|On Curation: The development of Danscross and walking with Zhuangzi|
This is a story which has been organised not only by the chronology of the events, but also by an attempt to identify and draw together some thematic strands gleaned from the experience of curating the ArtsCross initiative. It focuses largely on the early phase: the development of the project as a collaboration between ResCen Research Centre and the Beijing Dance Academy over a three year period and the first presentation and conference. The history of this initiative is one of organic growth, a development which has responded to evolving research concerns as well as the evolving relationships between the partners. The initiative as a whole has included a series of projects: first Danscross: Dancing in a shaking world (Beijing 2009); then ArtsCross Taipei 2011: Uncertain…waiting…; followed by ArtsCross Beijing 2012: Light and water and finally ArtsCross London 2013: Leaving home: being elsewhere.
We have achieved much and, while we still look forward to achieving more, it might be helpful to take stock of the achievements, to leave for a moment the critical eye, perhaps more prevalent in dance than many other disciplines, to enumerate the accomplishments and to reiterate the foundational principles. The heart of ArtsCross is formed by concepts of partnership and exchange, a breadth of engagement, and a commitment to seeking to ensure an equitable exchange, in line with Confucian principles.
This means recognising the artists as creators and communicators of knowledge; acknowledging the validity of the range of perspectives informing the work of academics from Beijing, Taipei, London and Singapore, Japan and USA; valuing the engagement and contributions of professional arts partners, and the work of students, organisers and language assistants who make the project possible.
The combined contributions of the professional arts sector, conservatoires and universities are key to the project and ArtsCross London 2013 involved strengthening existing partnerships with Beijing Dance Academy, Taipei National University of the Arts, Queen Mary, University of London, University of Exeter, a UK arts agency Step Out Arts and the UK home of contemporary dance, The Place, and saw the addition of a new partner, the Confucius Institute, Goldsmiths College, London. This is a large, ambitious and complex project and the need for continuous communication, in both English and Mandarin, means that everyone is stretched and working intensively. The challenges are intrinsic to achieving the depth of the exchange – we designed this initiative to go beyond the achievements of more conventional performance festivals, conferences and one-off seminars, by working together over weeks and months to arrive at a place of mutual trust, which is a requirement for the sustainability of ArtsCross.
During the three projects over 150 undergraduate and postgraduate arts students have been involved as performers, documentors and interpreters; over 40 researchers have been involved in the observation of creative process and performance, and have blogged and debated the issues of cross/intercultural arts and exchange; and over 50 interpreters and project assistants have worked to provide an enabling and supportive context.
We have now formed what can only be described as a large and often lively family of artists, academics, documentors, interpreters, project coordinators and directors. Our network crosses disciplinary, cultural and national boundaries but we have found much to unite us. In this time of rapid change and shifting geopolitical relations, the work of artists brought together from distant places has a special resonance, and offers insights into the dialogue and exchanges that are required to communicate across cultures in a meaningful way. We examine the particular in order to glimpse the panoramic, and we hope to share this with internet communities who read the blog and engage with photos and videos, with audiences through performances, with conference delegates and more widely through academic and professional journals and the media.
ArtsCross is designed to provide a range of benefits to those involved including students who experience an international, intercultural environment that will be a feature of their working lives; postgraduate students who as performers or interpreters deepen their engagement with cultural and cross-cultural issues; recent graduate and more experienced performers who develop both their professional experience and international networks; higher education researchers and the research community; and choreographers who have an opportunity to experiment with emerging ideas in an intercultural context and to discuss the concerns of the art form with professional and higher education colleagues. Future writings will examine the developments from 2011-13 in more detail – this posting is largely focused on the origins and the key concerns of the early stages when many of the principles were articulated and tested.
The shift in name from Danscross to ArtsCross in 2011 reflected the inclusion of academics from theatre and performance disciplines, a development welcomed by all despite the fact that the initiative remained known as Danscross in China in order to recognise the origins and continuity of the enterprise. In this piece of writing I will refer to the whole initiative as ArtsCross in the interests of concision, unless I specifically refer to an event that is particular to the 2009 Danscross project. It should also be noted that the key projects noted above were supplemented by other activities undertaken by ResCen Research Centre as the focus on China and Chinese-speaking contexts led to other connections and undertakings, including ResCen's involvement in the Olympic initiative Big Dance Beijing in June-July 2012. Some of this is evident, represented elsewhere on the ResCen website and on Vimeo, but some background activity has been heretofore invisible partly through my desire to avoid an over-dominant personal presence, in order to allow the artists and academics to find their own sense of Beijing, Taipei, China and of the partners, both the institutions and individuals, with whom we work. My goal has been to be the software, the enabling program which is visible only when it fails or a glitch appears. I have reflected on these matters following discussions with the ResCen Research Associate Artist (RAA), Ghislaine Boddington, whose thinking about her practice as Creative Director and facilitator has informed my own views and practice in relation to ArtsCross.
The thematic strands presented here have been selected from many possible candidates partly through personal interest and partly as they have been perennial concerns, or perhaps more accurately, 'active ingredients' which have appeared in each of the projects. The activities I have undertaken in ArtsCross have been characterised as 'curation' a practice that seems closest to the heart of this initiative, although in this instance there may a greater emphasis on navigating and negotiating new contexts than implied by the Oxford English Dictionary definition which presupposes that the knowledge and expertise required to 'select, organise and present' has already been attained
Curate OED: verb [with object]
I hope that I have used 'professional knowledge' and indeed, the BDA's acceptance of the initial proposal was dependent on the experience I had gained over many years working in and through dance as an artist, an academic and a facilitator. I stress this point as it will also become apparent that, despite learning something about classical Chinese philosophy from my father, I knew little of modern day China at the outset of the first project, Danscross. My relevant experience in dance was therefore balanced by an absence of experience and knowledge of China, Chinese institutions and the narratives of contemporary Chinese discourses. I had much to learn, but fortunately I was armed with an essential piece of information: I knew that I did not know, a point that we will return to later.
