ArtsCross Memories – Academics

Xu Rui (Vice President, Beijing Dance Academy): Danscross 2009, ArtsCross 2011–2019
Martin Welton (Queen Mary University of London): ArtsCross 2011–2019
Kate March (research assistant, London): ArtsCross 2011
Professor Tong Yan (Beijing): ArtsCross 2009–2014
Emily Wilcox (University of Michigan, USA): Danscross 2009
Professor Heng Ping (Taipei National University of the Arts): ArtsCross 2011–2013
Paul Rae (National University of Singapore): Danscross 2009, ArtsCross 2011 and 2013
Professor Yunyu Wang (Taipei National University of the Arts): ArtsCross 2011–2019
Donald Hutera (Dance writer, London): Danscross 2009, ArtsCross 2011–2013
Ted Warburton (University of California, Santa Cruz): ArtsCross 2011–2013
Shuo (Sally) Cai (Graduate, Beijing Dance Academy): ArtsCross 2019

Xu Rui (Vice President, Beijing Dance Academy): Danscross 2009, ArtsCross 2011–2019

From Danscross: Dancing in a shaking World in Beijing in 2009 to ArtsCross: Uncertain Waiting in Taipei in 2011; from ArtsCross: Light and Water in Beijing in 2012 to ArtsCross in London in 2013: Leaving home: being elsewhere; from the 5th anniversary of ArtsCross in Beijing in 2014 to the 10th anniversary of ArtsCross in Beijing in 2019, this internationally innovative dance project that has gone through more than ten years and has been launched in Beijing, London and Taipei. The cooperation between the three cities set a new milestone. When many people are accustomed to talking about the world’s first-class, ArtsCross has actually entered a deep international art and academic exchange space.

Xu Rui, Chris Bannerman and dancers, Danscross 2009 Beijing
Photo by Guo Tuantuan

As one of the project’s initiators and directors, I did not foresee the situation today: so many scholars, choreographers, and dancers are involved in it, creating, exploring, discussing, and communicating with enthusiasm, just like a big family. Even though there are still some language and culture obstacles, everyone has learned to contemplate, listen, and reflect seriously. I remember that, at a seminar, a Western scholar put forward the concept of ‘confrontation’. The word for confrontation, 对抗, Duì Kàng’, has same clear meaning in English and Chinese. However, in Chinese we can also see a potential possibility behind, which is ‘fusion from collision’, 碰撞中的融合, PèngZhuàng Zhōng de RòngHé. This phrase communicates the idea of something new arising from confrontation – an understanding which already contains a certain kind of Chinese Philosophical wisdom.

Chris Bannerman, Wang Yunyu, and Xu Rui, ArtsCross 2019 Beijing
Photo by Liu Haidong

Therefore, I always believe that the important point of ArtsCross is to provide a practical research context for reflection in collisions and confrontations. Among them, there are two points that are particularly important: one is to study as closely as possible to the ‘live’ nature of dance. Scholars personally enter the rehearsal site to observe, and choreographers and dancers face a creation and performance environment with research conditions and activities. In this way, academic research cuts into the scene and becomes a part of the creative process, which changes the state of separation between research and creative practice. The second is that research becomes a process of self-growth in an interactive context. Not only do scholars constantly adjust their thinking in the frequent interaction of ideas, but the choreographers have also entered a state of experimental ‘research’ in their creation. Many traditional Chinese classical dance and Ethnic-Folk dance new works, such as Ghost Money, Mask, Longing, etc., cannot be created in the Chinese dance competitions or ceremonies’ creative environment. Young dancers, mainly BDA postgraduate students, have benefited a lot from this project, which will undoubtedly affect their future growth on their dance road. I believe that the process of the journey is the best learning, and oneself is the best teacher. This experience has broadened their horizons and made them understand themselves better in comparison. In the process, they will no longer be ‘taught’, but ‘learn’.

Chinese choreographer Zhao Liang used a stretch cloth tape in Infinite connections in ArtsCross London 2013. After the dazzling entanglement and struggle, six dancers magically released the shackles of the cloth tape. This may imply a certain way – when a person has the ability to be flexible, it means that the one has the possibility to resolve the chaos and mess.

Professor Xu Rui
Vice President, Beijing Dance Academy

Martin Welton (Queen Mary University of London): ArtsCross 2011–2019

ArtsCross has been an integral part of my research for the last decade. In developing and sustaining (to my mind) a quite unprecedented network of international scholarly enquiry in relation to contemporary choreographic practice, it has allowed me significant access to creative processes in the UK, mainland China and Taiwan, and to develop and sustain an expansive research process over the long term. While this has had certain direct outcomes, it has also fed into and sustained a number of others, as I discuss.

Martin Welton (right), and Chris Bannerman, ArtsCross London 2013
Photo by Andrew Lang

In 2010, Chris Bannerman invited me to collaborate on an application to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a Network Grant to build on the work done in the initial Danscross project in 2009. I was not a participant in this initial work done in Beijing, but I had followed it, having particular interests in the work of the British choreographers Emilyn Claid and Shobana Jeyasingh, and the then Singapore-based academic Paul Rae. Although my research at that point did not involve a particular focus on China or its diaspora, I have had a long-term interest in intercultural performance practice, practice-led research methods, and choreographic processes. The application Chris and I produced was certainly ambitious, but it was exciting to begin to conceive of a programme of research which, whilst acknowledging the importance of earlier intercultural enquiries, was also cognisant of their shortcomings. ‘Intercultural performance’ has often been a shorthand for the abstraction of ‘techniques’ from non-Western traditional practices, with a view to vivifying contemporary theatre in the West. As well as ignoring the significance of local contexts in favour of universal meanings on the one hand, and of the colonial histories that often mark such ‘exchange’ on the other, the deferral to tradition also sustains a problematic view of other cultures, fixing them in a past that is always ideologically determined, and in denial of an embrace and expression of contemporary sensibilities.

We were still awaiting the results of this application when the first of three planned network meetings began in Taipei in August 2011, with further meetings planned for Beijing and London in consecutive years. We were very fortunate to be sustained by support from our project partners at Taipei National University of the Arts and the Beijing Dance Academy at this point, and by the generous funding of the TAL foundation. The blog entries on this website detail the work and thoughts developed in situ. However, reflecting on the process certain key points and activities stand out that have informed both the continuing work of ArtsCross I have been involved with since, and the development of my own research apart from it:

The Privilege of Observation
Throughout its various iterations, the process of observation has been the most complex aspect of the ArtsCross project. On the one hand, it reflects certain privileges and hierarchies (and their histories), and the anxieties and dispositions that go with them. On the other, it has allowed insight, collaboration and contextual detail. Before the first meeting of the ArtsCross academics in Taipei in August 2011, Chris and I tried to set out a series of guidelines that might govern our general approach to the task of observation. To provide a moment of context, the project at this point involved three sessions of rehearsals daily, with three different works being prepared in each. This was a significant amount of performance to try engage with, by choreographers from Beijing and London as well as Taipei, by a similarly mixed group of academics. There was an enormous amount of good will going into the project, and it should not be forgotten that the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (mainland China), have been in a heavily-armed stand-off since 1949, and ArtsCross was, and remains a highly unusual act of cultural diplomacy between them. However, it would be fair to say that a degree of mutual misunderstanding, and indeed some mistrust was in evidence and it proved difficult to assemble the academics from all three constituent groups at one place and time.

Chris and I quite self-consciously tried to fashion a set of guidelines that would accommodate (what we assumed) would be differences between us on the basis of language, culture, and academic practice. There have indeed been differences on these lines, but not always where and when we might have expected to perceive them. We tried to set out a principle of ‘suspending judgement’ in the process (borrowing somewhat from ethnography), while recognising that this is something that would ultimately never be possible in the strictest sense. The idea was quite contested by some colleagues who felt that judgement was not only inevitable, but important; that calling for its suspension risked neglecting critique in favour of a bogus claim to empiricism. That was not the intention, and the ensuing debate did mean that a set of guidelines with neither circulated nor adhered to in any formal sense. However, what it did set in train (at least in my own sense of it) was an ongoing series of discussions about not only what one could do or say on the basis of rehearsal observations, but also how they should proceed, what ethical principles should guide them, and what, in the context of a series, should draw together quite different experiences.

From this failed discussion at the beginning of the project in Taipei, it has only really been in meetings over the last three years or so that we have opened out into an effort to establish something like a method, even if this remains somewhat fluid and informal in its principles and articulation. Where the misdirected efforts of 2011 in Taipei felt like a sort of failure, it seems clear to me now – with the benefit of hindsight – that not only was this a critical learning point (fail better), but also the time that it subsequently allowed us to establish the conditions in which an approach might begin to be worked out. As a research academic in the UK, I am conventionally expected to plan projects on the basis of expected outcomes, impacts, benefits and so on, identifying these in advance, and accordingly to work towards meeting them, and being able to demonstrate that I have done so. The peculiarity of the ArtsCross project (and what has also been a pleasure) the extent to which we have had to first establish the grounds on which we might proceed. Some of this relates to language (see Modernity/ies below), some to differing aesthetic, practical and professional expectations (see creativity) and some to culture (as might be expected in a project of transcultural exchanges). Critically however, for all that academia (and certainly in Western contexts) likes to pretend that the mundane and subjective experience of interpersonal exchange that constitutes whatever work we do, sits to one side of research per se, they are critical to being able to identify and articulate a ‘feel for how it goes’ (see languages of feeling below). Without wanting to repeat the same error in return by unduly valorising the quotidian, sensitizing individuals to this feel, and enmeshing them with its fabric as a collective, takes time, on the one hand, and on the other, takes trust – a sense of patience, a willingness to be off-balance, and an awareness of environmental conditions. [1] These are states that involve profoundly bodily, as well as cognitive processes. Certainly, one can be aware of them ‘in the moment’, as dancers are. Over time, in reflection and in the effort to translate these individual schemata into the meshwork of collectivity, a shared sense of feeling for ‘how it goes’ begins to emerge.

Strangely perhaps, for an exercise focussed on the practice of others (transcultural collectives of dancers and choreographers), the means by which we should understand our own (a transcultural collective of academics) has emerged slowly and often out of tacit, rather than explicit understandings or agreements. Although I would not characterise it as such, the emergent approach, and the process by which it has been arrived at, has come to bear some resemblance (in my mind at least) to some of the principles governing Grounded Theory, the qualitative research method developed in social theory by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss in the 1960s. Within Grounded Theory, emphasis is placed on meaning is ‘defined and redefined through interaction’ and the necessity ‘an awareness of the interrelationships among conditions (structure), action (process), and consequences’ (Strauss and Corbin, 1998: 9-10). In particular, Grounded Theory seeks to hold back from adopting a specific standpoint relative to its objects, and to build a ‘theory’ (an approach to seeing, or understanding things) out of what is observed and reported on in respect of interactions, conditions and so on. Where one might perhaps expect such an approach to be applied with reference to its objects (choreographic processes), in many respects, it amongst ourselves, as a group of researchers, that this has been elicited. What has been determining, and determined by our interactions? What are the aesthetic, political, and intellectual conditions we have been working within? What is notable about the processes we have engaged, and what have been their consequences?

A comprehensive assessment of these questions is beyond this particular piece of writing. Observation itself remains something of complex exercise within ArtsCross, raising as many questions for choreographers and dancers as it does for the research team. However, over time, the accretion of ideas, and familiarity with persons and contexts has allowed certain key ideas to emerge, as the topics of feelings and modernity raised below illustrate. Again, like Grounded Theory, these are ideas that have emerged from shared engagement, consideration of linguistic cross-overs and the establishment of interpersonal contexts. Given not only the cultural, but also the political differences that have regularly had to be negotiated, the latter should not be seen as peripheral.

