Let’s reset the scene. Here in the studio are choreographer Vera Tussing and her six dancers. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Here in the studio are Vera Tussing, her six dancers, a Chinese-English interpreter, me, an amenable fellow called Mike Picknett, who turns out to be both Tussing’s “outside eye” guy and her potential composer, and a photographer/videographer, who all stay throughout the rehearsal; plus, a fluctuating number of academic observers, who come and go. So: this is us.
“Us” is (pardon my grammar) a pretty motley lot, then. I entered this studio with a fairly one-dimensional idea: that ArtsCross is a cross-cultural collaboration, its nodes being China–Taiwan–UK, or to be more specific, Beijing–Taipei–London. But it’s not long before I abandon that idea: the terms feel more important as administrative categories for the project as a whole than as ways of seeing what is happening in the studio. As tools go, these national-geographic divisions feel like pretty blunt cudgels.
So what are the boundaries to cross? Language, certainly. Vera conducts her rehearsal in English, but actually no one – including Vera herself, who is from Germany – has English as their first language. The London dancer is from Greece, there are 2 dancers from Beijing and 3 from Taiwan. I ask Vera: is language a problem? She says that communication can certainly be slow, because even with an interpreter, there’s quite a lot of looping in the process. Dancers, interpreter and choreographer keep referring back to each other to check their understanding, so that the lines of communication don’t begin to diverge (a process that in English is called “Chinese whispers”). Vera also points out that some interpreters are more clued-in to her rehearsal process than others, and that changing interpreters also changes the process. On the flip side, there have also been fruitful miscommunications: unexpected results that have been productive.
But language, I think, is a secondary difference. I think the main divisions are dance training and individual personality. The dancers have varied backgrounds – ballet, Chinese classical dance, contemporary dance, acting; and some have more “cross-training” than others. Their bodily habits are different, so their understandings of choreographic instructions, even of the fundamental nature of movement itself, may overlap but not coincide. The same is true of their personalities: their individual qualities as risk-takers, as leaders, as facilitators, as achievers, as dreamers – whatever dimension of personality you care to take. I’m reminded forcefully, again, of the interview that I mentioned in part 1, that I had recently done with choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Talking about working with dancers with very different training, he said: “You find similar points of reference, whether in intention, or a gesture or an action, and before you know it you’re talking about the same thing. Because we’re not so different: we have arms, legs, a head. Of course, the personalities are still very different, but personalities have almost nothing to do with the style.”
So, on this practical level, in the studio, my sense is that the principal differences within the dance group are not so much to do with China-UK-Taiwan or East and West or culture and location, but down to the nitty-gritty of the body and the personality. It’s a long-winded way of saying (again) that the medium of choreography is people.
Let’s loop back to our opening scene, with “us” all in the studio. If we’re talking about intercultural encounters here, one look at ourselves in the mirror shows that the China-UK-Taiwan categories are not the most apparent way of seeing ourselves. We are differentiated by aim, by process, by generation, by clothing, by hairstyle, by discourse, by motivation, by body-mass-index, by behaviour. The most marked cultural differences are not within the dance groups, but between the dance practitioners and the rest of us.