In the passages that follow I will focus discussion on three strands: Text and Context, Project Design as an ongoing feature of ArtsCross and Translation, which for these purposes includes interpretation of verbal communications, translation of written materials and conversion between contexts, media and forms. In keeping with the ResCen mission of making as much available as widely as possible, live internet links to many references are included in the endnotes should readers wish to investigate further.
I should also note that I will refer to dualities such as East and West, Chinese and British, although we have largely passed through these seemingly irreconcilable polarities. Nonetheless they informed the early thinking about the development of the initiative, they were and remain pertinent to Chinese discourses, and it is sometimes still productive to articulate the extremes in order to test their validity and/or to destabilise the assumptions that underlie them. Our intention has always been to move beyond these terms through problematising their use and this discussion is ongoing at present.
Another facet of the dynamics informing this writing has been the use of digital resources and the intention to create a digital resource for others. So, the writing has relied not only on traditional resources such as books and artefacts (including those in the BDA Museum) but also on e-versions of newspapers, websites and e-publications such as Kindle downloads of books. These are the materials (if digital resources can be called materials) that are available to the itinerant academic, accessed while in hotels, airports and on trains in common with students and young people who are increasingly mobile and online in many countries. It has seemed natural for such projects and the processes that shape them to be represented in web formats and for even more traditional scholarly modes to take their place alongside the video and blog content.
It is hoped that this mixed mode presentation of materials will be useful to others and that a greater degree of insight can be gleaned from the use of this range of registers and modes. We committed ourselves to this path in 1999 when ResCen was established in the belief that both the modes of representation available on the internet and the access that could be achieved would be the most effective means of disseminating the work and that these tools would continue to develop. This has come to pass, but it is important to remember that not everyone has access to broadband internet and that some sites are not available everywhere – this last point is especially pertinent to those working and/or living in China. Nonetheless we still believe that the internet is the least worst way, if not unequivocally the best way, to share the thoughts, concerns and outcomes of the ArtsCross initiative.
We are improving our reach, by increasing the use of Chinese-language postings on our site, by linking with Chinese sites such as Yukou Tudou which posts video content, and by using Weibo, the Chinese microblogging service. It was especially gratifying when the ResCen site was noted by researchers in Beijing and Taipei as a valuable resource for those wishing to share writings on performance as it is still not possible to exchange materials freely between them using other channels. This then is the story of ArtsCross, but it is interwoven with other ResCen developments and the work of artists within and outwith ResCen has also informed this story, offering another strand to a key ResCen concern: artists' creative processes and they ways that they describe their work.
Text and Context
On my first trip to Beijing to discuss the project in 2006, I looked for knowledge of China in the narrow hutongs and wide imposing roads of Beijing, in visits to historical and modern sites and in reading English-language newspapers. I explored the city using taxis, the subway and then a bicycle purchased locally. Through searching for Chinese-English maps, I happily discovered a group of Haidian bookstores which featured classical Chinese texts newly translated into English and often including the original Chinese as well. There I found Zhuangzi a bookwhich intrigued me for two reasons: first it was presented as a key Daoist text which I recalled my father mentioning, but even more significantly I understood that the Chinese recovery project, or Chinese Renaissance, a phrase I had read in the China Daily, was underway and that a new/old spirit was gathering energy .
Beijing was undergoing massive change, partly in preparation for the 2008 Olympics but also as part of an ongoing modernisation project. The subway (underground) system was new and efficient with wifi available almost everywhere, flat screen monitors above each set of doors, announcements in Mandarin and English and advertising displays on some of the tunnel walls which streamed together into single images as the trains passed. Large parts of the city were being demolished and rebuilt and wide roads were replacing narrow hutongs. While opinions seemed divided on some of the changes, an enormous sense of pride was also evident in many people I met. China was returning to the world stage and the performance that announced and embodied this moment was being prepared.
This was China as a country emerging from a modernising revolution and a Cultural Revolution which had each sought to eliminate the past. It was now restoring its national narrative as culture spanning millennia creating an apparent contradiction of old and new identities, with which Zhuangzi would have been entirely happy, but which was both puzzling and intriguing to me. In 2006, I realised that the viability and success of our collaborative project rested to a great extent on my ability to understand and to navigate the context of both the Beijing Dance Academy and of China today. I was at the beginning of a path wending its way through the Danscross and ArtsCross projects and through the work of Zhuangzi, a mystical figure whose name was actually Zhuang Zhou (ca. 389-326 BCE), and whose writings have been described as playful or even incoherent by some commentators, but also as offering a 'delicious experience of grappling…and being jostled about' (Ziporyn 2009: Introduction).
This was the man who proposed the question about reality by saying that he had dreamt he was a butterfly but awoke to realise that he was a man, only to later worry that he might really be a butterfly dreaming that he was a man….
Reading Zhuangzi reminded me of the Chinese view that our perceptions and actions are interwoven with the things on which they act and led me to see that contradiction may not be an enemy of understanding, in fact grappling with contradiction may be a doorway to understanding, especially when the thing to be understood is a culture as long-standing, as vast and diverse as China. Seeing the breadth and depth of the context led me to view the text in this instance as those matters particular to our research, i.e. not only the performances and writings created by artists and academics, but also the materials of the medium and the practices and processes that engage and shape them. I am therefore considering each project to constitute a text whereas the context, by contrast, is the wider social, cultural, national and artistic forces forming and informing the work of the artists and academics engaged in each project – literally the wider sphere within which each project is located. Parts of the context may of course be invisible and/or unknown to the artists and academics just as it was for me.