Languages of Feeling
The greatest area of cross-over between my work with ArtsCross and my wider research has been in respect of feeling. This is both as concerns the particularity of working languages (including those of observing researchers), and in attempting to explain and represent something of the aesthetics involved. It is also around this area of interest that I’ve have found the ‘meshwork’ of shared enquiry to emerge. It was clear from my first rehearsal room experiences in Taipei in 2011 that the language of feeling was both highly important, but also contested and confused across the cultural, stylistic and linguistic differences at hand. In that year – and indeed since – some of the choreographers invited by the Beijing Dance Academy sought to develop pre-planned material around the PRC and RoC dancers they chose to work with. As well involving a prepared idea of the choreography per se, it also involved a stylistic and sentimental repertoire with which, their common language in Mandarin notwithstanding, the RoC dancers were unfamiliar. [2] In discussion with translators and colleagues, it was clear that many of the words involved were shared qí 气 for example being used quite regularly to explain a dynamic flow of energy), but the particularity of how it should inform, and sustain expression took considerable translation in terms of animate, bodily practice, over and above conceptual language.

While this certainly underscores the extent to which the embodied understanding brought to bear in dance can ‘understood as a function of locomotion and sensual existence’ (Noland 2010: 48), that this also involves a necessary sensitivity to how language, and culture, and indeed politics inform expression has been consistently made clear throughout ArtsCross. From the ease with which Taiwanese dancers in 2011 understood the energetics of improvisation demanded by their compatriot Bulareyaung Pargalava compared to a PRC colleague, to the (triumphant!) struggle of a British dancer to resolve the expressive nuance asked by Guo Lei in his adaptation of Nuo folk opera, embodied understanding has been shown to be as much a matter of contextual synthesis as it is the presentation of corporeal fact.

As well as informing and being informed by bodily practice, the ‘atmospherics’ engaged by an attention to sensual conditions and their cultural contexts have also been significant. Alongside my work with ArtsCross, over the last decade I have developed research that makes theoretical and methodological connections with a body of research on atmospheres that has emerged in other academic disciplines, including Human Geography. Following the project’s Beijing instalment in 2012, I presented a paper to a conference on Atmosphere and Translation convened by the Ambiances research network. This paper was later extended for an ArtsCross special issue of Choreographic Practices. Beyond these immediate outcomes however, this work has enabled me to make significant interdisciplinary connections with atmosphere studies more broadly, not only in my continuing interest in dance, [3] but also in collaborative work with other researchers. [4]

Alternative Modernities
The notion of ‘alternative modernities’ stems from post-colonial studies, and is a term first developed by scholars such as Dilip Gaonkar, seeking to examine how the politics and aesthetics of modernity, while originally articulated through the logics and movements of Western capitalism, have had ‘site-specific’ meanings that diverge and differentiate from these presumed sources: ‘everywhere, at every national/cultural site, modernity is not one but many; modernity is not old but familiar; modernity is incomplete and necessarily so’ (2001: 23). Throughout ArtsCross, this has been apparent in the passage and surprising resilience of the basic principles of ballet as a means of disciplining and articulating human bodies. From seventeenth century European courts, to fin de siècle Paris, Soviet Russia, and the People’s Republic, ballet has offered and continues to offer a series of organising dancing bodies, even for forms and approaches that might appear to reject it. It informs the ethnic folk dance aesthetics styled at the Beijing Dance Academy, as much as it allows dancers of its ‘contemporary’ antithesis to tell each other where to put their feet, hold their hands, initiate certain kinds of force and so on. As much as this speaks to similarity, it also shows considerable difference. Despite co-linguistic, historical and cultural contexts, it has regularly been apparent how differently political currencies have shaped the relationship to even such apparently immutable forms such as ballet positions for Taiwanese and mainland Chinese colleagues.

In the first ArtsCross meeting in Taipei we attempted to address this, by trying to open a discussion of how and whether we might frame our activities in relation to postcolonial theories of knowledge production and culture. This was met with some incredulity by Taiwanese and PRC colleagues. The former felt their culture more shaped by Japanese colonial history than Western, and the latter articulated the extent to which they held Western cultural and economic dominance to be a relic of the previous century, and that they ‘owned’ the expressive potential of aesthetic capitalism as much as any other society (indeed, maybe more so in economic terms). As a scholar trained to place postcolonial sensitivity front and centre, this was quite a shocking interaction, not because our colleagues discounted the historical trauma of Western colonial adventurism on their own societies, but because they refracted and reabsorbed it so differently, even whilst recognising and dealing with its articulations. This could be said to be reflective of what the literary scholar Gu Ming Dong, has term ‘Sinologism’ – a particular set of logics that shape knowledge production between Chinese cultures and their Western others: ‘Because the ways of observing China and producing knowledge and scholarship on China are controlled by an inner logic that operates frequently beyond our conscious awareness, Sinologism is basically a cultural unconscious in China-West studies and cross-cultural studies’ (2013: 7).

Even so, as communication psychologies often attest, we are as often as wrong about the meaning and content of our unconscious drives as we are accurate in their application. In London in 2013, the third of three meetings in which a core group of researchers had collaborated, we were able to programme a seminar series alongside our rehearsal observations. In these we had planned to explore key ideas which we felt to be emerging in our thinking. The first of these was ‘the cosmopolitan’. However, after hours of discussion, and some considerable efforts by those translating, it became clear that while we all recognised ourselves to be addressing a core topic, our senses of the nuance we carried with it were quite different. Amongst the Western (UK and US) scholars at the seminar, ‘the cosmopolitan’ seemed in part to signal an attitude, a feeling of accommodation with cultural difference and with others, and a certain sense of belonging that extended beyond place. It is an attitude that would come to be venomously characterised a few years later by the then British Prime Minister Theresa May, as belonging to ‘citizens of nowhere’ who opposed the UK’s exit from the European Union. PRC colleagues by contrast found ‘the cosmopolitan’ to point more towards the kinds of new, densely urban social contexts that had developed rapidly in China – and indeed across Asia more broadly – since the 1980s.

Academics Seminar, ArtsCross London 2013
Photo by Andrew Lang

Once more, with feeling
I should have written more about karaoke. Although not widely acknowledged as a scholarly practice (and notwithstanding Hosokawa Shuhei’s wonderful ethnography of Asian Karaoke styles), it has been an important background practice in the development of the project. It would be fair to say I think, that political and cultural sensitivities (to say nothing of institutional pressures) meant that we often spent some time circling around one another without quite coming to entirely grasp or articulate what we were sharing. One very humid day in Taipei in 2015, whilst involved in a discussion of approaches to practice-led research and doctoral studies, our Taiwanese colleagues took us for lunch. Agreeable as this was, it was something of a shock when at the end of the meal, the staff plugged a couple of microphones into the wall, switched on a couple of video monitors, and invited us to sing. Chinese and Taiwanese colleagues accepted this gleefully, and after a few moments of reserve so did the British. We’ve sung quite a lot of karaoke together since, and as silly as this has often been, the shared sense of feeling together it has produced has undoubtedly allowed us to find greater depth in our discussions. In 2013 in London, in preparation for the conference that closed the meeting, we assembled teams of UK, Taiwanese and PRC researchers to make presentations on emerging topics. With my group, we discussed how our attentions had been drawn to ‘spaces’ in the process, those between people and place, but also temporal spaces, or interregna, the significance of gaps in processes for recovery, contemplation, ‘making sense’ and so on. We began to draw together a number of terms, none of which quite translated one way or another (and this in itself led to a very interesting discussion). At our last meeting, in Beijing in 2019, I was struck not only by the extent and depth of discussions that were now being held, but also by the moment when my Taiwanese colleague, Chen Ya-Ping put forward the English word ‘affect’ as a term that we should consider, and was immediately seconded by Qing Qing, a PRC colleague. My own instinct was to ask whether there was not a word or concept in Chinese that might cover some of the same considerations, but was told that this was best, and best covered what we were concerned with; a transcultural, Sinological movement staged by ArtsCross.

Hosokawa, Shuhei (2005). Karaoke Around the World: Global Technology, Local Singing. London: Routledge.
Gaonkar, Dilip P. (2001). Alternative Modernities. Durham NC: Duke University Press.
Gu, Ming Dong (2013). Sinologism: An Alternative to Orientalism and Postcolonialism. London: Routledge.
Welton, Martin (2018). ‘Making Sense of Air: Choreography and Climate in Calling Tree’. Performance Research. 25 (3). pp.80-90.
Strauss, Anselm and Corbin, Julia (1998). Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory (2nd ed.). London: Sage.

[1] It’s only now that I look back and see this prefigured in the titles of various stages of the project – ‘Uncertain…Waiting…’, ‘A Shift of Balance’, ‘Light and Water’.
[2] ‘Sentiment’ here is not a pejorative description, but points to a mode of crafted, and ostensive emotional expression within stylistic constraints, that Western theatrical practice has come to ignore, beyond its vestigial remains in classical ballet for example.
[3] See for example ‘Making Sense of Air: Choreography and Climate in Calling Tree’; Performance Research, Vol.25, No.3, 2018, pp.80-90
[4] I am co-editor of the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Ambiances and Atmospheres.

Kate March (research assistant, London): ArtsCross 2011


I think back to a decade ago at the blossoming of the ArtsCross project and feel an immense sense of inspiration and gratitude. A fresh MA graduate, I was fortunate enough to have been involved as a research assistant and as such, became deeply involved with the overall project development and coordination. In particular, I had the privilege of traveling to Taipei on two occasions where my primary role was as active liaison and support person for artists, academic participants and the project facilitators. Through this role, where I was communicating in many different kinds of formats and with individuals from diverse backgrounds, I was able to subtly and intuitively access an inside perspective of the project’s unfolding. Ultimately, I had the intimate honour of witnessing the project build momentum as a catalyst for learning and exchange. 

During my time as research assistant, I felt ArtsCross naturally evolved into a powerful cross-cultural vehicle and an empowering journey for participating artists and academics alike. I thoroughly enjoyed beholding artistic voices flourish and develop whether this was through improvisation, choreography, performance, physical theatre, colloquial writing, or formal academic writing. I myself participated as a writer on the ArtsCross blog which ultimately, became a robust place of reflection, dialogue and knowledge production. For me, those blog writings have become sacred time and space holders for my memory and transport my mind and body right back into the most transformational creative exchange moments in Taipei. ArtsCross seemed to invite a liberated sense of exploration into creative processes and identities for all of those involved.

As a budding international artist myself, the opportunity to observe the intercultural interactions and the resulting discourses served as an inflection point in my career. I experienced firsthand the transcendent power of the arts to communicate across language and cultural differences which solidified my desire to dedicate my life to the arts. Inside and outside of the studio, I watched the intimate act of art making of other artists. I absorbed a variety of familiar and novel methods as they worked through creative visions with problem solving, expressive conversations, and the embodiment of new ideas combining Eastern and Western influences. I felt connected to their passion and inspired to incorporate some of the choreographic and improvisational techniques that differed from my own.

In my reflexive writings in that period, I grappled with the notion of presence and the body in the remote and proximate — themes that seem especially relevant all these years later in the unanticipated time of a pandemic. In my artistic work then and to this day, I was implicitly impacted by my exposure to both Eastern and Western aesthetics. Ironically, though the ArtsCross trips were my introduction to Asia, I would eventually live in Hong Kong and travel throughout Asia for the subsequent 6 years.

My time in Taipei and with ArtsCross granted me the courage and the tools to not only say yes to the opportunity to pursue my art overseas in Asia, but also, I am certain it is what allowed me to thrive personally and professionally. I proudly continue my work today as artist and researcher devoted to perpetuating and exploring the valuable insights I gained during the ArtsCross project.

Professor Tong Yan (Beijing): ArtsCross 2009–2014

In May 2009, under the leadership of Wang Chuanliang, the Secretary of Beijing Dance Academy, my colleagues and I came to ResCen Research Centre, Middlesex University, with Xu Rui’s help. It was the first time that I met Professor Bannerman. From that moment on, I started a journey that lasted ten years.

