Things Contextual and Cultural

Things contextual and cultural

Where to start from … and I have tried to start three times and changed my mind each time! I finally decide to start with a question about the context in which John (Utans) and I find ourselves in this project. We both work at the HKAPA (Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts), and thus work in what is very much a Chinese environment – but one which has a fascinating inter-cultural mix (and ‘inter-cultural’ used here in a broad sense). The APA is – a BFO!* – in HK which is part of China; at the same time, however, it stands (politically) apart from China. But the APA also has a strong western influence that comes through in various ways: leadership at the top, for instance, is (and has been for most of its 25 years) in the hands of non-Chinese; certainly that applies to Deans of Schools – currently 3 of the 5 are from the west, and one of the other two has strong connections with the UK. This inevitably affects/influences what is done and how it’s is done. In the School of Dance more specifically, each of its five Deans (starting with Carl Wolz) has been/is from the west – initially from the USA, and more latterly from Australia (although I bring some UK experience to the job). Many of the teaching staff, however, are Chinese, either local Hong Kongers, or from Mainland China, with one from Taiwan: we are roughly 50:50 in respect of east/west mix. By contrast our student population stands at 97% Chinese – this includes those from Hong Kong (the vast majority: we have only about 26 students who are non-local (including one from the Ukraine!), the number capped by the government at 20% of the Academy’s total undergraduate population of 750), from Mainland China, from Malaysia and from Singapore. So working intensively with young Chinese dance artists in a creative, artistic environment is nothing new for either of us. That said however, there are distinct differences between students from the Mainland and those from Hong Kong, differences that are due largely to the education and social conditions that prevail/have prevailed in each.

The School also has a mixed dance culture in that we have students majoring in Ballet, in Chinese Dance, or in Contemporary Dance. At the same time, we have gone a long way to break down the walls between the three streams, to the point where Ballet students have Contemporary Dance technique classes and vice-versa, and Chinese Dance students are able to choose either Ballet or Contemporary Dance. Importantly each semester we have what we call a ‘cross-stream’ work for performance – a work (contemporary) where the dancers are from all three streams. (John has choreographed three of these.) So: intercultural in more ways than one!

Given the context, I am constantly aware of being an ‘outsider’, and so constantly aware of cultural differences, and being sensitive to these differences (although I don’t always succeed!). Some of this awareness is possibly heightened by my own background as an immigrant child – the one with a funny name, who had dark rye bread sandwiches for lunch, and whose parents would insist on talking to her in a funny language! (This at a time in Australia when immigrants, no matter where they were from, where labelled ‘wogs’.)

* BFO stands for Blinding Flash of the Obvious – a term used by one of the lecturers at the Management Development Programme I attended at Harvard; and a term that has stayed with me. Its meaning is self-evident (or – in the context of the below – is it??)

Musings on language

It’s often been said that dance needs no words – it’s a universal language that crosses all [cultural] boundaries. I have never been convinced! Language of the more specific kind certainly matters when you are choreographing – to get your ideas across, to go into the detail, of explaining the inspiration/deeper meaningfuls behind what you’re doing. Some things remain difficult to articulate in your own language, let alone in someone else’s!

If I had any reservations, then they have been put to rest by the experience of this past week. Language, and the detail of the communication, is quite crucial. Let me just illustrate with a couple of examples of things that have happened ….

Take for instance, translation ….

John has/we have an excellent translator in – firstly – Emily Wilcox. She is an American doctoral candidate who has spent considerable time in China over the past 6 or so years, some of that time spent in intensive learning of the language (and so the culture as a whole: no way can you access the culture other than superficially without being able to use the language to communicate with people – and to communicate on more than a superficial level). So Emily is fluent in Chinese, and the same time has a good understanding/sense of movement/ dance (including observation): she’s able to give fluent instruction/ explanation …… But at times she also appears to expand on what John is saying – I say ‘appears’ as I don’t have any understanding of Chinese (beyond ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and the odd other word or two!), so have no real clue, other than the observation that she speaks for a good more time that John (a man of relatively few words). There are also times when she and the dancers engage in discussion that is [obviously] outside what John has said; and times when John gives some instruction to a dancer – who then asks questions/ for clarification – which are answered without reference to John. This may be simply connecting to what he’s said before – or it may not be. His humour, too, is possibly not translatable – at times a bit edgy, with a bit of a bite to it (and, some might say, very Australian!).

