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The Big Dance 2012 Blog which follows is now presented chronologically as an archived blog narrative.

 

First impressions of dance practice in Beijing

4 July 2012

Today was a fascinating day visiting classes at Beijing Dance Academy and rehearsals of choreographer Teng Aimin who runs the Beijing City Contemporary Dance company.

While my intrigue and respect with technical ability in both students and professionals has been further fed, I was today likewise very much drawn to what took place on the periphery of the ‘main’ action in the dance spaces, both inside as well as outside the actual training or rehearsal spaces.

On our way to observing morning classes an elderly woman, whom I estimated to be in her seventies, was practising Yang style taijiquan on the grounds of Beijing Dance Academy, which is located opposite a large park where many fellows would likewise have been practising internal martial arts, ballroom dancing or other exercises such as diabolo, taiji rouliqiu or taiji rhythm ball. The relationship to exercise is very apparently engrained in the daily rhythm of society, and I could only smile at the prospect of academic staff in the UK gathering at specific times as they do here, to do physical exercises together, following verbal instructions and music!

Would it not provide endless benefits? Well there is of course a history to this communal activity, which crucially in the West we have not shared in the same way, and especially my rather different German heritage would produce very specific and uncomfortable connotations if I had to engage myself such communal activity.

My attention in the actual dance classes at BDA was much drawn to the dancers who on the edge of the space, about to perform again. Watching each other, watching themselves in the mirror, fixing their clothing, waiting, preparing for the next action… how?

I began to wonder what mindset these dancers engage in, and how their training differs in this regard to what is being practised in the West.

Which takes me to my reflection on what I saw in rehearsals of Beijing City Contemporary Dance. The company was rehearsing a choreography that has been made ‘in collaboration’ with two members of Random Dance from the UK. Choreographer Teng Aimin explained how he is interested in integrating Chinese traditional dance with contemporary dance elements. Both elements were apparent in this choreography that included fan work.

Yet what mostly interests me here is the creative process that I have missed. I was told by somebody who observed earlier rehearsals that Random Dance initiated a series of exercises which led to the dancers to create their own movement material – a process that Chinese-trained dancers are less likely to be experienced in.

My question here is to do with the skill of the inventive dancer, who creates their own material. Might such collaborations between companies from the West who tend to initiate a creative process of performance-making that leans on the dancer to ‘devise’ or ‘invent’ movement material and Eastern conservatoire-trained dancers meet more challenges further along in the rehearsal process, of working on ‘owning’ their ‘self-created’ material, and performing it as such? I am not sure if I what I have seen today was about that, and instead I remained mesmerised by the minute attention and accuracy in the technical detail and timing of the choreography.

Beijing Dance Academy visit

Outside the entrance to the BDA

 

More impressions of dance in Beijing

An impressive series of meetings has taken place so far, and we have visited and met representatives from Peking University, the Beijing Gehua Cultural Development Group as well as watched rehearsals of China Beijing City Contemporary Dance Company, Beijing Modern Dance Company and LDTX.

These visits have revealed an exciting mix of concepts, approaches and practices of dance, and I feel I am beginning to get a glimpse of the contemporary dance scene in China.

A preoccupation with Chinese tradition and history in dance-making is very noticeable. At most meetings the fusion of contemporary dance and traditional Chinese dance was thematised as a priority in dance-making at the moment, and there is a keenness to present this work that has a distinct Chinese identity in the West.

Not only in China, but I believe also in the West there is a rising interest in Chinese culture. Chinese medicine continues to flourish, practitioners of taijiquan and gongfu increase and Chinese philosophy permeates these practices. It seems to me that there is a sense of needing to find out more, around the globe, about who this rising power actually is that is very apparently and quickly taking over the reigns previously held by the West.

Western ballet has of course come to China through the Russian tradition, and children from young age practise it rigorously here. Chinese classical dance is introduced later in their curriculum, and the Beijing Dance Academy teaches a syllabus of a range of ethnic dance styles, next to a semester of taijiquan and bagua, as well as contemporary dance and ballroom dance.

The many graduates each year are equipped with an astounding technical ability, and some of these are being accepted into the contemporary dance companies of Beijing, where they seem to encounter a slightly different way of dance-making than they probably will have encountered thus far at BDA.

The one that stood out for me so far was LDTX (Lei Dong Tian Xia), which is run by Willy Tsao, who also runs several further companies. Crucially he seems to create a space and support network as well as platforms for young dancers to make their own work. I asked Willy about the thematics of these pieces, and whether he also notices a prevalent preoccupation with a fusion of traditional Chinese dance elements and contemporary dance. I was somehow very relieved to hear from him that no, these kids work on other stuff, they work on what preoccupies them, taking material and inspiration from their own lives. They work with what they have in terms of technique but explore a freedom that is being fostered in this framework that supports contemporary ways of making work. It is noticeable to me how particularly the word ‘freedom’ has been associated here several times with ‘contemporary dance’.