Tong Yan, Danscross 2009 Beijing
Photo by Guo Tuantuan

In the past ten years, I have ‘transformed’ from a teacher to a journal editor; I have also experienced a ‘transition’ of career and life from Beijing to Guangzhou. The most important thing is that I have experienced almost all the ArtsCross (except ArtsCross Beijing 2019, Beyond the Clouds). What I saw, what I thought, and what I considered were recorded and shared through blogs, forums, and anthologies. When I look back at these precious images and words now, the memories are vivid…

On 1 November 2009, in raging snow, the world premiere of “Danscross”, the press conference of the performance and forum were held in the Glass Studio of Beijing Dance Academy. As one of the first participants, I was in an academic team with Qing Qing from the Dance Institute of the Chinese Academy of Art, and Emilyn from the University College Falmouth. We had observed and studied the entire process of the creation of works by the BDA’s choreographer Wang Mei and the UK-based choreographer Kerry Nicholls. Kerry’s piece brought together the “high-quality idols” of the BDA dance company and Chinese “dance idols”: Wang Yabin, Zhao Zhibo, Wu Weifeng, Wu Shuai, Wang Lei, and Sun Rui; Wang Mei’s piece involved herself, her students, and Shao Junting from the BDA dance company. Also, Liu Yan, a dancer of the BDA dance company, who made her comeback for the first time after being seriously injured in the rehearsal of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, danced with her friends in the brightest light in the deepest night in the piece of Zhang Yunfeng.

In 2011, the ArtsCross/Danscross was held in Taipei. My colleagues and I visited Taiwan, the treasure island of China. The 7 days were short and substantial. We once again had the opportunity to observe the dance creation process of choreographers from Beijing, Taipei, and London, visited the dance department of Taipei University of the Arts founded by Mr. Lin Hwai-min, and inspected the daily training of the Cloud Gate, as well as observing and comparing the cultural differences and dance expression between Beijing and Taipei dance students in the context of globalisation. I was deeply impressed with two men with four-character names: Bulareyaung Pagarlava, a choreographer from the Paiwan ethnic group in Taiwan, and Tian Yangquzhong, a student from the BDA. Also, an academic trip is also a cultural trip: boarding Taipei 101, Fisherman’s Wharf; tasting Taipei’s snacks at Shi Lin Night Market; visiting the Eslite Bookstore Ximen Store.

In 2012, ArtsCross returned to Beijing. With the theme of Light and Water, it provided a more meaningful and vivid creative platform. This time, choreographers and dancers from Beijing, Taipei, and London once again opened our eyes to the world. The Warriors/Beijing 2012 allowed us to see youth’s commotion, the colourfulness, passion, and fearlessness.

In 2013, I returned to London with ArtsCross, and deeply felt Leaving home: being elsewhere. This time, regarding the Mask with the traditional Chinese Nuo culture, Zhao Liang’s long hair, and Su Weichia’s Free Steps, which “twisted to cramp”, cultures have achieved a leap in the span of space. In addition, the BDA President, Guo Lei, participated in the project as a choreographer. In this year, I left several articles on the ResCen blog, recording my journey, especially the thinking about the essence of dance art-breathing, space, time, and attention to the intercultural and interdisciplinary dance research.

ArtsCross 2013 London at The Place
Photo by Andrew Lang

In 2014, it was the gathering of the ArtsCross family at the five-year node. This year, in the “Chunhua Qiushi Arts Academy Stage Art Exhibition Week” at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, a performance titled 2014 ArtsCross brought five years of collection which were full of memories. The five-year annual performance strongly promoted the collision and exchange of modern art between Chinese and Western cultures.

The observation of the creative process of ArtsCross allowed me to think from the perspective of cultural research and comparison, and successively published some articles: ‘Break the “Boundary” and Dance Together – The International Exchange and Cooperation Project Danscross’, China Art News, November 20th, 2009; ‘Broken “Precepts” and “Boundaries” – The Effect and Influence of Cultural Psychological Structure on Dance Creation’, Journal of Beijing Dance Academy, 2011; ‘Miscellaneous Thoughts on Interference and Boundary in Contemporary Dance Creation’, Dance, Issue 8, 2014. In addition, it is particularly significant that I started to study for a Ph.D. majoring in art theory at Peking University in 2011. The ArtsCross I experienced afterwards broadened my horizons and provided vivid cases for my academic studies. My research has realised the interaction, integration, and symbiosis between practice and theory.

In 2017, I left Beijing due to my work transfer, so I missed the ArtsCross family event in 2019…however, I want to say to ArtsCross:

Five years (2009-2014) is a song; it sings the love of dance art,
Ten years (2009-2019) is a poem; it chants the obsession with artistic life.

Professor Tong Yan
Deputy Director of the Institute of Music and Dance,
South China Normal University

Emily Wilcox (University of Michigan, USA): Danscross 2009

Reflections on Danscross 2009

In 2008, I was a US doctoral Fulbright scholar studying and researching Chinese dance at the Beijing Dance Academy (BDA) when Xu Rui, a dance studies professor at BDA, asked me to have coffee to discuss an important opportunity. During our conversation, Xu told me about an exciting international collaboration he was planning to organize at BDA the following year. He asked if I would be willing to serve as the lead interpreter. My Fulbright was set to end in the spring of 2009, and Xu Rui’s project was scheduled to go through the fall. Thus, accepting would mean extending my stay in Beijing for another semester, postponing my return to the US, and potentially delaying the completion of my dissertation. I had some concerns about how my advisor would respond. Yet, within a few days of our conversation, I had accepted Xu Rui’s invitation. It seemed like an opportunity simply too exciting to pass up.

Avatâra Ayuso (left), Shobana Jeyasingh (middle), and Emily Wilcox (right) at Beijing Dance Academy, Danscross 2009
Photo by Guo Tuantuan

The project Xu Rui invited me to was Danscross 2009: Dancing in a Shaking World (舞动无界2009:在动荡的世界里起舞), a collaborative international choreography research project hosted at BDA and sponsored jointly by BDA and the Centre for Research into Creation in the Performing Arts (ResCen Research Centre) at Middlesex University, London. The two faculty who created and led the project were Xu Rui, then Associate Professor and Vice-chair of the Department of Dance Studies at BDA and Christopher Bannerman, Professor of Dance and Head of ResCen Research Centre at Middlesex. The project unfolded from May to November and had a unique structure. Over the course of six months, there were four two-week creation sessions held at BDA in Beijing. During each session, two choreographers—one Chinese and the other British or Australian—each created a new dance work from start to finish during the two-week period. Both groups of choreographers worked with Chinese dancers, most of whom were award-winning professional performers employed by the BDA Youth Ensemble. Working side-by-side or in studios in the same building, the choreographers and dancers were observed throughout the creative process by an international group of rotating dance scholars and critics. During each two-week period, the scholars and critics published their reflections on a blog and took notes on the entire process. They also participated with the choreographers and dancers in several public sharing sessions where the different participants could share their experiences and ask each other questions. At the end of the entire six-month process, a culminating event was held in which the eight newly created works were performed publicly. A conference and publication were also put together in which the observing scholars and critics shared their discoveries and engaged in dialogue, all of which was later published and recorded.

At the time, I found the Danscross 2009 project exciting for two major reasons: its explicit focus on the creative process and its placing of choreographers working in different forms side-by-side. I appreciated the focus on creative process because too often dance research centers finished choreographic works as the main object of analysis. While this close study and interpretation of finished dances is an important component of dance research, it typically tells little about how such productions are made and thus potentially misses out on large parts of the greater significance, innovation, and intention of the work. In this way, the activities that take place in the studio or elsewhere leading up to the premiere of a new piece of choreography may be completely invisible in the traditional performance-as-text mode of dance writing. In my own Fulbright research, I was taking the dance classroom as a research site for investigating how Chinese dance culture is produced through iterative processes of dance training. Thus, I saw the Danscross 2009 project as a way to further extend this methodological interest in process. Like many dance researchers, I had observed rehearsals and interviewed choreographers about their creative process, and I had experienced the choreographic process myself as a dance practitioner. However, I had never watched an entire work unfold from start to finish as an observer.

In terms of placing different forms side-by-side, I found this particularly significant because of the historical tendency of Anglophone scholars and critics to discount or misinterpret creativity in non-Western dance forms. All four of the British and Australian choreographers who participated in Danscross 2009 identify primarily as practitioners of contemporary dance, the dominant mode of concert dance choreography in the Anglophone academic sphere. However, the four Chinese choreographers who participated in Danscross 2009 identify primarily as practitioners of four different dance forms: Zhang Yunfeng specializing in Chinese classical dance; Zhao Tiechun specializing in Chinese national folk dance; Wang Mei specializing in Chinese modern dance; and Zhao Ming specializing in Chinese military dance. A common misperception among Anglophone scholars and critics is that these forms lack the creativity of contemporary dance, either because of an emphasis on national tradition or a close connection to state politics. By placing these choreographers into the same research project, Danscross 2009 challenged scholars and critics to abandon such outdated assumptions and instead view the artists as engaged in similar processes of creativity.

At the time the Danscross 2009 project was launched, scholarly work on dance in the Chinese-speaking world among Anglophone academics was extremely limited. To illustrate this, we can look at the development of Chinese dance studies in the United States at that time. Before the year 2000, only four doctoral dissertations had ever been completed in United States universities that dealt with dance in Chinese-speaking communities. One of these dealt with revolutionary ballet during the Cultural Revolution; one dealt with dance during the Tang Dynasty; one dealt with lion dance in New York’s Chinatown; and one dealt with dance and ritual in ancient China. Between 2000 and 2009, five dance scholars from Taiwan received PhDs in US universities, and their dissertations greatly increased research on contemporary concert dance in the Chinese-speaking world. Nevertheless, because these scholars all returned to Taiwan to work following their graduation, there remained a pronounced absence of expertise about Chinese dance among US-based dance scholars and critics. It was only in 2010, the year after Danscross was launched that the first scholar holding a PhD focused on dance in Chinese cultural communities received tenure in a US university. Moreover, rather than working on choreography in China, this scholar researched dance in US-based Chinese immigrant communities. The situation was similar in other English-speaking academic communities, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Thus, simply by bringing established Anglophone dance scholars into Beijing Dance Academy classrooms and asking them to write about new works by Chinese choreographers, Danscross 2009 was making a significant intervention into the development of Chinese dance studies internationally.

As collaborative projects often tend to do, Danscross 2009 brought people together and laid foundations for meaningful scholarly and artistic exchange that spawned later activities. Just one year later, in 2010, I collaborated with Katherine Mezur, one of the American scholars who had participated in the Danscross 2009 project, to organize a conference on dance in East Asia back at my home institution, the University of California, Berkeley. In fact, Katherine and I already knew each other several years earlier through our shared participation in other dance studies activities in the US. However, it was our reunion in Beijing in 2009 and the weeks of intense interaction and reflection we experienced through our shared participation in Danscross 2009 that ignited a series of deeper collaborations between us, which ultimately culminating in the recent publication of our new co-edited volume Corporeal Politics: Dancing East Asia by the University of Michigan Press in 2020. Two of the speakers we invited to our initial 2010 conference at UC Berkeley—Liu Xiaozhen from China and Inata Naomi from Japan—also participated in the Danscross project. Through their presence at the conference, some of the conversations started in Beijing also found their way into this new network of scholarly exchange and helped to foster the growth of Chinese and East Asian dance studies in the United States.

In terms of my own work, participation in Danscross played a significant role in preparing me for a professional path as a dance scholar helping to build the new field of Chinese dance studies in the Anglophone world. Based on my positive experience in Danscross, I decided to participate in other international arts collaborations, such as the 2012-2013 Winter Institute series at the Shanghai Theatre Academy, which further deepened my commitment to Chinese dance and performance studies as a scholarly identity. The generous and mutually respectful model of international collaboration I witnessed between Xu Rui and Christopher Bannerman at Danscross 2009, as well as the project’s emphasis on non-traditional, visionary, and experimental approaches to dance research and artist-scholar exchange, inspired me to launch my own artist residencies and international collaborations at institutions in the US. These occurred most notably at William & Mary, where I worked from 2011-2013, and the University of Michigan, where I have worked since 2013. These projects touched local communities of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as scholars and the general public, thereby further expanding the reach of Danscross 2009’s direct and indirect impact to international communities beyond its original site.

