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.

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