Censorship, Willy Tsao confirmed, still exists in China today and he seems to have had to pay many visits to the Cultural Bureau discussing his work. But due to live performance having a reasonably and relatively small impact in regard to Chinese mass culture, regulations have apparently softened.

 

Peking University visit

At the Research Centre for Ethnic Music and Musical Theatre, School of Arts, Peking University

 

The Modern and the Contemporary

This has been our sixth day of cultural visits in the Chinese capital, and it is now that I am slowly getting a feel for, and starting to form an initial (and still tentative) overview of the arts and in particular the contemporary dance scene. In the last few days we visited among other cultural institutions three contemporary dance companies: Beijing Modern Dance Company, LDTX, and Beijing City Contemporary Dance Company, and were able to exchange ideas as well as ask questions (hopefully not pestering them too much…).

Today we met two representatives of Beijing Contemporary Dance Theatre – Han Jiang, Producer, and Zhang Yu, International Operations Manager – and were led around their facilities and studios before sitting down for a relatively informal talk. Discussions revolved around the topic of Eastern and Western influences on the company, i.e. the all-so-prevalent issue of hybridisation and fusions; the dancers’ training; development of a company’s signature style; and the fact that this particular troupe was founded in 2008 in the wake of what we might term ‘privatisation’ – the move away from state ownership towards the promotion of private companies that can still apply for state subsidies but need to seek out other sources for financial survival as well.

What is striking about all four contemporary dance companies is their unusual (at least to the Western observer) mixture of training. As I understand, there is now no modern dance training available outside of (that is prior to) tertiary education institutions. This means that most dancers were trained in either Chinese traditional or ethnic dances – of which I believe there are 56 – or indeed ballet, although due to the strong influence of ballet on Chinese dance (and vice versa), the latter is by no means ‘pure’. In some cases, dancers finished off their training at one of the city’s major vocational academies, such as the famous Beijing Dance Academy, by studying modern dance, but in others (including the dancers of the Beijing Contemporary Dance Theatre) they never received any ‘formal’ training in a recognisable Western modern dance technique or indeed in contemporary dance (however we may define this eclectic style).

It is, then, astonishing, with what ease these dancers interpret and perform roles that we would define as contemporary in style and genre: the fluidity with which they move, the floor work etc. (Perhaps it goes together with this observation that the terms ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ do not appear to be clear-cut and indeed, the English translations of the Chinese company titles do not necessarily correspond to the Chinese ‘originals’). Yet, as the Beijing Contemporary Dance Theatre company explained to us, despite the fact that the Chinese title contains the word ‘ballet’, their notion of dance is tied to Pina Bausch’s notion of Tanztheater. It’s all a little confusing…and perhaps necessary to shed the categories usually applied in Western dance history.

Photos, 4 July

 

Photos, 5 July

 

Penghao Theatre Visit

Down in a Hutong we visited Penghao Theatre, run by Artistic Director Dandan Willis, a young, visionary woman with passion and interest for making a difference to the live performance scene in Beijing and possibly beyond.

This is not the first time that I was made aware of an apparent effort to generate and ’educate’ audiences about contemporary theatre and what I may call ‘performance’. There is a passion for being sensitive and prioritising ‘processes’, and I was impressed by the programming of not only theatre shows, but along with their performance works companies spend time in the theatre running week-long workshops and also participate in talks or conferences.

Dandan is very concerned about the ’quality’ of the works she puts on, and she is keenly integrating a selection of international companies in her programme. Every last Saturday of the month a group of Beijing-based ‘foreigners’ put on an improvised theatre show, which seems to be a great success in terms of audience numbers. A half Chinese, half non-Chinese group of people apparently crowd even on the floor to witness these performances.

Theatre training in China seems to still be strongly Stanislavski-based. Improvisation, Dandan explains, is not taught in the sense of what I have chosen elsewhere to refer to as a technical set of the ’inventive’ performer. This way of performance-making, which in the UK is often referred to as ’devised’ performance, or is also known more widely as collaborative or experimental performance, is probably less known and practised here, but no doubt it is growing! In the West it has emerged largely as part of a development which tied to US- and European universities, where from the fifties onwards artists trained as intellectuals. A movement towards the self-expressive performer emerged, as distinct from the actor and dancer that would work with a set of technical skills transmitted at drama or dance conservatoires, working under the reign of the ’authorship’ of a playwright and director or choreographer.