Throughout these projects, I held close a basic commitment to the value of bringing artists and scholars together, centering creative practice as a mode of academic research, and fostering cross-cultural understanding and collaboration as a public-facing scholarly activity. These were values I learned in part through my participation in Danscross 2009 and which are now fundamental to my academic identity and practice. Janet O’Shea, one of the scholars I connected with through Danscross, also became an important role model and mentor in the development of my monograph Revolutionary Bodies: Chinese Dance and the Socialist Legacy, published by the University of California Press in 2018, which is the first major academic study in English of dance in the People’s Republic of China. Janet served as one of the commentators for my manuscript workshop in 2016 and made important suggestions that shaped the final shape of the book. Although mentoring was not an explicit goal of Danscross 2009, it ended up serving this purpose in my case. This opportunity for mentoring indirectly helped ensure the successful publication of my book and as a result the promotion of new knowledge about dance and choreography in China. Beyond the United States, more Anglophone dance scholars in general are now writing about and taking seriously diverse forms of choreography produced in mainland China. I believe this is also an indirect result of the diverse personal experiences, collaborations, and new scholarly networks fostered by the Danscross/ArtsCross projects over the years.

Danscross 2009 turned out to be the first installment of a long-term project that went on to have five subsequent programs in Beijing, Taipei, and London between 2011 and 2019. The fact that such a large and complicated international project has continued through so many iterations is a testament to its success and the great value its participants find in it. Because of scheduling conflicts with teaching and other responsibilities, I have unfortunately not yet been able to take part in any of the subsequent meetings held after the inaugural 2009 year. However, I followed the reports of later events with interest and was happy to see how the project continued to expose colleagues from different parts of the world to the exciting work of Chinese choreographers. I was also happy to see that as the project moved to different locations, the Chinese artists and scholars also had opportunities to travel and benefit from the experience of changing from “host” to “guest.” I was also pleased to see that in later versions of the project, Chinese choreographers had opportunities to work with non-Chinese dancers, and Chinese and non-Chinese dancers also danced together in shared choreographies. These changes undoubtedly added even further layers of meaning and impact to the project.

In the spirit of self-reflection and openness that Xu Rui and Chris so encouraged throughout my interactions with them during and since the Danscross 2009 project, I will share some thoughts about the minor shortcomings of Danscross 2009, a majority of which I believe were resolved in later ArtsCross events. Although most of these issues were later overcome, I think highlighting these points is crucial to provide broader context for the scholarly and artistic results that came out of Danscross 2009. Pointing out and reflecting on these minor limitations also hopefully offers learning experiences for other international projects that may take Danscross/ArtsCross as a model in the future. Identifying these problems in the first iteration of the program is also helpful because it demonstrates how the project organizers incorporated critical feedback and continued to refine and improve their model in later years. Given the scale and complexity of the project and the real limitations in terms of finances, human labor, and other resources, the minor shortcomings that I identify here are completely understandable and in no way detract from the enormous contributions of the project as a whole.

In my role as interpreter, I was particularly sensitive to linguistic equity throughout the Danscross 2009 events. In particular, I believed that for Danscross to achieve its goal of being a balanced collaboration between BDA and ResCen, it was especially important that English not become a de facto “universal language,” as it often does in international arts activities. Such a situation would privilege the artists and scholars arriving in China from international locales, all of whom spoke English, and it would disenfranchise the many Chinese choreographers, dancers, and scholars involved in the project who are not fluent in English. As a whole, I do not feel that this occurred in Danscross 2009. I felt that Xu Rui and Chris enforced a strong commitment to linguistic equity. They ensured that all written materials related to the project were provided in both languages, and they ensured that interpreters were present and effective at large group gatherings when major discussions, public announcements, or sharing and reflection took place. Both myself and the other interpreter were dance researchers with direct experience of dance training and choreography in both China and Anglophone contexts, and this ensured a high level of familiarity with the language and discourses used in the event, fostering accurate and meaningful interpretation. All of this showed a careful consideration of the importance of language in the success of the event and in achieving its larger goals of cross-cultural collaboration and learning.

Given this investment in language, one of my most significant disappointments with the Danscross 2009 arrangement was the decision not to assign interpreters to the Chinese choreographers’ studios. I believe this decision was made because all of the dancers were Chinese, and the interpreters were seen as mediating primarily between the choreographers and the dancers, not between the choreographers and the scholars/critics. Thus, because the Chinese choreographers were working with Chinese dancers, this meant that no interpreters were needed for the creative process taking place in the Chinese choreographer’s studios. The consequence of this decision, however, was that all of the scholars/critics observing the choreographic process of the non-Chinese choreographers could understand the verbal discussions taking place during rehearsals, because they were all stated in both English and Chinese through the interpreters. However, only the scholars/critics who understood Chinese could understand what was being said during the rehearsals of the Chinese choreographers, which were only expressed in Chinese. In a situation in which the scholars/critics were meant to be making comparisons about two analogous processes, the fact that verbal communication was taken out of the equation for one group for many of the scholars/critics clearly altered the basis for comparison. The international scholars/critics thus had a much weaker basis upon which to appreciate and interpret the theoretical and artistic intentions of the Chinese choreographers as expressed in the process of making their work. This created a fundamental imbalance and limited the international scholars/critics’ ability to equally compare the two creative processes. Given that most of the international scholars/critics also had limited experience with the forms of Chinese dance practiced by the Chinese choreographers and dancers involved in the project, the lack of basic linguistic access to what was being said in the Chinese choreographers’ rehearsals served to further widen an already large gap of understanding for these observers.

Another disappointment about the Danscross 2009 arrangement was the fact that internationalization was achieved at the level of the choreographers and the scholars/critics, but not at the level of the dancers. For the comparison to have truly been equal between the two choreographic processes, I believe, it would have been necessary for the Chinese choreographers to be working with foreign dancers not specialized in the Chinese dance forms they practiced, in the same way that the foreign choreographers were working with Chinese dancers not specialized in contemporary dance. In the arrangement that was carried out, there was a major cross-cultural component of the creative process for the foreign choreographers working with the Chinese dancers, but that experience and its attendant challenges and opportunities was not achieved for the Chinese choreographers working with the Chinese dancers. For the Chinese choreographers, this was a more or less ordinary experience of creating a new work, with the main change being the specific time structure and the large group of observers. However, for the foreign choreographers, it was a major effort of cross-cultural and cross-genre translation in addition to these other factors. Given that most of the Chinese dancers were specialists in Chinese classical dance and Chinese national folk dance, not contemporary dance, there was a mismatch in dance style that made the creative process especially difficult for both the dancers and the choreographers. This arrangement also furthered a sense of inequality between the two groups, because the Chinese dancers were ultimately treated as laboring bodies whose identities were seen as mattering little to the ultimate goals of the project. This choice implied a sense that dancers are somehow interchangeable with one another, which discounts their actual central significance in the creative act of making choreography and in providing the majority of physical and mental labor that made the entire project itself possible.

Choreographer Zhao Ming (left), and his assistant Liu Ning (right)
Photo by Guo Tuantuan

Lastly, the temporal and spatial organization of the Danscross 2009 project privileged a particular understanding of choreographic creation as something that unfolds in a confined studio space and emerges from sustained direct interactions between the choreographer and the dancers over a condensed period of time. In fact, much Chinese choreography does not happen in this way. As occurred in the creation of Zhao Ming’s piece, some Chinese choreographers work conceptually rather than concretely—they set the general storyline or arc of a work and define key movement elements, and then they delegate the actual work of generating movement to choreographic assistants. This approach did not perfectly fit the “six hours each day for two weeks” model of face-to-face choreographer-led rehearsal that was set out by the official plan. Another common aspect of Chinese choreographic practice that was not easily accommodated by the Danscross 2009 arrangement was the use of field research to generate movement material and affective connection to a work’s theme. Based on my research, it is common for Chinese choreographers and dancers to visit specific historical sites, meet with local communities, visit museums, work with folk dancers, and etc. when generating creative material for a new dance work. However, because of the requirements to rehearse for the same length of time, in the same building, side-by-side, each day, any field work component had to be removed from the process or carried out separately from the designated period of creation. In this sense, such work technically “broke the rules” of the choreographic experiment as outlined in the project. It seemed to me that this model of choreographic creation may have imposed assumptions about creative processes drawn from standard practices in UK-based contemporary dance. In my view, this detracted from the overall goal of understanding different kinds of choreographic creative process used in different cultural and artistic contexts.

Since I am not as familiar with creative processes in the UK context, the above statement is more of a speculation. However, if the goal of Danscross/ArtsCross is ultimately to truly gain knowledge of different choreographic processes, it may make more sense to simply send scholars in groups (along with interpreters) to observe creation happening between choreographers and their own companies or other more ordinary work arrangements. The kind of scientific experiment-like approach that creates an artificial environment controlling for some aspects of variation but not others naturally limits the amount of variation that can be observed overall. By bringing so many people together into a common project with a shared experience, this approach creates an exciting space of experimentation and exploration that has benefits in its own right. However, I think what is lost in this arrangement is a more genuine understanding of how choreographic creation happens in different structures and communities of dance. Many aspects of Chinese dance choreographic process could not be fully observed or expressed in this set-up, and this limits in some ways what can be learned overall from the experiment.

Chris Bannerman (left), Xu Rui (middle), and Emily Wilcox (right) at Beijing Dance Academy, Danscross 2009
Photo by Guo Tuantuan

I believe every individual who participated in Danscross 2009 came away with a different experience and a different set of things learned. Even when these were different from the organizers’ goals or the lessons a participant themself went in hoping to learn, it was still worthwhile. This is one of the major benefits of collaborative practice-driven research—it is intentionally open-ended and allows for diverse outcomes for different participants. For me, I had eagerly awaited being able to observe the entire creative process of producing Chinese dance choreographies. I was sorely disappointed when I realized that interpreters were only allocated to the UK and Australian choreographers and that as a result I would be stationed in the these choreographers’ studios, not the Chinese choreographers’ studios, for the entirety of the Danscross project. Because the rehearsals took place at the same time each day, this also meant I could never watch the Chinese choreographers’ rehearsals, with the sole exception of showings when everyone could watch. Given that my focus was on researching Chinese dance, not UK and Australian contemporary dance, I questioned the value of this experience at all and nearly dropped out once I learned of where I was to be working. I stayed in the project primarily because of a sense of responsibility and a desire to work with the dancers involved, many of whom were stars in the Chinese dance world. While I did end up learning a great deal from interacting with and observing the creative practices of the UK and Australian choreographers, for me personally it was spending so much time with the dancers and getting to know them personally during the weeks of Danscross that I valued most from my participation in the project.

Many of these artists are dancers I write about in my work because they appear in other famous or influential pieces of Chinese dance choreography. Having watched them move for hours each day for weeks on end was an unexpected gift of working as the interpreter for Danscross 2009. This experience gave me a familiarity with these dancers’ bodies and their kinetic patterns and potentials that I could not have easily gained through another kind of research. This experience thus offered new insight when I analyzed works performed by these dancers or others with similar training in my dance writing. By seeing how these dancers responded, sometimes uncomfortably, to the prompts and rhythms imposed on them by the aesthetic expectations of these contemporary dance choreographers, I also gained a deeper awareness of the differences between Chinese classical or national folk dance and contemporary dance. Seeing this friction play out in practice in the tensions between the dancers and the choreographers in our rehearsals each day alerted me to aesthetic differences between dance forms that I had not been aware of previously. Thus, while this was not the goal of the Danscross project, the experimental arrangements of these international encounters in fact brought me closer to a deeper understanding of my own dance research.

