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.

1 comment to Looking back

  • Angela Woodhouse

    Thank-you Alex for all your posts – I have enjoyed following the journey. Like you also I remember the split Berlin and how in the East there was not only lack of colour but a general emptiness – on the streets, on the shelves, in the cafes (not many to choose from). Yet going back now it’s hard to see the seams.
    On colour – a Morland painting (British 19th C) harbours one significant use of red giving the appearence of much colour within the muted tones..almost hidden it has the greater impact.

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