An appetite for such ‘different’ ways of working and creative processes seems to exist here, and I have seen some great examples of such ways of making work over the last week. It feels like an exciting time here in China at present, and in some sense I wonder whether I am getting a glimpse of something that I had always regretted to have missed: the  SIXTIES….

But before I get too excited, I want to hold back from looking into our own Western past and applying the historical developments to the trends I witness here. China is writing its own history at present, and who knows who is ‘ahead’ of whom?!?

The individual tradition

I understand that when modern dance teaching first gained a foothold in China in the wake of modernisation and decentralisation a decade or so after the Cultural Revolution – in places such as the Guangdong Academy in Gunangzhou in the late 1980s – the tension between (Western) individualism and (Eastern) collectivism must have been a major issue. After all, Maoist orthodoxy, Chinese family structures as well as the dance forms people had so far engaged in (such as ballet and ‘ethnic’, folk dances – and often an amalgam of both) are collectivist in nature and/or emphasise homogenous and usually harmonious structures. And wandering through the streets of Beijing, one cannot help noticing the many amateur dancers who, frequently in the evening but also during the day, engage in pastime dancing in one of the many parks and squares of the city. These are, again, collective forms: typically folk or social dances, such as fan dances or styles claimed to be (and more or less reminiscent of) Western ballroom or Latin dance, performed in a group with other lay dancers. The lone performer busking for money and the accompanying claim to fame is conspicuously absent.

And yet, when I asked one of the many dance company directors we met in the last ten days (it eludes me whom), she repudiated the notion that individual expression – in the modern dance sense of the ‘baring’ or exteriorisation of the soul – may be harder to achieve for Chinese performers than Westerners who are from an early age trained to think and act as individuals. Finding an individual voice in Chinese modern dance is no longer a problem she suggested – indeed it is taken as a given, and the emphasis is rather on the pursuit of quality. And yet again, when we met Dandan from Penghao Theatre Café yesterday, she mentioned that yes, there were improvisation classes every Saturday but they were run by foreigners. Improvisation, I also gather, is still carried within strict limitations. Then again, this café/theatre supports local upcoming artists just as any independent company in the UK would (or perhaps even more actively – this I cannot ascertain). So obviously there are different takes and perspectives possible on the question of individualism in the Chinese arts.

The fact is that one issue seems to remain unchanged: even if we accept that the notion of individualism versus collectivism is perhaps no longer top of the agenda, the Eastern/Western schism that was placed into the limelight by the introduction of modern dance training still seems to exist. Although, on closer reflection, schism is probably no longer the right word, as it’s all about hybridisation, merging Chinese elements with Western forms, ‘owning’ the individual tradition. There seems to be one more trend as far as I can tell: the foregrounding of dark and sombre themes and images in modern dance (whether in theatre I’m not able to tell), akin to German modern dance, but in contrast with the collective forms from which it diverges – which are overall more colourful and uplifting in nature.

Photos, 4–8 July

 

East West – Things…

I was delighted to learn a few months ago in my Mandarin class that the Chinese word for ‘thing’ or ‘things’ is made up of     dong, meaning ‘East’, and  xi, meaning ‘West’.     — ‘East’ and ‘West’ put together hence is used to refer to some non-descript entity, something that cannot or is not wished to be given a specific name, it is stuff in general, from here and there… or indeed cannot be pinned down in terms of identity and location.

This very issue of not being able to locate either what we are looking at, or where exactly what we are looking at has come from, has surfaced in many of our discussions on performance here in Beijing. It begins in the many difficulties of translating various terms from Mandarin into English and vice versa. How do you distinguish the term ‘performance’ in Mandarin in relation to ‘theatre’, ‘theatre arts’ and ‘dance’ for instance? And what are we supposed to understand under “live mini drama”, which seems to describe a popular form of live entertainment prevalent here in China, which apparently involves some sort of process of audiences feeding content for an improvised performance prior to the event online, and some sort of televising process after the live improvisation on stage?

East and West simply put next to each other, creating a single term, might usefully conceptualise this mixture of elements, which are integral in so many ‘things’ we have looked at, discussed and wondered about, where boundaries have been blurred and crossed, influences and identities obscured. It might help a process of looking at practices as a shifting and ongoing process of change, and prevent an often reductive and in my view unhelpful quest for identifying ‘true’ identities and origins.