Writing in the midst of the 2020 COVID pandemic, as travel has become more difficult and political tensions between the China and the US and the UK grow each day, the value of international arts collaboration and research projects such as Danscross/ArtsCross only expand. The need for mutual understanding, human appreciation, and creative interaction across cultural difference has increased, rather than diminished, in this time of crisis and uncertainty. I am grateful to have participated in Danscross 2009 and through my contributions to have possibly helped ensure the healthy continuation of this project to the present day. I hope to see it persist into the future in the post-pandemic world, when its potential for impact and value will surely be even greater than before.

Emily Wilcox
University of Michigan, USA
9 November 2020

Professor Heng Ping (Taipei National University of the Arts): ArtsCross 2011-2013

Never just about Art

ArtsCross is the most rewarding international project that I have ever been involved with. It is an exchange program between choreographers, dancers and scholars which contains the breadth and depth of many layers.

I first met Prof. Christopher Bannerman in 2009 through the Artistic Director of Step Out Arts, Ms. Jin-wen Yeh. We were immediately all attracted by the idea of collaboration between Middlesex University, Beijing Academy and Taipei National University of the Arts. We foresaw the importance of providing this rare opportunity to grow for up-coming choreographers and dancers. The observation from scholars was not just from those three cities that were involved, but also included those from Singapore and the USA which definitely made the project even more important. The dialogue created among scholars is not just about dance itself, but was related widely to creativity, aesthetics, and above all about culture.

We may learn the differences between people in different area through books, media or touring but by ‘reading’ dance we can sense more about the core and the way of thinking – how the choreographer shapes his/her work, how the dancers feedback to their instructions, how to make many decisions in a limited time, etc. In doing so, the project, with so much meaning, makes the dance more human and more interesting.

ArtsCross London 2013, Asian House
Photo by Andrew Lang

In the first three-year plan, 2011-13, ArtsCross took place in Taipei, Beijing and London in rotating turns. The way of auditioning dancers, matching dancers with choreographers and including scholars in rehearsals evolved every year we met. We are very fortunate that all the details in administrations has all be sorted out ‘peacefully’ with the help of professional advice from Prof. Bammerman. He listened and was open to all suggestions and noting the issue of equal rights among three groups and among many other things.

Dancer selection session, ArtsCross Taipei 2011
Photo by Avatâra Ayuso

The representative choreographers from UK that Prof. Bannerman recommended were never just from the UK, but artists from Spain, Italy or Germany as well as from greater Europe were also included. Equal sex among choreographers and dancers is also an important issue that he raised. Challenging choreographers to work with dancers who were not of his/her first choice perhaps made the project deviate more to its educational purpose than its artistic goal, but I believe, to demonstrate this unselfish mind will help dancers to open up a more global view in the future.

I also believe it is because of this positive energy coming from all the participants, ArtsCross keeps on growing beyond its original 3-year project. Dancer Zhibo Zhao from Beijing Academy now is in the PhD. Program at Middlesex University. Dancer Yi-chi Lee from TNUA, the only dancer who participated every year for 4 years, now dances with Staatsballett Berlin. All the participating Taiwan choreographers still continue working successfully, and Shu-fen Yao collaborated with Leipziger Ballet in 2015; Tsui-shuang Lai and Bulareyaung Pagarlava established their own companies; Yao and Hsiao-mei Her both received Awards from National Culture and Arts Foundation. The organizer of Beijing Dance Academy, Xu Rui, now is the Vice-President of the Academy; and Prof. Yunyu Wang from TNUA ,who was the President of World Dance Alliance, Asia Pacific during the ArtsCross time, has continued many other international projects till now. Not to mention all the scholars who participated in ArtsCross and are mostly still working well in their own field. ArtsCross provided a great foundation to the ‘infinite’ network.

Therefore, I would like to give my special thanks to Prof. Bannerman, without his great input and hard work, the international dance family will not be able to be united together. ArtsCross opens the door for many people, the view that people encounter may be different, but surely they are all beautiful and unique.

Professor Heng Ping
School of Dance, Taipei National University of the Arts
Artist Director, Dance Forum Taipei Dance Company

Paul Rae (National University of Singapore): Danscross 2009, ArtsCross 2011 and 2013

Staying Power: Danscross at a Decade
Happenstance, more or less, took me back to Beijing for the tenth anniversary of the Danscross project, and of my participation in it. ‘More or less’, because although I was in China primarily to find out more about the Shanghai theatre scene and explore collaboration on an unrelated research project, I probably would not have been in Shanghai if I hadn’t gone to Beijing a decade before. It would be hard to trace specific lines of cause and effect – it was not because of specific contacts forged, or expertise won. My Mandarin remains resolutely rudimentary. But in any case, such a literal account of ‘impact’, the bizarre assumption that we all bear the imprints of our ‘impactful encounters’ as if they were so many asteroids cratering the face of our experience – and that this in turn is how our own insights bear on others – seems a narrow idea of how ideas and creative practices work. In this essay, I consider some of the more diffuse but no less durable – and possibly more substantive – ways in which the Danscross experience has reverberated for me over the past decade.

‘Detritus’: Picking Up the Pieces
Having a few minutes to spare before the beginning of the 10th anniversary conference in the main BDA building, I took the opportunity to wander along the wide corridors and to gaze into one of the high-ceilinged, light-filled dance studios. Its parquet floors and wooden barres are burnished and scarred by the passage of countless bodies; bodies that grew over time, shaped by their interactions with those same simple supports, and the basic challenge of the air – namely, how to move through it – the rooms enclose. There are few more acute indicators of how thoroughly dance is invested in exploiting the resources of the body, or indeed of the insatiable need it has to move through successive generations of those bodies, than an empty dance studio. Drama studios tend towards clutter and to technical add-ons; dance studios remain unadorned. And dance studios that are used intensively, as are those of the BDA, approach their full significance not when any one class is underway or work being choreographed, but when they are empty: approximating the mean of all the music and movement they have accommodated and enabled through the equilibrium of settled quiet, full of potential.

I spent only a few weeks in these studios a decade ago, and did so atypically, as a relatively inert observer. I cannot begin to understand what it must mean for a dancer who grew up in those rooms to return – what onrush of memories and emotions must be provoked by the just-so proportions of the studios, which determine the constant counts and measuring-out of steps; the moods evoked by those distinctive institutional paint jobs, some orange, some blue; or the now-smogbound, now-crystalline views of city and park that the dancers’ gazes alight on as they catch their breath before their appointed return to the fray. But the briefest glimpse of the room had my own experiences rushing back to me, and me reaching for my phone to take a picture (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1

Why do I remember the studios so vividly? In part for their qualities outlined in the paragraph above. But also because I had plenty of opportunity to observe them. The researcher is by definition out of place where they research. Their job is not to do the thing other people do there, and partly that involves maintaining a different relation to time than those who are supposed to be there. While observational research cultivates its own modes of attention, such attention is neither consistent nor unilateral. There is only so long you can concentrate on one thing, especially if that thing is itself – like a dance-making process – by turns repetitive, dilatory, distracted and intense. And so when doing my research at the BDA in 2009, I looked at the room as much as I looked at the people in it; or perhaps more accurately, I looked at parts of people, and parts of the room – the points where they intersected or offset each other. Sometimes, this was deliberate – my focal point. As often as not, it was when my attention was diffuse: what you look at when you’re thinking of something else; or where you end up when a line of activity you were following is brought to resolution, and you look on, anyway. One may not actively be looking, but perhaps this is how one sees nonetheless – senses with the body as the scene before you settles into it, no one element demanding more attention than another.

By this token, if no others, the researcher sees like a camera, at least, like the one I lifted without great consideration to snap the studio last November, and find now that I captured several layers of reflection, allowing highrise buildings to appear in the foreground as well as the background, and to rhyme with the other verticals in the image: the wrought iron railings, the columns between the windows, and the shadows thrown by them upon the floor. It is not a random view, but nor is it intentional. It is simply determined by its specifications.

Is this the best way of describing what I retain of that experience: determined by my specifications? Upon disinterring the relevant hard drive and trawling my iPhoto folders from that time, I discover the video files are unrecoverable. The closest I can get is the short playback of a still image: a strange kind of time-based non-movie, where the only motion is the rapid acceleration of the curser as it counts out the auto-generated duration of this picture. This breaks my heart – I loved that film, which I shot during one of many developmental runs of Shobana Jeyasingh’s ‘Detritus’. To my recollection, the film showed a 5-6 minute version of what would eventually become a roughly ten minute dance. I watched it over and over. And when I got home to Singapore, I showed it to anyone who asked what I had been doing. ‘Watch this’, I would say, although whether or not there was a ‘this’ is what kept me going back. Because even though I had watched its creation, listening in on Shobana’s interactions with the dancers (mediated by interpreter Emily Wilcox), and her thinking aloud with assistant Avatâra Ayuso, I could never follow it from beginning to end. It would begin with Wu Shuai, Sun Rui and Wang Lei sweeping forward, flourishing an aloft Zhao Zhibo as her right leg rose high in the air before coming in to land, whereupon the quartet fragmented with (I am struggling to remember) the birdlike Zhibo doing an angular duet, possibly with the more grounded Wu Shuai, while Sun Rui pranced at stage left in the run-up to a startling solo that took full advantage of his capacity for hyper-extensions of such massive length and beautiful line they never failed to transport me momentarily beyond the human, and thereby take me a little outside myself. (In fact, as I think of it now, Sun Rui waiting for his cue is a good example of pieces-of-people-in-contact-with-pieces-of-building moment: in order to keep his muscles warm, he would spend a lot of time arranging one or other of his legs along the windowsill, flexing at the waist to maintain the stretch. Sometimes – dare I say it? – it was more compelling to watch him do that, than to watch the dancers at the centre of the room).

And, as that dance unfolded, my concentration would splinter. The title, ‘Detritus’, describes the offcuts and debris of more solid and coherent structures. The dance was created deliberately and deliberatively by Jeyasingh, but always with a view to the minor movement – to the next gesture following the least expected path suggested by what preceded it. This happened both at the level of individual choreographies, and their combination. The result? One’s attention is dashed upon the spiky, multi-dimensional composition. ‘Detritus’, it turns out, names not only the status of the movements, but what the dance leaves you with: picking up the pieces where your capacity for focused thought used to be.

Detritus, Choreography by Shobana Jeyasingh
Photo by Guo Tuantuan

Why am I bemoaning the loss of an insignificant scrap of documentation and trying to reconstruct the memory of a dance that was properly filmed just a few months later during its formal presentation to the public? Because I’m scared to watch the official version. I am far from the only person who has fallen in love with a performance in rehearsal, only to find it wanting or compromised by its final iteration. Lighting, costumes and the transition to a public venue are all there to enhance the impact of a work. Conversely, we know that some performances only work well in rehearsal, and that they wither beneath the public gaze, revealing hitherto invisible structural weaknesses; hairline cracks in idea or execution begin to gape as the performers strive to hold the work together against intolerable atmospheric pressure. ‘Detritus’ was not quite like that – it held up fine, but in a sense, that was the problem. Uniformly lycra-clad, with stark lights carving out the space around and between the performers, the public version of ‘Detritus’ had a sheen that came off as gloss; its austerity became aridity; its studied hauteur, simple arrogance. The exacting fragmentation of the rehearsal versions found themselves recombined into an aesthetic whole. The diverse body types and informing traditions of the dancers, which ranged across the folk, ethnic and classical repertoire, and whose traces Jeyasingh had been careful to maintain, became standardised (albeit not homogenised).

