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.

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