There is a sound case for saying that the proposed division between text and context, especially when characterised as above, is not clear and the distinction is designed primarily to be helpful to productive discussion rather than as a definitive judgement. This is simply because of my observation that the academics and artists who have been involved from 2009 to 2013, have all arrived with a clear sense of the text, their discipline of dance and/or performance and the processes and products inherent to it, even if perceptions differ, while the context has been largely unknown, or subject to widely differing, sometimes unconscious, understandings and over-generalised classifications such as 'East', 'West', 'Chinese' and 'British'. Over time some of the elements of context became conscious and were often articulated in discussions and in writing, making the transition from context to text.
From the outset however, it seemed clear to me that the Chinese had a better sense of who they were, and their own associated cultural assumptions, as well as a better sense of the 'western' perspectives brought by many of the visiting academics in 2009 (with the exception of Naomi Inata from Tokyo – more about this later). There was therefore an imbalance in the familiarity each brought to the project. The Chinese academics and artists had heard of Graham, Cunningham, Tricia Brown and of contemporary artists such as Akram Khan – the western academics had heard of almost no Chinese artists except for those very few located in the West. This is not surprising given the history of the past decades and even centuries when the discourse, discussion and intellectual and artistic movement has arguably been west to east.
This has not always been the case however, and I learned more about that in China, or more precisely on my way to China. I noticed the article's title with interest, 'As the tide turns' in the International Herald Tribune on 30th October 2006. The journalist, Andy Mukherjee referred to the present age as the end of 'the aberration', by which he meant the relatively short period in recorded human history in which the West has been dominant over the East. This period of western dominance began with the European Industrial Revolution about 300 years ago – in the 4,000 to 5,000 years of recorded human history before that moment, Asia was economically more productive and controlled a majority of world trade. Which means that, for the first time in recorded human history, the West is losing economic dominance, an economic dominance that may seem to many to be the 'natural order' partly due to the history of the immediate past and perhaps because we are imbued with a European view of world history as G.K. Bhambra detailed in Rethinking Modernity: postcolonialism and the sociological imagination (2007).
In 2006, prior to the financial crash, my impression was that few westerners were aware of this history and even fewer could countenance the possibility that things would rapidly change, that the geo-political tectonics plates would shift so suddenly. The broad sweep of history became more apparent to me and I recalled the possibly apocryphal story of the former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai who was asked for his views on the French Revolution. Zhou paused, before saying 'well, it's too soon to say'. The truth of the story and its meaning is contested, but for me it provided a resonance with other events and encounters on the way to agreeing and establishing Danscross.
A report in the Chinese English language press in Beijing also provided some further context. It referred to an ongoing debate concerning how to manage the ruins of the Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan which is also located in Haidian District in Northwest Beijing. I looked for further information and found a recent report from 2005 in the People's Daily online[iv] in which Ye Yanfang a researcher of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (somewhat like the British Economic and Social Science Research Council) put forward the view that the ruins should remain as ruins. He stated:
The article also helpfully informed me that Yuanmingyuan was destroyed by French and British forces in 1860 in an act designed to publicly humiliate the Chinese and to end decisively the Opium War. I have continued to follow the debates surrounding the restoration of Yuanmingyuan and was interested to find another news item provided by the Culture in Development website in 2012. It noted the sale at a London auction house of an article looted from Yuanmingyuan and which ironically attracted an enhanced monetary value due to the inscription, which identified both the status of the object as loot and the identity of the looter.
The website notes:
The website goes on to provide further context which offers more graphic details of the events:
I had only the vaguest impression of these events and I am fairly certain that they did not feature prominently in my history lessons at school. However, it was clear to me during my visits to China in 2006 that these events were still live in Chinese consciousness and they provided a frame into which two short sentences in a speech by Mao Zedong achieved and continue to assume central importance in China: 'Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation. We have stood up.' [vi]
These words were not spoken by Mao at the opening ceremony of the PRC as is often reported, but rather a week earlier on 21 September 1949 as part of the opening address of the First Plenary Session of the People's Political Consultative Conference. The ongoing debates give these words continued resonance in China even today which led me to consider more deeply the initiative we were planning and its wider significance.
I include this lengthy discussion not only as it demonstrates an absence in western understanding of Chinese history and of China today; more importantly it demonstrates an absence in our understanding of who we are, in particular a appreciation of the history of empire, emigration, occupation and nation-building that created the 'Anglosphere' of the UK, USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, interestingly recently identified as the 'five eyes' nations who share secret intelligence. [vii]
I must caution however, against an overly post-colonial or politicised reading of the entire debate, as many aspects discussed in relation to the future of Yuanmingyuan would be familiar to western readers. These include the ethics of restoration and of theme parks, the role of the state and private enterprise and how best to represent the past to contemporary audiences. Interestingly, the example of Britain has often been cited at Chinese conferences discussing such matters, extolling the virtues of the British approach to combining the past with the present, the traditional with the modern.
These familiar themes were reassuring when planning our collaborative initiative as points of commonality were not always easily identifiable, and I became increasingly aware that the ways of expressing such points might also inhibit understanding and therefore prevent meaningful progress. This became evident on one occasion, during a difficult time when the Danscross rehearsal schedule was disrupted by sudden changes to the casting of a performance work external to the project. We worked to find the compromise that would allow the Danscross choreographers to complete their work in the very limited time available to them (which was about nine days). The discussions went above the departmental level and a senior BDA staff member arrived at the rehearsal room to discuss matters with me. He told me: 'China is like a boiling pot, what is seen on the surface is the product of things deep below which are hidden from our view'.
Not only did he refer a context that was invisible to western eyes, he used a poetic formulation which was also unfamiliar, but which has a long history in China. Despite my attempts to move away from the group waiting to rehearse, the conversation was overheard by a western academic who had just arrived and who was experiencing the first rehearsal day of that phase of the project. Afterward she confided that she had not understood any of what had been said…. This is only one example of how the Beijing context, and my attempts to understand it, was intrinsic to the development of the initiative and how the communication of the context to others was problematic. In part I wished to avoid over-prescribing the perceptions of the visitors, but it was also challenging to find succinct ways of describing the wider context: even understanding the BDA was not easy as its remit and range were beyond that of any western institution as I note later.