In other words, this was a dance of bewildering complexity that required virtuosic skill and relentless drilling, but which nevertheless thrived in rehearsal room mufti, where the individuality of the dancers was on full display, but casually so. While, as dance critic Donald Hutera put it, the public performance ‘Detritus’ was “undermined by a score…played at ear-splitting volume,” [1] in the studio the music was played on tinny speakers that could not mask the audible counts and panting of the dancers, whose bodies took their place against studio wall or cityscape, depending on where you positioned yourself in the room, and blended into and diverged from the shifting light of day, as clouds variously drifted and dispersed before the sun. Such conditions could not have been reproduced faithfully on stage, and it is not for me to say how they could have been better reflected in the final design. But they are integral to the memory of the work that has lodged in me this past decade, and which I credit for whatever impacts have risen sufficiently to awareness that I can name them.

Fig. 3

In the Time Of…
Barely a month after I took that photo of the BDA dance studio on 2 November 2019 (Fig. 3), the first cases of what would later be identified as Covid-19 were reported in Wuhan, China. In the backstreets behind the BDA in 2009, there was a Wuhan restaurant I made several attempts to eat at, but the queues were always formidably long. The unforgettable English phrase in the window – which may or may not have been the name of the restaurant – was ‘Wuhan Eats the Whole Fish’. Google that phrase today, and instead of any exact matches, one encounters countless pages of 2020 news stories about the role of Wuhan’s wet markets – specifically, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market – in the transmission of the Covid-19 virus to humans from its zoonotic source (almost certainly horseshoe bats), or from an intermediate animal (possibly pangolins). [2]

Within a few months, then, my snapshot would come to take on what is by now an all too familiar sense. 2020 was a year of empty rooms in many parts of the world, especially in institutions where people normally gather to work together in groups whose composition is in constant flux. And particularly in performing arts institutions, where gathering is the raison d’être. For many, 2020 was also a year of imagining empty rooms: of pitching oneself back into those spaces where one learnt so much, felt so intensely, or achieved what one didn’t know possible. Suddenly, what I have been asked to do specifically for this essay – to recover a memory and testify to its staying power – is what millions have been involved in, whether inadvertently, at the prompt of some unlooked-for stimulus, or deliberately, for pleasure, enquiry, or self-care.

If this image – a year old at the time of writing – has come to seem prescient, however, for me that is shadowed by a particularly resonant echo from the past. The most substantive ‘output’ I produced from the 2009 experience was a journal article entitled ‘Pigs Might Fly: Dance in the Time of Swine Flu’. It began: “Somewhere in the world, a pig breathed out, a person breathed in, and at the Chinese embassy in Singapore, a woman told me my visa was delayed because of new swine flu restrictions. I would be late for the Danscross project.” [3] The article is an extended consideration of how the “biosocial event” [4] of swine flu, which was ‘in the air’ at the time of Danscross, but whose virulence and corresponding public health response had nothing of the intensity of Covid-19, threw into relief aspects of intercultural dance-making in a globalised setting that might otherwise escape one’s attention. This guiding idea of the paper was prompted by the concerns of one of the Danscross interpreters that in their capacity as an intermediary between participants from different places, they (and by extension their family) were more vulnerable to infection than anyone else. For me, this concern crystallised something about the nature of global networks of transmission and exchange, be it animal-to-human or human-to-human that are as much at work in dance-making as in many other settings (if not more so), and which charged breath, movement and relation in distinctive ways. My article traced an associative history of the pig as the anti-swan, the constitutive other of the classically-trained dancer, which in turn led me to consider the nature of the dancer’s body under modernity, as well as to direct my attention away from self-contained, ‘whole’ dancers, and towards the body in fragments or detail. Waiting on a delayed ethics approval from my university for research into ‘human subjects’, my perspective on the process took on what I described in the article as a medicalized gaze: “Pointing my camera out of the studio window, I monitored rapid changes in the air quality; detached images of the studio itself leave it looking quarantined, while, shifting scales, images of after-the-fact traces [of rehearsals] suggest a desire to reconstruct process from its residues.” [5]

Ultimately, ‘Pigs Might Fly’ was concerned with the ways in which dance-making highlighted how that idiomatic English expression of impossibility could become an unexpected reality. The sociological literature that emerged in the wake of SARS (2003) and H1N1 (2009) underscored the vulnerability of humans to virulent zoonoses, and how quickly the conventional mechanisms societies have put in place to maintain boundaries and hold humans at a distance from zoonotic threats can massively and rapidly fail, bringing them into “sudden proximity” with infectious animals [6]. I noted the ways in which that literature drew on the tropes of choreography to explain the relations between such mechanisms, and ended by highlighting the widespread concern being expressed by epidemiologists at the time that the resources required to monitor and respond rapidly to new zoonotic outbreaks were inadequate to the task, and that further such pandemics could only be expected. The North American pig farms discussed critically in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, I concluded, “feel like a long way from a dance studio in Beijing. But one of the lessons of this study is that we are as far from a dance studio in Beijing as we are from a confined animal feeding operation in Malaysia, Guangdong, or North Carolina. And that is to say, for as long as we live and breathe and move, not very far at all.” [7]

So much for ‘Dance in the Time of Swine Flu.’ The title was a far from original borrowing from Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s 1985 novel Love in the Time of Cholera, of course; but 2020 was when ‘in the time of’ really had its moment. ‘X in the time of Covid’ was the ubiquitous descriptor of choice for pundits that year, at least in Anglophone contexts. And it is not hard to see how ‘the time of Covid’ has been one where the social choreography of bodies has received unprecedented attention, invention and contestation. Notwithstanding the constraints on public gathering, in terms of analysing what has become of us, the time of Covid has been a time for dance.

At the age it is now, however, Danscross takes its time differently. ‘In the time of Danscross’ means ‘a decade bookended by infectious zoonoses.’ This is not to say Danscross is reducible to such phenomena (perhaps it is best understood as sitting in the same relation to them as the BDA does Beijing Zoo on Google Maps! (see Fig. 3)). But insofar as we might see the outbreaks of H1N1 and Covid-19 as marking two moments when the intensifying cultivation and movement of bodies at all scales concatenated into a combination of fatal proximity and far-flung circulation, then Danscross might usefully be understood both in conversation with those moments, and as modulating the intervening period. I was fortunate to attend ArtsCross Taipei in 2011. I feel like I attended ArtsCross Beijing in 2012 but I did not; and I am listed as having participated in ArtsCross London in 2013, but have no recollection of it. I returned to the BDA in November 2019 for a somewhat delirious 24 hours at the tail-end of ArtsCross 2019, just in time to watch the final showing of the final works, attend a party and a symposium, go to an exhibition and a dance performance, eat royally, watch England lose in the Rugby World Cup, and stumble into an underground hostess lounge and karaoke complex (and just as quickly stumble out). These are my fragmentary and half-remembered ‘Danscross/ArtsCross’ experiences to date, and while the nature of these recollections may point in part to fickleness and memory loss on my part, it also underscores for me the inevitably partial experience of the whole. Dancross and ArtsCross have been vast, sprawling exercises of bewildering complexity whose alumni now stretch into the hundreds. For some, the experience is fleeting. Others’ paths cross at multiple iterations, rejoining conversations and interactions, and especially for those present at or near the beginning, growing old together. Ten years is a long time in the professional practice of many dance forms, during which the body continues to work upon itself. And with the opportunity for reminiscence and catch-up comes a sense of cohort, moving through life, thinking and making dance, marked by change, and quickened by shared experience.

In short, this article is here to testify to the fact of impact, over and above measurable impacts as such. To enumerate the latter would be, to coin a phrase, to present the detritus of a project that is multifarious in its workings and diverse in the lessons it offers. The resulting networks are important; the negotiation of cultural difference, which sounds like a cliché, is real; and the exposure to new places and ways of doing, being and moving is a gift. But nothing is more durable, meaningful and enlightening than the opportunity the project affords to spend time together, and to take time in composition: of dance and an understanding of its processes. At a distance of a decade, I value Danscross most for those aspects I hold within me, rather than for what it did to me, or what I did with it. When articulated in fora such as this, the results seem piecemeal. But that is not how they sit in my memory, and as that moment recedes, new experiences arise, and new developments re-inflect that period, those memories re-form around different meanings, and inform my responses to the moment. In 2009, I became fascinated with the elaborate nail decorations of the female dancers of the BDA Company. Inoffensively decorative in the usual repertoire of the company, they became sharp talons in Shobana Jeyasingh’s choreography, which required grasping and releasing that left scratches on the bodies of the other dancers, and testified at the most practical level to the ways in which the Danscross project was reconfiguring the bodies in the room. This year, in 2020, I lectured on the ways dancers in Asia, particularly, had adapted their forms into public health messages about hand washing: in Vietnam, it was a catchy TikTok pop sensation [8]; in India, an imperious kathakali dancer [9]; and in Indonesia, a languorous absorption of hand washing not only into the forms, but the distinctively slow tempo, of classical Javanese dance. [10]

Can I trace a direct connection between what I observed of dancers’ hands in 2009 and what I said of them in 2020? No – but nor would I have said what I said, in the way I said it, without spending the intervening period observing the hands of dancers at rest and play, in performance and process, from the casually functional to the conditioning and stylisation of the mudra-based forms. This, then, is a glimpse of the strange and errant ways in which my Danscross experience moves through me, even if I have been among the less agile of its participants.

[3] Paul Rae, ‘Pigs Might Fly: Dance in the Time of Swine Flu’, Theatre Journal, Vol. 63, No. 3, pp. 403-424 (p. 403).
[4] The phrase ‘biosocial event’ is from Arthur Kleinman and James L. Watson, “Introduction: SARS in Social and Historical Context,” in SARS in China: Prelude to Pandemic?, ed. Arthur Kleinman and James L. Watson (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 14.
[5] Rae, ‘Pigs Might Fly’, p. 418.
[6] Drawing on complexity theory to explain the spread and effects of SARS, S. Harris Ali describes such diseases as having unexpected, disproportionate, and emergent effects. In this, they operate in line with other contemporary global networks (such as finance, tourism, and information) that have “introduced uniquely defined instabilities that are fleeting, ephemeral, and geographically distributed in such ways that they are suddenly proximate.” S. Harris Ali, “SARS as an Emergent Complex: Toward a Networked Approach to Urban Infectious Disease,” in Networked Disease: Emerging Infections in the Global City, ed. S. Harris Ali and Roger Keil (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), p. 239
[7] Rae, ‘Pigs Might Fly’, p. 424.
[10] The female dance is here: ; and the male dance is here:

Professor Yunyu Wang (Taipei National University of the Arts): ArtsCross 2011–2019

It was back in 2010 when I was approached about the possibility of hosting the ArtsCross project at Taipei National University of the Arts. Ping Heng and Rayuan Tseng meet with me at the British Council in Taipei. Since then, we have become very fond of the idea of gathering choreographers, dancers, and scholars together in one platform. It is like a family that grows from the central idea of dancing together, and it includes not only performing artists but also dance scholars and writers. All of these “family members” must be present for the stage to be complete.

ArtsCross was initiated by Xu Rui from the Beijing Dance Academy in Beijing and Christopher Bannerman of Middlesex University in London. When they included Ping Heng and I from Taipei, we became tied together as a triangle of cities. After many years of rotating from one city to the other, our enthusiasm for this project has only expanded. We are always looking forward to the next opportunity to travel to see our collaborators or to share with them our latest dance happenings around us in Taipei.

The first ArtsCross project based in Taipei started in 2011 on the campus of Taipei National University of Arts. The scholars, choreographers, and dancers met together under the theme “Uncertain… Waiting”. We were curious how different cultures might be displayed through this singular platform, and how that might bring us together on one stage.

In 2012, due to the Olympic Games in London, we moved our project to Beijing instead. The theme for that year was “Lighting and Water,” and the idea was to create a completely different cultural experience with novel meanings and images. Each year since its inception, the ArtsCross team continually looks for new ideas to experiment with together.

After making one complete circle to each of the three different locations, we decided to hold the project in London in 2013. We settled on the theme of “Leaving Home: Being Elsewhere”. Traveling outside of Asia is an exciting experience for those from Beijing and Taipei. The memory still is vivid for both ourselves and the young dancers who attended that year. We flew eight hours to be in an unfamiliar place to do what we always dream of doing— dancing and discussing dance together.

