Western audiences alike need to leave their assumptions
at the door and judge this work the way one judges any creative
work: Does it move us? Do we connect to it? Does it show us something
beautiful or ugly or truthful or witty or simply original? Our reasons
for viewing art and contemporary dance in particular are deeply
personal. The point is, whatever that litmus test is, it is critical
that audiences remain as consistent and non-prejudicial to that
test when viewing these works as we expect the artists to be when
Jennifer Copaken is a Los Angeles-based choreographer, writer
and new mother. In 1995, she worked as a guest lecturer at the Guangdong
Modern Dance Company in Guangzhou, China. She holds a B.A. in history
and literature from Harvard College and an M.A. in Dance from the
Laban Centre for Movement and Dance in London.
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