There is also the confusion in Chinese dance of the co-existence of the explicit with the more poetic largely as a result of the impact of socialist realism in China and works such as the Red Detachment of Women. Also potentially confusing is the nostalgia manifested in contemporary performances of works such as the Red Detachment of Women, despite the dismay openly expressed by many about the Cultural Revolution. However, one senses that the ambiguity of Chinese poetry and visual art is not often manifested in dance, perhaps as a result of performance used as a tool for conveying specific messages in the recent past. François Jullien has written of the ways in which Chinese traditional visual art references the unfathomable or non-visible and my experience of China today is that this tradition is still alive, although often manifested in different ways.
An interesting example of a contemporary reference to classical Chinese poetry appeared in November 2012 immediately following the announcement of the decisions regarding the membership of the new Central Politburo Standing Committee (CPSC), the leading policy-making body in China. The following poem appeared in both text message and internet formats and is still (30 October 2013) available on some Chinese websites.
The intentions of the author(s) are not clear, but the use of language and the interwoven references to each CPSC member's family name seems sophisticated and subtle, and of course strongly references Chinese classical poetry. The inclusion of Wang Yang who was being considered but ultimately was not selected is another interesting aspect. The pinyin (a transcription of the sounds of Mandarin Chinese characters) and the English translation have been added to this version and the names of the leaders highlighted.
In the midst of the familiarisation process it was clear that the most important context for me to understand was the Beijing Dance Academy, which presented some challenges as well as some reassuring resonances with western institutions. While the realisation that the BDA had two leaders, one art form specialist (the President) and one Communist Party official (whom we agreed to call the Chairman despite his full title being Secretary of Beijing Dance Academy Committee of Communist Party of China) was unsettling and intriguing, conversations with both flowed easily and the Chairman's interest in classical Chinese history and contemporary culture and the arts was stimulating.
The institution itself, with forty-nine studios (in 2012 the BDA was expanded to sixty-four studios and three theatres) was established with Russian assistance and the training regime introduced at that time appears to have altered the traditional Chinese forms fundamentally. The BDA remit to preserve Chinese classical and folk dance forms is therefore problematic and is the subject of debate within the institution and amongst Chinese academics more generally.
I had read Song and Silence: Ethnic Revival on China's Southwest Borders (Davis 2005) as a preparation to understanding China's 'ethnic' dance forms, and the part they play in the PRC's cultural palette. [Viii] The book was informative although it may have over-emphasised the 'political assimilation' aspect and underplayed the more general issue of the difficulties inherent in representing folk dance traditions in a proscenium performance mode, which seems an international concern. I was sensitive to this in part because of previous discussions with students and academics about the state of English and Scottish folk dance and Israeli folk dance, and through seeing staged performances of Korean folk dance. Nonetheless, I realised that a key underlying question concerned how China could take its place as a modern, significant force on the world stage, without losing aspects of its historical culture which it valued. Amongst all of the associated politics, the ethics and the potential difficulties surrounding the preservation of intangible culture, it was nonetheless somewhat refreshing to see a government that considered culture and the arts seriously.
I was also very aware that the BDA as one of China's leading cultural institutions was taking a risk that might be potentially damaging for those responsible. Our project involved international collaboration, a large-scale public performance and the allocation of significant resources to an untried initiative; it involved significant disruption to the timetable and to the teaching and rehearsing which is the core mission of the BDA and which is taken very seriously by staff and students alike; it involved some conceptual leaps in accepting new practices in research and finally it involved placing a great deal of trust in my sincerity and ability to deliver what had been promised. None of these was inconsequential, but my passion for the endeavour and for the potential of contributing to the creative development of artists and dance in China and the UK meant that I did not suffer from many sleepless nights – only a few of them.
The quest to achieve an understanding of the BDA also led me to ask about the words on an ornamental rock at the main gate of the BDA, which I was curious about. I asked for a translation and heard again the now familiar refrain, 'the cradle of dancers'.
There were also posters on display which I imagined to be announcements exhorting greater effort and devotion to dance and to country. Once again I asked for translations and this time requested them in writing as the pinyin might assist me in my efforts to learn some spoken Mandarin.
My instincts were correct and the poster was revealed as conveying messages designed it seemed to be inspirational and patriotic. However, while there may be hidden meanings in these public announcements, I was almost disappointed to discover that they seemed relatively benign despite the mention of the flag, which sometimes raises uncomfortable feelings in the UK where it has been seen as an overly-nationalistic symbol, and has stimulated posturing by some politicians.[ix] However, any sense of unease in the BDA announcement was mitigated by the fact that the glass-encased poster display stand also seemed to serve a practical purpose as a bicycle park, providing a symbol of pragmatic normality.
If my observations outside of the BDA gave me further information about the wider context of the institution, my hours of time inside the buildings offered the kind of direct insight into the staff, students, dance forms, routines and rituals which in a broad sense are common to dance institutions everywhere, although the particularities of each are fascinating. In the BDA, not only was the range of dance forms surprising - from ballroom to ballet, from a variety of folk forms and Chinese classical dance to modern dance and the gymnastics, Tai Chi and jogging sessions added yet another dimension.
In addition, the fifteen hundred regular BDA students were replaced on the weekends by another fifteen hundred local students, whose parents often accompanied them, so each weekend saw double-parked cars outside the BDA and all along the surrounding streets.
The process of my familiarisation with the BDA was enjoyable and stimulating and during this time I learned more about the breadth of contemporary China and its place in the world. I understood better the BDA desire to develop its research culture and to engage with practice and research as befitted a conservatoire and research institution. However, I also became aware of my unconscious sense of certainty about dance, the arts and culture –assumptions I did not even know I had, were being unsettled and there were new forms and new ideas to explore.