Yunyu in London

Our main goal is to allow choreographers from three cities with distinguished cultural backgrounds to imagine new possibilities and to develop their craft. While all of the participants are connected through a background in dance, the three different cultures each bring something unique to the project. Every year, we delight in discovering the differences in dance movements presented by dancers from London, Beijing, and Taipei. We are similar, yet we are also different in our bodies, movements and ideas.

Although I act as a producer within these exchanges, I immerse myself in the dancing and dance making process, taking time to observe the training within the dance studios, and carefully watching the dancers from each of the three different cities. As a founding member of Cloud Gate and professional dancer for ten years, as well as a choreographer and educator for more than 30 years, I often find myself wandering through the host campus in awe of the many and varied dance activities around. I often have the luxury of sitting quietly to watch the impressive choreographers, who have perhaps left their home country, as they generously offer an intensive dance experience to dancers who have likely not trained them previously. These dance artists create new works that they can undoubtedly feel proud of. What a challenge they face, and I have the honor of witnessing it with my whole heart.

Despite a challenging year, ArtsCross continues to press on, mainly because the core team, Christ, Xui Ru, and myself have formed a strong foundation. We meet every year to confirm the theme and location, and to execute administrative tasks for ArtsCross. Additionally, we now have a new member, Anna Chan from Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, joining us. The Cube, one of Laban’s concepts under his Space Harmony theory, informs our current structure. This structure is based on the spirit of the Earth, which is always stable and unchanging, just like our desire to continue the ArtsCross project.

ArtsCross Family
Photo by Andrew Lang

The pandemic has slowed us down in 2020 and 2021, but we are ready to jump back onto the stage in June 2022 at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. After that, the cities will continue to rotate so that our goal of cultural sharing remains strong.

Donald Hutera (Dance writer, London): Danscross 2009, ArtsCross 2011–2013

Memories of a Flying Fish

I had never yet been to Mainland China, or Taiwan, when I was invited to be a scribe at Danscross and ArtsCross. I went as a freelance arts – and particularly dance – journalist, and one operating in a spirit of inquiry rather than in pursuit of a particular academic research agenda. I was thrilled to be going, each time; it seemed a kind of heaven on earth – especially if your idea of heaven is making new cultural discoveries.

So much water has gone under, and probably over and around, my bridges since Danscross and ArtsCross began – professional developments as well as personal seismic shifts. As a consequence I may now recall less that is specific about the dance creations I watched in studios or onstage, or the artists I met and the conversations we had, than I do of the peripheral experiences – so many of them indelible – that surrounded them. I’m not sure what that tells me about art, if anything, or if it simply indicates more about me and the value I place on the memories I retain.

Donal Hutera (right) observing a rehearsal at ArtsCross Beijing 2012
Photo by Andrew Lang

I suspect what I’m doing here is recognising how much I relish context.

I’ve had the privileged of seeing sizable chunks of the world thanks to my skills as a curious and dedicated observer and writer. I began writing about dance in the late 1970s. Over the decades I realised that the performances I was seeing were often most satisfyingly experienced in their countries of origin. Why? Because each location tended to provide a fascinating, illuminating and enhancing frame for those performances and a potentially resonant set of reference points with which to experience them.

So many factors influence, directly or not, the work that artists make. Not just pervasive socio-political customs and cultural traditions but also the rhythms of pedestrian traffic, the body language of people in shops or on public transport, seasonally determined degrees of light and the prevailing climate, or its fluctuations. I’m pretty much convinced that all of that, and more, is an inevitable and vital part of the fabric or subtext of almost any given performance event.

For me Danscross and ArtsCross are ineradicably informed by Mainland China and Taiwan themselves, as places I inhabited and got to know alongside all of the work being offered to me. The result is a collage of images and sensations, probably starting with the sheer wonder and delight of my first, jetlagged stroll round the neighbourhood of the Beijing Dance Academy. From there comes a cascade of experiences, from the ease and sheer kick of joining the national library on my first full day in China to a long, soggy-footed trek in search of a new pair of shoes on a Sunday afternoon the day after a huge, scientifically-induced snowfall. The subway system in Beijing is tremendously efficient, and so clean. Nobody eats or drinks as they hurtle underground, something I quickly got used to as I roamed purposefully from (glorious) temple to temple. I recognised just how rapidly I’d adapted to this unspoken rule the day that I saw someone downing a sandwich at the opposite end of the carriage, and how offended I felt at this breach of conduct.

Donald Hutera in ArtsCross Beijing 2012
Photo by Andrew Lang

Memories of other experiences arise in perhaps a greater totality: visiting the Forbidden City, say, or my day-trip to the Great Wall, or, less spectacularly but no less pleasurably, having a clothed, full-body massage while watching an old black-and-white movie and eating commercial snacks. Or visiting an open-air thermal spa up in the hills of Taipei, twice, and both times meeting a very large koi that dwelt in a small, decorative pond on the premises and how it allowed me to stroke its head in the matrix between its eyes and mouth. (Thanks to this interspecies bond I later chose to give myself a Mandarin nickname, phonetically akin to ‘Faye You’ and translating as Flying Fish.)

If you asked me to try and define some of what I gained from these trips, my immediate answer would most likely be a greater understanding of myself and other parts of the world, and my place within that bigger picture. The art was there, of course, the exchange of knowledge and talent and ideas and feelings between choreographers, dancers and colleagues from Mainland China, Taiwan and the UK. All of that was highly rewarding, instructive and sometimes moving and always meaningful and engaging. But none of it would have meant as much, or struck me however deeply that it did, without the wraparound of location. And that, no surprise, was probably a bedrock intention of the entire programme.

So, I believe I both ‘got it’ and, ideally, and eagerly, contributed to it. As a coda I can say that I’m fairly certain I had never blogged until this point in my career, which entailed a considerable amount of experimentation with and learning another and probably liberating style of written communication.
Donald Hutera 

Ted Warburton (University of California, Santa Cruz): ArtsCross 2011–2013

Reflections on ArtsCross

The invitation to participate in ArtsCross altered my research and professional trajectory in ways that continue to reverberate ten years on. As the lone American academic in three editions spanning Taipei, Beijing, and London, I was invited (to my mind) because of my interests in the cognitive processes and relational practices that enhance (or undermine) the doing, making, and viewing of dance. My aim was to connect the specific experiences of dancers (and choreographers) to a particularly time-pressured situation in an international context, what previously had been a largely theoretical exercise in the field of cognitive dance studies. While this domain-specific focus had certain direct outcomes ⏤ including conference presentations and papers published, public talks and symposium discussions ⏤ over time I experienced ArtsCross as something more than a rewarding scholarly episode. On more than one occasion, I was forced out of my comfort zone, adrift in assumptions about cultural diplomacy. These experiences provoked more expansive questions about communication, collaboration, and leadership that inform my work today.

Initially, I approached ArtsCross as an extension of my research from graduate school. At Harvard University, two individuals fired my imagination, setting me on a course of study and research for the next 25 years. Noted cognitive psychologist and “multiple intelligences” theorist, Howard Gardner took me on as a doctoral student and encouraged my study of learning in the arts. American feminist and influential figure in gender studies, Carol Gilligan engaged me as teaching fellow, providing rich instruction in cultural perspectives, ethical communities, and relational modalities. When Christopher Bannerman invited me to participate in ArtsCross, he provided me with the opportunity to employ these relational and cognitive lenses on an international stage: to explore more richly the complex connections between the object of the dance and the subject who dances. I found my inquiries to be part of a resurgence of interest in the body amongst researchers in the arts and humanities as well as physical, biological, and social sciences. My ArtCross research has subsequently helped to shape three initiatives in dance studies more broadly: 1) investigation of the thinking behind the doing of dance; 2) efforts to explore a personality-based perspective on embodied learning; and 3) new methodological approaches centered in diverse dance practices, whether for the purposes of artistic creation undertaken in order to gain new knowledge of that practice (practice-based) or empirical research conducted to understand the nature of practice that leads to new knowledge with operational significance for it (practice-led).

Warburton during ArtsCross Beijing 2012
Photo by Andrew Lang

I approached ArtsCross from the beginning as a site for practice-led research. How do dancers construct and integrate all the necessary information to perform highly sophisticated physical tasks, lined up in long choreographies that have to be flawlessly remembered, at the same time producing expressions of deep emotional quality that have the power to communicate to others? For contemporary choreographers, I learned the immediate concern is the purpose for invention and the process of selection: that is, the manner in which originality and quality will “get into” or “get put into” the dance during the making process. One important issue is how to situate the performer and her potential contributions in the shape of making. For dancers, on the other hand, the overriding concern is the memory of, and felt understanding for, the choreography. Like most performing artists, professional dancers face a unique challenge inherent in live, theatrical presentation: these highly prepared, aesthetically rich enactments must also be experienced as spontaneous, free of artificiality, by performer and spectator alike. Dancers must become sufficiently grounded in the choreography such that embodied cognitive mechanisms like perception and memory can contribute to situation-appropriate behavior, leaving dancers free to respond creatively to moment-by-moment nuances in performance. Making and performing in ArtsCross thus called into question the difference between “learning” and “memorizing,” the relationship between individuals and environments, and the influences of these relations on the nature and development of performing bodies’ “situatedness.”

Warburton during ArtsCross Beijing 2012
Photo by Andrew Lang

As the project progressed, however, I began to sense the ways the accumulation of micro-level interactions ⏤ built as if from individual “legos” into an edifice of observations ⏤ limited my view of the larger theoretic and diplomatic concerns at play. I naively thought, was I missing the forest for the trees? (Yes, of course.) It began to dawn on me that bringing dance artists, academics, and administrators from the People’s Republic of China (mainland China) together with the Republic of China (Taiwan), not to mention Britain, may result in some tensions. In fact, I had already failed spectacularly to communicate clearly with our academic colleagues from China (Warburton 2017). I began to pay closer attention to the ways the co-directors were not only guiding our activities but also leading us in a larger effort: one that could build up an infrastructure that would support an unprecedented network of international scholarly inquiry.

This image of ArtsCross directors across three international cities laying a foundational infrastructure and of constructing “something new” reminded me of Ben Wilson’s (2020) exhilarating tour of more than two dozen cities and thousands of years, examining that invention’s good and bad effects in “Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention.” In one chapter, Wilson takes the reader to New York City in the early 1920s. For decades, the sounds of the city had been characterized by a cacophony of construction as skyscrapers rose to dominate the skyline. In fact, the “Equitable Building” was supposed to be the last of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. When it opened in 1915, it cast ⏤ in a very real sense ⏤ everything around it into shadow: a 555-foot neoclassical cliff rising sheer from the street, looming over Broadway, and condemning a swath of the city’s inhabitants to a life in permanent shadow. Its construction spurred New York’s authorities into action. A year later, the city introduced its very first zoning law, decreeing that any future skyscrapers would have to taper away from the street, so as to allow light and air to permeate to ground level. Like any good policy, rather than herald the end of the skyscraper era, the zoning law started a boom. Architects scurried to design buildings that complied with the new regulations, capitalist monoliths with a human face. The results — the Chrysler, the Empire State and the rest — stand still as the jewels of Manhattan’s skyline, the beauty that makes them compelling a direct consequence of an obstacle overcome.

Ultimately, what ArtsCross showed me is that truth of cities and cultural leaders holds away from architecture as well: in the history of dance we often find that the complications addressed and compromises reached, the workarounds explored and imperfections unmasked, the artists who step out from the shadows do not diminish our sense of wonder, but increase it. Necessity is not only the mother of invention, but of admiration and affection, too. What I appreciate about ArtsCross as a site of leadership is the manner in which the directors created together a relentlessly complicated and surprisingly creative choreographic project of their own. My hope is that we will not underestimate the rigor and relevance of this long-term artistic-research project. I imagine the promise of ArtsCross circa 2020s would be not unlike the flowering of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s: one where we find ourselves moving into a post-pandemic setting that is spurring its own complicated renaissance in representation; where being and becoming is taking on new, nuanced meanings at a moment when the dominant culture is struggling with under-recognized and unacknowledged burdens of institutional racism, classism, and colonialism, whose legacies impact all media and visions of self-presentation and identity construction. ArtsCross is one successful blueprint for building that future together.