Photos, 9 July

  

Rain

It is a truth to be universally observed, that the rain everywhere is wet, and that those caught out in it will be similarly so. Despite the apparently cast iron virtue of this moronic sort of logic, it can also be observed, that despite its relentlessly downward descent,  there are a) different ways and means of getting wet and of trying to adapt to or deal with its consequences, and b) that in reaching the end of its descent, the rain performs quite differently according to the shape, structure and surfaces of the bodies and environment that it meets.

Readers of the ArtsCross blogs from Taipei will recognise the rather tangential nature of the anecdotes by which I try to find a way into these postings. This one is possibly equally specious, but the peculiar ability of rain to be at once universal and highly specific in its effects and experience, has allowed me a means of thinking through some discussions and a visit made yesterday to TAO Dance Theatre — the first on this Beijing trip for me.

The company has impressive studio in an arts complex on the outskirts of Beijing. With its red walls and marley flooring, and a high, vaulting ceiling, it was a space which felt at once calm and purposeful. Over tea with the company’s director Tao Ye either side of the company’s warm-up and morning rehearsals, we had an opportunity to ask both specifically about his work, and the status of independent performing arts in Beijing.

It doesn’t seem quite fair to report those discussions verbatim, but what was most interesting to me about the conversation, and the work, was the extent to which much of what was being worked was on the one hand familiar, and engaged with what seem some shared (if not  universal) ideas about bodily movement and expression, familiar from elsewhere. On the other hand, they were concerned with an examination of the capacity of that movement and expression to engage the here and now, even down to the specificity of the sort or type of body which can have that capacity.

That all needs some nuance, and I might return to it tomorrow, just for the sake of getting ‘something’ up on this blog. However, as I continue to think this over, I return to the half-baked anecdote at the top of this post, and through it now, I realise, to some enduring concerns. Like the weather, wherever one encounters them, bodies are remarkably similar in their actions and in the general nature of their effects — wet, warm, cold, bipedal, upstanding, etc. However, how those actions make themselves apparent makes those effects the specific properties of, and therefore ‘about’ the here and now. Occurring under pressure, in darkness, in volume, spreading out across a surface, and with intensity makes performance, like the rain, a condition of this place, this moment. It rained like hell out of a yellow-brown sky in Beijing last night, with half a foot of water flooding the roads in a matter of minutes. Earlier we had watched TAO Dance Theatre’s astonishing performers move at and on each other across their red studio floor at great speed and with remarkably energetic vectors — a different kind of flooding.

An unfamiliar sense of excitement for the future…

It seems striking to me how often I have witnessed here a sense of excitement and potential for change with regard to the performing arts in China. Whether dance companies or experimental theatre and dance venue, many voices here talk about a chance for a strong development of a performance culture.

This has been expressed in various ways, but what I heard several times was that audiences here need to be ‘educated’ to appreciate performance more. At a recent visit to the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, which is the top conservatoire in the country, Hao Rong, the Director of the Acting programme, even drew a direct comparison to the future of China versus the future of the West. As he expressed it, China has a “better future” than the UK, since although many small theatres already exist in the latter country, the potential for growth is hence comparatively less and smaller than in China, where many small venues can still open up.

Similarly Peng Tao, the company director of Tao Dance Theater, spoke about a fascination with the Asian dancer’s body, over an interest with the Western dancer’s body. He explained that he perceived China as a ”huge resource” at present, where something special can happen if you use it. This, he stated, is also the reason for his decision to live and work in China now.

The potential for change and growth seems to be valued higher than the present state of affairs, not unlike what takes place in the political and economic environment. An excitement for what is to come is what I sense to be in the air in this fast-changing country. A very different feeling seems to exist in the West, where we seem to be fearful a lot of the time of the future, due to changes in the financial climate and restrictions in the education system.

     

                798 Art District Beijing, 2012

Along with this excitement for the future I sense a strong preoccupation with itself in China, and I wonder sometimes how much anybody else will actually be let into their processes. There is much eagerness to develop China and Chinese culture itself, and also make an impact elsewhere, in the West, but I wonder sometimes how much this trend is receptive to what is ‘other’ to them, how much non-Chinese culture they would be willing to absorb at present?

It feels to me that there is an incredibly strong sense that this is their time now  in China – and boy, it hasn’t ended yet!!

TAO Dance Theater visit

Before I head back to London tomorrow I wanted to share a few images and reflections on our visit to TAO Dance Theater. I had seen their performance last year at Sadlers Wells, Lilian Baylis Studio, and it was insightful to observe one of their daily warm-up and training sessions at this visit.

Tao Ye, the choreographer and company director, explained that the company name is intended to distinguish the company from many other established ‘independent’ dance companies in Beijing, such as the Beijing Contemporary Dance Theater or the Beijing Modern Dance Company, and their specific name to him grasps something more ‘personal’.