Later I will discuss in more detail notions of reflexivity and the ways in which engaging with texts and contexts of 'the other' illuminate the home or 'habitus' of the observer. This impetus became more significant as ArtsCross developed and for me has now become a strand of investigation in its own right. However, I realised that for some this is not an interest or concern even though I see it as foundational – how can observations be made in another culture, when the observer is not conscious of the cultural forces that have shaped their perceptual filters and continue to inflect thought? Complete consciousness of one's culture and 'habitus' may not be possible or even desirable, as it might prove a paralysing barrier to thought and action, but without the awareness that each of us has been socialised and shaped by cultural forces, we may only be seeing the products of those forces, and not the phenomena that we are attempting to perceive.
With these self-monitoring reminders in place, Associate Professor XuRui and I began to plan the project in more detail. The section that follows discusses some of the concerns that we identified and includes some that were implicit to our discussion as they stemmed from perceptions we had shared about our national and cultural contexts and our hopes and aspirations for Danscross.
The preparations for Danscross 2009 extended over a three-year period and involved a number of trips to Beijing so that I could get a better sense of the BDA, Beijing and of the People's Republic of China. Most important was the development of the understanding and trust that would be a requirement of any collaboration, especially with XuRui with whom this project was being conceived, designed and developed. Our conversations were interesting, his ability to see a wide range of perspectives was admirable and his communication of the concerns of the BDA and of China today were illuminating. I occasionally wondered however, if we were making progress as the discussion phase seemed extremely protracted. There is also a view in the West that collaboration in China inevitably involves eating and drinking a little too much, in order to establish a trusting relationship. In my experience, this is an accurate portrayal.
The scale and nature of the project was also still being discussed although I thought it had been settled as XuRui listened carefully as I recommended a workshop-based project culminating in a studio presentation of the works, followed by a discussion. One day he simply outlined an alternative vision: a project involving the dancers of the professional BDA company, a performance in a large-scale Beijing venue and a conference to which all of the Beijing dance community would be invited. I hesitated for only a moment – by that point I had been infected with the enthusiasm, excitement and positive energy of the many Chinese artists I had encountered. I agreed and we began to plan in earnest.
One early hurdle was simply the very different timeframes being used – I wished to identify and confirm artists at least two years before the event, but XuRui was clear that this was simply unrealistic in China as rapid developments meant that plans were often made about six months in advance. He conceded that the rehearsals for the Olympics would begin well before this usual six-month period, but he was clear that that was a very special case. In the end we compromised and began making firm arrangements in November 2008, a year in advance of the performance date.
The design of the research process was an important concern from the beginning of the discussions and the principles articulated in the Introduction represent set of guidelines which were formulated over hours of discussions, on more than one occasion beginning with lunch, moving on and through dinner and then into the midnight snack mode. The link with eating is not incidental although we stretched the traditional Chinese concern for food to limits neither XuRui nor I had previously experienced. We were both certain that we had an exciting idea which deserved scrupulous attention to detail in order for the potential to be realised. His decision to engage in this innovative research paradigm was undoubtedly risky and so a series of meeting with the President and then each Vice-President of the BDA was required, followed by meetings with those in charge of the BDA Dance Company, the technical and design department and the administrators timetabling the institution's activities for the fifteen hundred students.
These meetings were required as a first step in resolving the many practical issues of availability of BDA and overseas dancers, choreographers and academics and the not inconsequential matter of the dance studios required. These are familiar issues for those engaged in practice and research and we tackled them all with determination – and determination was required as the mismatch between western and Chinese holiday periods was on its own a significant issue. The decision to timetable four periods of rehearsal each one featuring a visiting (western) and a BDA choreographer working concurrently met the needs of both dancers and the institution, and the fact that the periods stretched from May to November also allowed time for the rhythm of each process to become familiar and offer time for reflection and possible refinements of the model.
We also discussed the fact that selection of the artists was clearly critical to the success of the project as both an artistic event and as a research endeavour. We felt that the artists must be mature enough to work under the pressure of the presence of observers and under the pressure of very limited rehearsal time. The dancers had been selected on the basis of their membership of what was called the BDA Youth Dance Company. I explained to XuRui that this term might be misleading in the UK, if not the West generally as we usually thought of youth companies as being pre-professional, often including performers who were had yet to begin their professional training. This company was more like NDT2 (Nederlands Dans Theater 2) a company of professional dancers under the age of 25 who had been trained largely in Chinese classical and folk dance forms.
We discussed the dancers' training and their limited experience of contemporary work in China or the West, and decided that the issue of creativity in terms of both the involvement of the dancers and the vocabularies of Chinese classical and folk dance should be a key question for the project.
I also emphasised the need for a professional environment in keeping with the ResCen mission to focus on artists' practices and processes 'under the usual pressures of the arts marketplace', but we both agreed that postgraduate students should be involved perhaps as research assistants or as interpreters. The scale of our ambition, the breadth of our concerns and the complexity of bringing international groups of artist and academics together over some months combined and became suddenly daunting. We looked for clarity and more specific direction.
This opened a discussion about the research questions that would guide our project and how we could arrive at questions before even meeting all of the academics, bearing in mind that they were almost certainly coming from very different perspectives. Although our funding supported international collaboration, discussion and exchange, we knew that we needed, even for our own purposes, to clarify our aims. So the question of questions had entered the frame and we could not avoid articulating our concerns.