Edward C. (Ted) Warburton
Professor of Dance & Interim Dean of the Arts
University of California, Santa Cruz
Senior Fellow, Arnhold Institute for Dance Education
Teachers College, Columbia University, USA

Shuo (Sally) Cai (Graduate, Beijing Dance Academy): ArtsCross 2019

I was born in China and immigrated to Vancouver, Canada, with my parents at the age of 12. Not knowing much English at the time, being suddenly thrown into a new environment was daunting. Trying to grasp onto a sense of familiarity, I found a local Chinese dance studio not long after settling in. The first dance lesson I ever took was in kindergarten, and it was the only extracurricular activity I persisted in throughout my years in elementary school, though dance truly became an indispensable part of my life after moving to Canada. 

My teacher in Vancouver graduated from Minzu University of China and her mother, the founder of the academy, was the choreographer of the well-known Dai minority dance “water”. Even though most of us at the academy only took classes once or twice each week, our teachers have always stressed that they didn’t want to lower their standards and treat us as amateurs. Thus, “dancing up to par to the Chinese professionals (mainly referring to those who trained full-time in vocational dance schools right after elementary)” was a goal I’ve always had in mind. In 2009, our academy decided to participate in the 9th Taoli Cup, the most prestigious dance competition among dance schools in China. Although we only participated in the overseas category, where the competition isn’t as intense, the preparation process still prompted me to grow as I competed as both a solo contestant and part of five group dances. From this point on, I’d performed many more solos and duos, played the leading role in the dance drama Peacock Princess, and travelled with the academy to perform in New York and Qingdao. 

Although dance was always an integral part of my life, I had never imagined it being my career. Wishing to stay in Vancouver, where my dance academy is, I chose to attend the University of British Columbia, Sauder School of Business, and would travel to China to study dance during summer breaks. After graduating from university, I began to take drop-in ballet classes almost every day. The more I was aware of the mainstream dance community, the more I felt the under-representation and marginalization of Chinese dance. I would find Japanese dance, Indian dance, and dances from other countries taught in English at the local dance centre, but no Chinese dance. As I looked through the course list of universities worldwide that offered a dance major, I found the same phenomenon. At the same time, I witnessed the rise of Shen Yun(神韵, a group that in my view not only used Chinese classical dance as a political tool but also highly misrepresented the form. I was struck, frustrated, sadden, angered… left with multiple emotions when a friend of mine asked me “are you still at Shen Yun” when he really meant to ask if I still did Chinese dance. Knowing how much audiences appreciated Chinese dance, how interested my dance mates were in Chinese dance, how little information is out there on the authentic Chinese dance, and how voice-less and unheard are dance institutions in China, I knew there were disconnections in between, and wondered if I could do my part in helping to make that connection happen. At this point, I had already realized the lack of standardized English translation for terms in Chinese dance and the barriers in the dissemination and transmission of the artform this has caused but had not fully recognized its complexity.

Not wanting to leave any regrets, I ended up in China in summer 2016 and immediately immersed myself in the Beijing Dance Academy (BDA). By that time, I was already certain that I wanted to study under the guidance of Professor Wang Wei, former director of the Chinese classical dance department at BDA. Considering my background and intentions, we landed my research focus on the cross-cultural dissemination, transmission, and communication of Chinese classical dance. It is with this research question in mind that I carried out my studies at the academy. Since there isn’t much reference or written records on the topic, international events held at the academy were crucial opportunities for me to make discoveries of my own. 

I first met Chris in summer 2017, during the 14th International Conference on Arts and Cultural Management held at the Peking University. Under the title of “ArtsCross/Danscross: New Pathways – New Partnerships”, Chris and Rui presented their longtime collaboration to attending arts managers. After their presentation, we started a conversation on issues of translation. At this point, I had already taken part in a co-production project between BDA and dancers and a choreographer from CEE (Central and Eastern European) countries, in which I was responsible for in-class interpretation for both sides. In this experience, it became evident to me that interpretation is not just about switching words from one language to another; rather, background information related to what is discussed is crucial to make sure everybody is on or close to being on the same page. If the translation of a concept was only done word-for-word without pinpointing how it is received in different cultures, people could easily make interpretations within their framework of knowledge, think that they understand the concept in full, and begin to make judgments based on their assumed understandings, while what is really happening is misunderstanding and misreading. Sharing this experience with Chris and Rui, we immediately clicked as this issue with translation and interpretation had also come up in their collaboration. I learned through our conversation that the “background information” I was referring to is called the “context”. 

Following this experience, I continued my studies in Chinese classical dance, and with the opportunities of translation/interpretation that came along the way, I paid particular attention to how each word might be perceived. During this time, I was aiding in the publication of my mentor’s teaching material. It was in the form of a DVD but included a pamphlet introducing each combination, which needed to be translated into English. I am very grateful for Chris’s help in this process; I still remember vividly trying to explain to him what each combination is about, dancing out the movements, and coming up together with the most suitable way of description. 

In 2018, I had my first attempt at presenting on Chinese classical dance at the Dance Studies Association Annual Conference held in Malta. With the conference theme of “Contra: Dance & Conflict”, faculty from BDA, together with fellow ArtsCross researchers, organized a roundtable around the topic of “Contemporary Chinese Dance under Cross-cultural Communication”, and each presented their research findings (Xu Rui – Translating the hidden meanings in languages and movements; Su Ya – “Classism” established in contemporary times – the aesthetic foundations of Chinese classical dance; Mu Yu – The individualized choreography in the name of “folk dance” in China; Wang Xin – “Global view” of Chinese dance and the “Chinese images” in world dances; Chris – From a war of words to pushing hands: para and hypotactic language and choreography; Rebecca Loukes – Conflict/Contact: Translation, Wu Wei and Gelassenheit in the ArtsCross Project). With the help of my mentor and Chris, I presented “Crossing Cultural Barriers- Translating Chinese Classical Dance” with three key concepts of Shenyun 身韵 (a teaching curriculum first established at the Beijing Dance Academy, not to be confused with the performing group mentioned previously), Yuan 圆and Qi 气. As Chinese classical dance is closely related to Chinese philosophy and aesthetics, I tried to demonstrate with these three examples why basing understandings on direct translation is insufficient.

For the 2019 ArtsCross/Danscross project held in Beijing, I took on the project coordinator’s role. Working alongside assistant director Wang Xin, I was involved with the project from the planning stage to when it was presented on stage.

Dancers in the rehearsal of Longing
Choreography by Tian Lu
Photo by Rita Alexandra Guerreiro Duarte and Vladimir Spicka

Apart from the administrative work, I also acted as the interpreter for choreographer Tian Lu’s work Longing. Through the dancers’ selection process, Tian Lu chose Sun Chiafang, Lai Wenfang, and Yeh Shuhan from Taipei, Gabriel Ciulli from London, and Zang Yanjie and Liu Xuhao from Beijing. It’s an interesting mix as Tian Lu didn’t choose dancers with her background of Chinese ethnic and folk dance (zhongguo minzu minjian wu), but decided to work with Yanjie and Xuhao from the department of Chinese classical dance (zhongguo gudian wu). 

In this piece, Tian Lu wasn’t trying to choreograph Chinese folk dance, nor was she setting rigid boundaries and closing the possibilities for interpretation; instead, she looked to explore something common among all human beings. As written in the programme,

there is a feeling that transcends all geographical or cultural boundaries. That feeling is the feeling of care among family members, the feeling of affection between lovers, and the feeling of love among all loving hearts. It is a feeling that exists in all nations and in all cultures, whether they are Western or Eastern. It is a feeling that might be cut off by interminably long ancient roads or by perilous high mountains, but is universally cherished deep in the hearts of all human beings even when they are separated by greater distances.

“Feeling” here was originally written as 情(Qing)in Chinese, which could be interpreted as “feeling”, “sentiment,” or “emotion”. As complex as those terms may be, Tian Lu used vivid examples and explanations to convey to the dancers her choreographic intention.

Choreographer Tian Lu in the rehearsal of Longing
Photo by Rita Alexandra Guerreiro Duarte and Vladimir Spicka

The piece was performed to a Chinese folk song, Flowing Creek (小河淌水), with lyrics in Chinese. The first day of rehearsal started off with everyone sitting in a circle and listening to the music, which was put together with different versions of the same song. Flowing Creek is a folk song that originated from Midu County, Yunnan Province. To familiarise everyone with the context of the song, Tian Lu described the landscape and what life would be like in this area. Intending to demonstrate that such ways of expression through love songs is a common phenomenon across cultures, she had everyone sing together The Moon Represents My Heart (月亮代表我的心) which is well known to dancers from Taipei, and asked Gabriel to also find a similar love song from his culture to share with everyone in the next session. 

After listening to the song, the next step for Tian Lu was establishing the “image”, which initially started off with sitting up on the ground and looking at the moon in the sky. When the sequence of sitting up to look at the moon, lying down, rolling (initially with no movement in the legs) and sitting up again was tried with all the dancers consecutively side by side, an unconscious move in one dancer’s legs gave inspiration to Tian Lu, and led to the development of the second image, walking on the moon. Gazing at the moon and walking on the moon formed the foundation for the first half of the dance. Within the seemingly structured and repetitive movements, Tian Lu left open for interpretation ‘who is on the moon’ and what each dancer wants to convey, to them. It can be their lover, their parents, whoever they had a special connection to. To the choreographer, it was her parents whom she will never see in real life again. She asked the dancers to express themselves through their gaze so that empathy and resonance would be stirred in the spectator and often stressed changes in quality and intensity of movement and the gaze that corresponded to changes in the music. I did notice from rehearsals such a way of using the eyes was foreign to Gabriel, though he was not alone, other dancers from Taipei and Beijing also had a hard time performing up to par to what Tian Lu was looking for.

With the music being a folk song from Yunnan, Tian Lu used the stylistic movement pattern of Wai (崴) from Yunnan Flower Lanterns(云南花灯)as the foundation for development in the middle section. I left this term as it is in Chinese when interpreting and only translated the directions and corrections given. As mentioned in Gabriel’s reflection, the other dancers are indeed more familiar with this movement style, at least for the dancers from Beijing, as it is taught in the affiliated secondary school of BDA. Though what’s interesting is a few days into the rehearsals, it was Gabriel who often received praise for correctly executing the movement, especially in his use of the hips. Having no presumptions of the movement and being in an environment where the spoken language is no longer as accessible may have allowed him to pay attention to more details, listen more intently to keywords, and adhere more closely to instructions given.

Rehearsing Longing

Besides work created herself, Tian Lu also greatly appreciated Erion’s piece, Falling, and found within it a sense of familiarity. Erion’s interpretation of “Beyond the Clouds” with “freefalls” and “falling in love” was something she has never thought of before, and she has mentioned Erion’s piece in several lectures in the months following ArtsCross. Another interesting point to note is she felt the repeated rhythmic movement of three steps to the side with a bounce (around 1:40 in the performance video of Erion’s Falling) resembled footwork in Tibetan dance (a style taught as a part of the curriculum in the Department of Ethnic and Folk dance), which, we later found to be a movement adopted from Albanian folk dance.

I am very fortunate to have engaged in many cross-cultural projects and conversations made possible by this collaboration. Graduating last year from BDA with a master’s degree and receiving the recognition of Outstanding Thesis, I can be certain to say that my research would not have reached its present depth had there not been these experiences. Though I’ve graduated from BDA, it feels only like the start, with countless possibilities to explore and connections to make.

I will also be following up with an interview with Tian Lu later…