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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.

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