The slippage in time zones was in my favour and I was still awake at midnight in Beijing as it was only 4.00pm in London. Would Zhuangzi help? The passage I found concerned words:
Zhuangzi's critique of an attachment to words was a challenge, but it seemed to me that we needed to find the words, in order to internalise the meaning, in order to forget the words. I attempted therefore to distil what seemed all-encompassing discussions into some questions:
Although the list was wide-ranging and the individual questions rather broad, XuRui agreed that they were useful and that we should reflect and come back to them. Our discussion then returned to the issue of Chinese classical and folk dance forms and their creative potential in our project. This led me to think of Shobana Jeyasingh and her journey as an artist originally trained in the classical Indian form bharata natyam. XuRui agreed that her work provided a compelling example of creative development from a traditional form and we had found our first choreographer. XuRui then suggested the possibility of a work choreographed by Zhang Yunfeng which would include the dancer Lui Yan, who he hoped would return to the BDA following her life-changing accident in the final rehearsals for the Olympic Opening Ceremony in Beijing.[xi]
XuRui felt that Zhang Yunfeng would be an ideal participant in the project, both despite and because of the fact that he spoke few words, but chose them carefully. We viewed some choreographic work by Zhang Yunfeng and we agreed that I would meet Lui Yan at the BDA if she felt able to return to the building, which she had not visited since the accident. She arrived early the next day and came to meet me in a studio where I had been watching a class. I was struck by the courage she displayed in coming to the studio, on the way meeting her colleagues and BDA students. I felt the intensity of her spirit when told me frankly in English, and through an interpreter, that if she were to participate, she absolutely did not want sympathy or special attention of any kind. I assured her that we would do our best to meet her conditions, but that she should agree to tell me immediately if she felt at any time that we were not doing so. She then asked if I felt that she could contribute meaningfully to the project. I said I believed so and in fact felt confident that she could, but that we were trying something new and that making art was not a certain science. She smiled and nodded, and agreed to join us.
This was the beginning of the process of selecting the artists which was interspersed with meeting the BDA academics who would participate. It was a time of intensive exchange and dialogue and, in the flurry of decisions, and changed decisions and new plans, I felt able only to respond to the flow and so returned to the questions intermittently, hoping that I had somehow internalised them in the spirit of Zhuangzi.
Another key decision in the construction of the frame was the theme, and we arrived at it quite quickly once we had set ourselves a deadline. Dancing in a shaking world was meant to convey a sense of rapid change and uncertainty; a sense that forces beyond the scope of the usual controls had awakened and that even the most fundamental assumptions could no longer be guaranteed. For XuRui, this also invoked the Sichuan earthquake of May 2008 – he is from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan and he felt the impact of the disaster deeply, although he never referred in public to the connection between the theme and the earthquake. Rather we were prepared to see the theme as allegorical and we were also open to whatever responses it provoked in the artists. Our desire artistically was to provoke rather than dictate the responses, and we agreed that the sense of individualism and creativity in the work was the priority. We were staging a full evening of new work in a large-scale venue, but we wanted a sense of risk and excitement to be evident, rather than retreating to known outcomes and safe solutions.
There were moments when I wondered if we were we achieving what we had intended at the outset and part way through the planning process I wondered if we needed another perspective to avoid the polarising sense of East-West, Asia-Europe. I asked if we might include researchers from other countries. XuRui was enthusiastic however when I suggested Japan, there was a pause, but then a positive response. This was later to prove a key decision for the research as we had provided 'an outlier' as part of the research design as Naomi Inata was able to refer to both Chinese and western influence and to another example of Asian modernity, thereby disrupting any attempt to make easy assumptions about East versus West and traditional versus modernity.
Interestingly the 'outlier' principle became part of our research design strategy and we worked to avoid the tale of two cities, Beijing and London, by also including Paul Rae, a British passport holder but from the University of Singapore, Hong Kong based Australians Anita Donaldson and John Utans and Katherine Mezur from the USA. The outlier principle has been sustained into the current phase of ArtsCross as we have now included Rebecca Loukes from the University of Exeter as a UK partner, providing not only a valuable researcher, but also an additional geographical and intellectual point of reference, thereby avoiding any slippage into easy assumptions about 'world cities' and creativity.
This is significant as we discussed the impact on our research of the cosmopolitan city, mirroring recent research into cities and cosmopolitanism, but also referencing the milieu of Tang Dynasty China, an era that produced great heights of cultural achievement. This led to exchanges of strong views as the term 'cosmopolitan' seemed not entirely welcome to some Chinese colleagues. It may be that the concern for the cosmopolitan is seen as a western strategy for minimising the appearance of western dominance, disguising it as a celebration of diversity and a liberal and global enterprise. Or it may be that a Chinese concern for national identity and coherence, which is not a recent phenomenon in China, means that coherence is privileged over diversity and cosmopolitanism.
We understood that our research was situated in particularities and that that any claims or findings would be restricted to this context making any attempt to generalise speculative. Having said that, we engaged in speculation knowingly and the phrase 'examining the particular, the rehearsals and the works of these artists, in order to glimpse the panoramic' noted elsewhere on the ResCen website acknowledged this.
While the principles and research questions largely served us well in Danscross and assisted the development of ArtsCross, we had not considered the full impact of the interpreter as the medium for both communicating between choreographers and dancers, and between Chinese and English-speaking academics. We had approached this issue from a practical standpoint and had not realised the disruption that could occur to the process of exchange in dance making. For someone leading a research centre focused on artistic practice, this was reprehensible, and I can find no excuse for this oversight other than my assumption that there would be sufficient bilingual BDA students to assist.
Was this the arrogance of the English-speaker, or the naiveté of the academic who intellectually critiques the concept of the 'universal language of dance', but who is still unconsciously drawn to it?
Translation was identified by virtually every participant as a key factor in realising, discussing and understanding each project and at times it was not the word that was missing but that the concept seemed to have no easy correspondence in the other language. At other times it was that terms such as contemporary dance, although adopted by the Chinese, have been adapted to that context and have acquired quite different connotations; and ironically it is a term not easily explained by English speakers due to its syncretic nature in the West.
