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Flash 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.
Hong Kong's 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 CCDC.

I'll 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 intervention.

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 and proactive.

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 American perspective.

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 in China.

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 works.

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 creating them.

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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