Jiang Dong’s London Reflections 04: Transcending Language
The 2013 London ArtsCross session featured three topics of academic discussion: “Crossing
On first considering the topic, “Crossing Languages”, what came to mind was transcending the boundaries between languages. At first I hesitated. Is it in fact possible to cross the boundaries between languages? Can one really cross freely from one language system into another language system? My doubts were confirmed by the approach our group adopted.
There were five academics in our group: Myself, Pan Li from the Beijing Dance Academy, Liu Yan, Taiwanese academic Chen
Thus, linguistic transcendence was conditional. Both sides required the connection supplied by the interpreter.
Moreover, is it possible for an interpreter to convey meaning completely and accurately? This touches on a number of other questions: does the interpreter have a firm grasp of the terminology for the subject being discussed? Is their understanding clear? Do they express themselves smoothly? I myself have previously worked as an interpreter, and am very familiar with the challenges and limitations of interpreting. Thus, in reality, “Crossing Language” is a false proposition, since crossing is not achievable without the bridge provided by an interpreter.
However, if we further break language down into spoken language and body language, we discover that this transcendence is actually totally achievable. The possibility and the value of transcending body language is far greater than for spoken language.
During this session of ArtsCross, the communication between the nine choreographers and close to thirty dancers from Beijing, Taipei and London continually shifted between English and Chinese. During my observations of the project I noticed that when some director gave some instruction in a particular language, it often did not need to be translated, and was immediately understood by the dancers. Of course, there were other reasons for this as well. Everyone had been working together for a period of time, and a mutual understanding had already emerged between the participants. What is more, the dancers all possessed a very basic grasp of each others’ languages. Of course, setting these factors aside, we instinctively come to the conclusion that where body language is concerned, there is no need for translation.
It reminded me of a play in Swedish, put on by the Swedish embassy in Beijing for some special occasion. I noticed that the majority of the Chinese audience appeared completely lost, and had no idea what was going on in the play. I thought to myself at the time that if it had been a dance performance, this awkward situation would never have arisen. During the closing ceremony of the recent Beijing Dance Fortnight, there was a dance performance from Iceland. Although it was the first time the Chinese audiences had seen this dance, there were no obstacles to understanding whatsoever. Examples like this are a dime a dozen. Thus, the “transcendence of language” inherent within body language is one of the key strengths of dance.
This strength can also be appreciated at a purely aesthetic level. Because of the lack of impediments to understanding, people can focus more attention on the aesthetic message being transmitted and through appreciating the elements inherent to dance, such as cultural differences, physical movements, etc., can observe and appreciate more meaningfully. The Beijing Dance Academy choreographer, Guo Lei, who participated in this year’s ArtsCross, used Nuo opera masks from Nanfeng in Jiangxi province to create a masked folk dance arrangement. This attracted strong interest from all of the Chinese (including Taiwanese) and British academics. This reminded me of the opening ceremony of the recent Second Beijing Ballet and Choreography Competition, held at China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts, which featured a Taiwanese folk piece created by the Ethnic Dance Faculty at the Beijing Dance Academy. This work received enthusiastic praise from the international panel of judges. These examples paint a picture of the phenomenon of “crossing languages” and the meaning it can bring to dance.
This year’s session of ArtsCross provided us with an opportunity to observe the phenomenon of “crossing languages”, and we also noted the powerful ability of body language to cut across languages. This generated a sense of pride in the expressiveness and energy of dance as an art form.