The literature on translation is extensive and fascinating, and the problem has become a focus of our research, which continues to provide me with a salutary reminder of the pervasiveness of the mediating power of language. By way of penitence, I will note some recent thoughts on the ways that translation has been discussed. Of course, our work also goes beyond the word as it involves translation between words and dance, and then back again, as choreographers use words to generate and manipulate movement material and academics then observe the movement and interpret it. We are also translating between cultures as intimated above and interestingly there is a long Chinese tradition of translation largely due to the influence of Buddhism in China and the necessity to translates text that were brought from India.
This gap in our early work has begun to be addressed first in terms of an examination of translation in relation to practical issues arising from exchanges between academics, academics and artists, between artists at work and in exchanges with audiences. Each of these engages forms of language that range from the everyday, for example the character for the Chinese word 'hao' (好) meaning 'good' is written as a combination of the characters for male and female – i.e. 'good' reflects a concern for balance and harmony, and employs gendering in a way that is not always the case in spoken Chinese, as demonstrated by 'ta' (他) a designation of him/her that is gender neutral.
We also are beginning to consider the symbolic which appears to have a special place in Chinese culture. The earlier example of the re-emergence of Chinese classical poetry as contemporary political comment spread by 'netizens' appears to have no parallel in English speaking cultures and the act of understanding classical references in contemporary arts practice may also require a kind of translation.
This was also evident in the Olympic Big Dance Beijing project which involved ResCen Research Centre as documentor, but which was undermined by both some assumptions about the universality of British conceptions of dance in public places and by the meeting between David Cameron the Dalai Lama which provoked outrage in Beijing and led to the cancellation of projects such as the Wembley Stadium performance of Turandot which was to be directed by Zhang Yimou and conducted by Placido Domingo.[xii] However, the concerns here are conceptual and the premise of Big Dance, a community dance ethos involving professional dancers and taking over public spaces in a way that is exciting and even slightly transgressive. Explaining this to Chinese artists and officials just provoked incomprehension as Beijing like most of China features what must be thousands of people dancing, exercising, doing Tai Chi and all manner of movement forms in public every day of the week.[xiii] Big Dance was not a concept that could be translated easily, and I wondered if this had been fully appreciated in London, or if the globalised Anglosphere encourages the idea that our concerns are global concerns, or more worryingly, if they are not, then they should be.
There is also the language of the studio utilising practical specialist terminology and symbolic language to create an internal, almost embodied, 'language of performance making'. Interestingly, Bhambra and Holmwood (2011:4) suggest that the emergence of a 'mutual language' in translation processes between differing cultural and disciplinary contexts will not involve universalistic categories, but be 'closer to a "language of practice"'.
This may be at odds with the critical specialist terminology of academics, even though they may describe the same event however, if, as Bourdieu (1990) proposes, languages of practice pertain to tacit knowledges that proceed according to cogent but 'fuzzy' logics, a comparative study of their occurrence in differing cultural contexts in the performing arts should prove productive.
These are some of the ways we have begun to discuss the issues surrounding translation and as part of the penitence for my earlier failure to account satisfactorily for translation in the design of Danscross, I should add finally and ultimately, the concept of an internal 'translation' – one that may be evoked by a new reflexive awareness of one's own habitus, the associated narratives, and the processes of meaning-making that are unconsciously active. If I had employed such a translation strategy in the planning stages, I might have avoided overlooking the significance of this key aspect.
This above account was designed to offer some insights into the origins of an initiative which required the development of contextual knowledge, intense negotiation, careful constructions of tessellations of artistic and academic practices, and a skilful balancing of the concerns and ambitions of the partners. It required the establishment of new pathways of communication and understanding for the partners, the artists and the academics, and as Zhuangzi has said 'a path is made by walking on it…(Ziporyn 2009: 12)
This then is curation as an active practice – walking and re-walking to establish a path that led initially to setting out long term goals and plans – but which through countless re-walkings is now a practice which is dynamic, which is prepared to amend or even discard plans if the need arises; or to change course if a compelling new avenue of investigation opens. This openness has been a requirement – the Chinese environment offered surprises, such as the scheduling of the largest dance competition during the Danscross performance period, ensuring that none of the significant leaders in dance could attend our performances. They demanded a special viewing, and in accordance with the Chinese ability to respond rapidly, an early morning performance was arranged.
This demonstrates that the plans we had made were not comprehensive and could not have been, as the path was not clear, it had not yet been made, and there was no road map. We needed to be responsive and flexible in a tactical sense, while always ensuring that the strategic goals were being achieved. This is not a state that comes easily to me especially when plans have been discussed thoroughly and confirmed. I came to appreciate the ramifications of a draft programme note presented, but subsequently altered by one choreographer when she was asked to consider the theme of 'dancing in a shaking world'. She wrote: 'Modern China is always shaking. We are used to it. The only question is, shall we dance or not.'
This dynamic and flexible territory has become however, a second home to me both in the practice of curating the initiative over a four-year period, and in a more literal sense. The work has involved extensive periods of time away from the UK and indeed from English speaking environments. The Haidian District in Beijing is home to numerous universities as well as the BDA, but it is not high on the list of tourist destinations and neither the hotel nor the apartment that have served as my homes in Beijing provided English language television. The online connection with what Pau Rae has called the Anglosphere has been challenged by the reality of the street and the reality of struggling to order a meal, an endeavour made more difficult by the novelty of someone eating alone in China and my attempts to avoid over-ordering. My halting attempts to communicate in Mandarin have improved only slightly but there were days and even weeks when I simply spoke no English.
Perhaps this has contributed to a growing sense of displacement and dislocation which I have felt when in London; and a sense of distance when engaging with British arts and news media discourses. Or perhaps it is an inevitable outcome of engaging with a quest for contextual knowledge and of curating work across cultures. The gap is sometimes discovered by accident: I had photographed the BDA posters shown earlier, and considered the translations as part of my attempt to understand the complexity of the BDA and the arts and political environment of China which seemed strange at first sight.