Our second translator – Annie – is Chinese/local, doing a masters at UCLA Riverside (if I remember correctly): while her English is good, she is not a native speaker, and in this particular context, appears not to be totally at ease with her role.

The dancers have a range of English capability – if they have more, they are reluctant to use/show it, although there is some evidence of one or two being able to do a little more as time goes on. Y however has a reasonable facility, and at times acts as translator. She is quick to ‘cotton on’ to what John wants, and this leads me to ponder …….the need for a dancer to be able to access the more subtle aesthetic and creative nuances that are part and parcel of a choreographer’s ‘tools of the trade’ (and thus an integral part of the creative process?). Choreographers work through the body/its movement (another BFO!), but they also rely heavily on imagery, on putting the practice/process into a context, on drawing on aesthetic principles – all of which have language implications. John also throws in the odd phrase in Cantonese – but this tends to confuse rather than help things (mainly because it’s so different from Mandarin/ Putongua). He also makes various ‘throw-away’ lines/ comments that are probably not translatable – even were they understood! (So for instance: “… trying something altogether different – because it’s Saturday”.)

So, then, the question of what gets lost in translation – and more to the point perhaps, what is comprehended in the first place.

The problem of language is less overt (in respect of the creative process) in the other group where the choreographer – Liu Ning, who is assistant to designated choreographer Zhang Ming – and dancers both speak the same language. But of course, I have little access to what is going on there because I rely on translation – and some of the time there is no-one to translate as Annie is often translating for John while Emily is attending class. So what I glean about the process comes from my observations – so even more subjective than normal, and inevitably superficial. I confess that at times it can be difficult to stay fully engaged as a result – even though there are always things of interest to pick up on.

One of my great frustrations – and one I’m sure shared by other expatriates – is the lack of Chinese, and thus the limitation on getting into deep discussion about whatever with the majority of my Beijing colleagues – and the dancers. This inevitably means that I remain the ‘outsider’, with all that that entails (the intention to learn more Putongua being one!)

Another example
I was invited to present a session on my area of expertise last night – mainly to the staff and students of the Academic Studies Department. After discussion with the Xu Rui, I decided on Choreological Studies as the topic – what it is, the choreological framework, and the notion of dance as a performative event.The presentation – together with the slides that were shown – was translated by Emily. This meant the inevitable stretching out time-wise, and given the specificity of the some of the language, how much was /was not understood.

In some ways it reflected some of what was happening in the studio: my train of thought could not be as fluent as it would were the presentation not translated … I had to be conscious of simplifying my words – although I did not want to simplify them too much: so needed to strike the right balance. Essentially it was a process of negotiating my way through, rather than being able to freely present (simply an observation and not a criticism!).

There were then questions from the floor: for most part they were translated … and so were my answers … However I think this went reasonably well – the questions were not so particularly choreologically oriented, so were perhaps less ‘problematic’ in respect translation. But again it brought home to me some of the issues inherent in language and translation, and in words – their use and their meaning.

Phrases and such (John’s)

Try not to use the mirror
As if! It was fascinating to see in both groups just how tied to the mirror the dancers were. Nothing unusual however: BFO: dancers and mirrors are inseparable! Choreographer Liu Ning for instance was exploring ways and means through contact improvisation techniques: initially at least, the dancers were never able to take their eyes away from the mirror, and focus on working ‘internally’ with another dancer.

[… the task] becomes more complicated …. but more fun ….

A little bit like a conversation ….

…. but all this could change

In a way you shouldn’t listen to the beat …. I don’t like it when it becomes very on the beat ….
Given that moving to the beat is inherent in most forms of dance, then not moving to it is a challenge! So often while the dancers began moving independently of the beat, they all to soon went into 1-2-3-4 (or whatever) mode.

Looking really Chinese ….
Whatever that might mean: must remember to ask John.

OK la …beautiful ….
And so it was. The dancers in both groups are beautiful movers – each with his/her own special characteristics. As John says – you could simply watch them time on end. I find Chinese Dance especially fascinating to watch – and especially its contrast with ballet and contemporary dance (or is it its integration of some of the key principles of each of these western forms with its own??).

For the moment


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