This realm was very much reflected in their approach to choreography-making and daily training. Tao Ye explained that each choreography taps into a new set of movement vocabulary. The company is less interested in finding a specific style, within which they create work, but each piece means a new exploration of ways of moving.

             

TAO Dance Theater rehearsals, Beijing, July 2012

The warm-ups we saw a couple of days ago are very much geared to the specific choreography they are developing at the moment. They are working on circular movements, hence the first stage of the training included rotations of head, shoulders, arms, legs, hips… They then proceeded into a choreographed sequence that was geared at building stamina, and what followed were group improvisations based on trust games and other structures.

My memory of this visit will remain strongly of the strong red-coloured space, hosted in an art district slightly away from the centre of Beijing, in which seems to take place a daily disciplined searching for new work and crucially also ways of making new work.

Looking back

Having departed from Beijing a few days ago, I am now reminiscing about our experiences in China’s cultural capital which I shall aim to summarise here in an impressionistic form, but true to the kaleidoscope of encounters, visits and studio practice observations we had during our fascinating time there.

One cannot help noticing that the topic most frequently addressed was the East-West encounter in terms of dance technique, funding situations and many other respects. Perhaps this is unavoidable as we tend to interpret culture through our own lens, comparing what we see in a Chinese context with what we know from our Western arts background. And after all, modern dance was (re)introduced to the country some 25 years ago through the liaison of the American Dance Festival and Western teachers with the Guangdong Academy of Dance.

So for instance when we visited Tao Dance Theatre a few days ago, the company’s warm-up reminded me vividly of two styles. One, perhaps lesser known, was that of a teacher and choreographer whose contemporary dance class I once attended in New York City (I think it was Nina Buisson) and whose fast and furious movement vocabulary, loaded with technical difficulty and yet simultaneously infused with an astonishingly smooth, release based quality, was extremely hard to follow for most of the class attendees. It was clear to me that only the best-trained dancers would be able to manage Tao Dance Theatre’s practice and I was not at all surprised to learn afterwards that thus far, the company has searched in vain for another dancer skilled enough to join their company.

The second style, manifest I thought in other exercises, recalled contact improvisation of the sort associated with Steve Paxton; but when I enquired about this, the company director Tao Ye virtually denied such an influence saying that the company experimented with different movement forms and that the results are based on their own inventions rather than styles ‘imported’ from the West. (However, our colleague Martin Welton also commented on the familiarity of the styles we witnessed a few days ago).

This led me to reflect on a position perhaps worthy of further enquiry. Researchers, such as Roger Copeland in an ‘89 article on ”Modern Dance in Modern China”, have reasoned that since modern (and, one might add, to some extent contemporary) dance is based on the individual’s exteriorisation of emotions, a Chinese mode of expression might theoretically be very different from, say, a European one. So, one could reasonably expect a noticeably different style from a Chinese company in comparison with its Western counterpart. This does not explain, however, the astonishing similarity of the styles of, for example, Tao Dance Theatre and comparable independent Western companies.

I began to wonder whether the use of the same dance genre (i.e. modern/contemporary dance) necessarily leads to very similar resultant aesthetic choices and forms. Does the fact that in contemporary dance ‘everything goes’ means that everything has been tried already and, as the choreographer Johann Kresnik once remarked to me, there is now nothing ‘new’ left to explore in terms of movement/steps etc.? Or is there a globalisation tendency that – perhaps unnoticed by choreographers across the world – manifests itself in both Eastern and Western practice?

Another observation I made on a forced one-night stopover in Hong Kong due to a missed flight connection was the relative lack of colour in Beijing compared to its abundance in highly commercialised Hong Kong, where hundreds of advertising banners, many on large electronic screens, compete with one another. I recall Beijing overall as presenting a muted, grey colour which reminded me vividly of visits to the Eastern, communist part of Germany in the early 1980s.

And yet, as I was pondering this, I also noticed that while Beijing is undoubtedly a little grey and uniform in architectural style, there are dashes of colour throughout the city, many of which stem from the numerous amateur dancers (for instance those holding red fans) who pursue their hobby in front of department stores, in parks etc., accompanied by more or less lively music. In Hong Kong, as I remembered from previous visits to the city, the only outdoor pursuits I encountered in public spaces were board games. I wondered as I sat in my hotel room whether commercialisation necessarily goes hand in hand with a loss of community culture (and traditional community values) of the kind I had experienced in Beijing. I’ll wager the guess that Frankfurt School theorists would agree.