On one occasion, when I had recently returned to the UK, I was looking for some statistical information on the Art Council England (ACE) website. I noticed that the usual byline 'access and excellence' had gone, no doubt because it simply stimulated ongoing debates about the dichotomy between the two terms. Instead it said: 'Great art for everyone'. I felt that it needed an exclamation mark, but there was none. I imagined for a moment government ministers and the ACE CEO holding aloft a banner with the words inscribed boldly. In short, in that moment the distinction between Chinese and British relationships between government and the arts became more one of gradations rather than fundamental difference. The accuracy of this observation is open to debate, and I am not suggesting that the situation between China and the UK is identical – I am reporting, as accurately as possible, a shift in perception which has become a strand of enquiry for me.
More recently I was in China when I came across a small item on the BBC news website which suddenly refocused the debate about the very fundamental issue of democracy in China versus the West. It noted that 2013 would mark the anniversary of an event which took place on 11 June 1963: Governor George Wallace standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama to stop the entry of two students, because they were black. The Governor had been elected with 96% of the vote, but I wonder if we would consider this election 'democratic' today. In short, it is simply a fact that the American statement from the Declaration of Independence of 1774, 'all men are created equal' was not implements, and that functioning democracy, simply in terms of fair elections, did not come to America until the late 1960s, almost two hundred years later. This, coupled with the sacking of Yuanmingyuan by British troops noted earlier, offered some fresh perspectives on history as others might see it. This does not mean that western democratic and Chinese forms of government are identical, but it does mean that we in the West could benefit from a better understanding of our history, especially before imposing our judgements on others.
Once again I experienced the sensation of gradations and historical evolutions, pathways rather than absolute polarities such China versus western democracy, and then I recalled Zhuangzi's reminder that the relationship between apparent polar dualities is not fixed, it is in a state of constant flux, and the challenge for human beings is to move with the Dao as it moves, fostering awareness without fixed ideas. In fact, the polar dualities are mutually interdependent, each one's existence is contingent on the existence of the other. Zhuangzi goes further and warns against all fixed things or categories reminding us that there is no category that can categorise all the categories, as every category is dependent on every other category for its existence. We may feel that we are left with a paradox, a conundrum that eludes intellectual enquiry, and it is interesting to note that a key western debate concerns locating Zhuangzi within a category of Chinese philosophy as the contradictions in his text make any categorisation difficult.
This may be partly because Chinese philosophy developed in a time of extreme turmoil known as the Warring States period and its focus is not so much on the discovery of abstract truth, which may be the concern of western philosophers, but more on how to be in this world, how to find the right 'way' through the changing circumstances of everyday life. Zhuangzi tells us to move through this and other worlds and that these things have no inherent reality or substance, they are only passing phenomena. It is interesting to see that the Chinese word for 'know' – zhīdào – utilises the character dào – 道 – meaning path, direction, way and implying that to know is to know how, to know the way. This use of language is significant as Chinese avoids the connotations of fixity that are inherent in 'understanding', or in the conception of practice as research as having 'underpinning' research, rather than having interwoven, dynamic strands of investigation and knowledges/expertises.
The implications of language and its impact on our way of being in the world may be more profound than we realise. Over the period in which ArtsCross developed my appreciation of the sometimes chaotic and idiosyncratic writings of Zhuangzi increased, and despite his lack of any consistent idea of how to achieve the best result, his advice always stimulated reflection. The fact that he was writing over two thousand years ago also provides a perspective on the ArtsCross undertaking and the current ways we view ourselves, our national, cultural and linguistic identities and those of the 'other'. I came to see that walking with Zhuangzi was a way of being in the world, rather than a fixed idea or position on how to be. This included the way of curation in relation to the first Danscross project and then the subsequent ArtsCross developments, a way encapsulated by Geling Shang's Zhuangzi text which is subtitled: Dancing with the world.
ii. Zhuangzi seems to be enjoying increasing popularity and the number of sources is increasing. The first publication I found in the Haidian bookshop was: Zhuangzi (Library of Chinese Classics: Chinese-English edition) Zhuangzi (Author) Wang Rongpei (Translator). I subsequently discovered Brook Ziporyn's 2009 publication Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries; Shang Geling's (2010) delightfully named Zhuangzi Dancing with the World; AC Graham's scholarly and authoritative 2001 translation Chuang Tzu The Inner Chapters as well as websites such as The Chinese Text Project at http://ctext.org/zhuangzi
iii. Interestingly the Renaissance theme is continuing under the current Chinese government which includes references to Chinese classical poetry. For an example see: http://shanghaiist.com/2012/12/01/xi_jinping_promises_chinese_renaiss.php
iv. People's Daily online 21 January 2005 http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200501/21/eng20050121_171462.html
v. The Culture in Development website is at:
vi. As noted in a transcription by the Transcription by the Maoist Documentation Project.
vii. See for example this BBC news report: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24715168
viii. There is an online article which provides some idea of the stance of the book at a site dedicated to human rights in China: http://hrichina.org/sites/default/files/oldsite/PDFs/CRF.4.2006/CRF-2006-4_Dance.pdf
ix. See the Telegraph at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1556637/Gordon-Brown-flies-Union-flag-all-year-long.html and the BBC at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4650144.stm
x. Perhaps Pina Bausch's most well known statement was contained in an interview with Jochen Schmidt in which she said: 'I'm not interested in how people move, but what moves them.' Cited online by Stanford University at: http://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/bausch/life.html
xi. For reports on the accident in the New York Times see: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/15/sports/olympics/15dancer.html
xiii. For an example of dancing in a Beijing park see: http://vimeo.com/47198665
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