Pre-BJ: Ah, the night before…

Past  1 a.m. and I’m trying to get a lot done, incl packing, in London before I fly back to Beijing for the fist time since 2009 and the inaugural phase of this international cultural exchange centred round dance. I’m sorry to have missed the selection process of the dancers particularly by the choreographers from England. As I remember well from my time in Taipei last year, so much happens in the first few days of creating something together; this can be especially revealing as people get to know each other and start to develop a working relationships in a cross-cultural context. Well, I guess one just has to slip into the stream no matter where you are on the bank! It’s a privilege to be returning. I’m looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with the National Library [ultra-modern and, architecture aside, ultra-friendly; it’s on my ‘hit’ list of special places after so easily securing a library card there on my first full day in China]. And there shall be strolls into the Purple Bamboo Park —  I think that’s the English translation — located across the road from the entrance to the Beijing Dance Academy. Having just begun a very gentle tai chi/qi gong course at a communtiy centre near my flat, I want to see [and maybe join in] with the tai chi the ’locals’ are doing. And of course there’s  BDA itself…or do they have new facilities? Anyway, the ’old’ ones were pretty impressive: 7 (or more?) storeys of dance studios and almost all full most of the time, or so it seemed. That’s a lotta movement…

I’m also wondering what the ’mood’ might be on the street in light of recent political shifts of power. Politics and art are on my mind tonight as I need to churn out a quick, concise review of Batsheva Ensemble’s performance in Brighton last night. Emotions ran high thanks to at least four interruptions in the auditorium by anti-Israeli protestors. I’d like to think that art can transcend politics, but…

Apart from hours spent in studios being fly-on-wall I must, this time, actually have the ’date’ with Chairman Mao’s corpse that I just missed three years ago. And I want to check out the 798 art district, and see the space where Janis Claxton presented her work ‘Human Animal’ apparently in a hole, or holes, in the floor or ground. My grasp of details might be fuzzy tonight, but I’m fizzing with plans and intentions…

In Beijing, in the thick of it

ArtsCross Beijing 2012: Light and water

We are back in Beijing, scene of the first collaboration project in 2009, Danscross: Dancing in a shaking world. This was followed in 2011 with an expanded collaboration ArtsCross 2011: Uncertain…waiting…which linked Beijing Dance Academy, (BDA) Taipei National University of the Arts (TNUA) and ResCen Research Centre, Middlesex University.

With each project we bed down a layer of experience which forms the ground from which the next project grows. This has allowed and stimulated a cycle of development that ensures a continuing process of learning and adjustment in our work. Nonetheless, the surprises that face us each time still manage to be surprises, even if they seem inevitable with hindsight. Some matters are perennial – for example, the booking of studios, always a challenge for any institution, but especially challenging in an institution with 2,000 students and a new building which is being completed during this period.  We knew this well in advance, but despite meticulous preparation, our plans managed to go completely pear-shaped courtesy of non-functioning new sound systems which meant changes to the studio bookings. Other matters, however, are decided virtually spontaneously on the spot, and then proceed with a fluidity that makes them seem part of a meticulous and longstanding plan. Such is the rhythm of these things, possibly following some chaotic algorithm that none of us can fully perceive in the moment.

In the charged atmosphere of ArtsCross with artists engrossed in art-making and academics engrossed in observing and discussing, small details assume significance. The minutiae that are part and parcel of a professional working environment are so easily taken for granted, rendered invisible by familiarity and our assumptions; and yet they are so significant in a new environment where the exchange suddenly throws up a new perspective, a new facet of a landscape we thought we knew. Yesterday a simple remark about the word ‘contemporary’, and its use and connotations in China stimulated an hour-long discussion that is still being processed. These events and exchanges alter our observations, the ways we look and how we are when in the studio. And it is the groundedness of the studio that reaffirms the ground of our experience — we bring our combined decades of engagement with performance, and our present engagement with ArtsCross, to sift our perceptions and to create new ground, creating it layer by layer with each day of each project.

In 2011 in Taipei, I suggested that we withhold judgement to avoid rushing to superficial conclusions. Then colleagues proposed that we were not ‘witholding’ judgement but working with ‘holding’ judgement – observing the events around us and observing our reactions and judgements. This reminded me of the idea of binocular vision, that somehow we are able to see more clearly, to be more fully aware, by looking though the two lenses of the binoculars, perceiving the event and the reactions and judgements that it stimulates. Is this really possible? I am not sure, but the attempt to achieve it has offered me a new perspective, and I hope to ask our ArtsCross community about this as the project unfolds.

Outside our ‘ArtsCross village’ there is a sense, on this occasion perhaps more than ever, that large-scale events are unfolding, that the ground is shifting around us as we work. An American Presidential election has just taken place, and China awaits the announcement of a new leadership, at a time of intense change for the country. So I was struck by the optimism and the reassuring affirmation of the choreographers’ theme Light and Water that was proposed some months ago by XuRui, who is the Project Director for the Beijing Dance Academy. Only recently he confided that this did not stem from a desire to return to what might be a rather conventional sense of ‘beauty’ — actually he was thinking of the prediction based on the Mayan calendar that the world would end in 2012 in a cataclysm of light and water…..

While I am now reassessing the thinking that informs the theme, at the moment I am also engulfed in the warmth of meeting colleagues and friends from former projects and in welcoming new colleagues to the intensity and catalysing space of the exchange that is at the heart of ArtsCross. Once again the scale of China and the Chinese endeavour is striking – Beijing has changed since 2009 and the Beijing Dance Academy has added a new building this year, with new studios (are there 14 new studios? I must check) to add to the 49 studios in the main building. Yet the BDA is still full to overflowing with rehearsals taking place in corridors and entrance halls as the 2,000 students all search for the space that is so precious in dance institutions. There is also a new theatre which will host the performance that is the culmination of the artistic process. It will be the theatre’s inaugural performance, which is exciting, and perhaps slightly worrying as the building and decorating work continues, with the performances less than a week away.

There will be more to report in the next hours of the next days, but hopefully I have offered some sense of the context and flavour of our present engagements. And despite our difficulties with intermittent web access, others will add to this.

 ArtsCross Beijing 2012: Light and Water


Robin Dingemans (UK)
Annie Pui Ling Lok (UK)
Rachel Lopez de la Nieta (UK) — Ben Ash (Assistant)
Tsai Huichen (TW) — Francesco D’astic (Assistant)
Wu Yisan (TW) — Wong Jyh Shyong (Assistant)
Bulareyaung Pagarlava (TW) — Huang Yuhsiang (Assistant)
Zhang Yuanchun (China)
Liu Yan (China)
Zhao Xiaogang (China)
Wan Su (China)


Zhao Zhibo (China)
Guo Jiao (China)
Liu Xiao (China)
Ma Jiaolong (China)
Gao Yan (China)
Cai Wenjin (China)
Chen Nan(China)
Feng Qi (China)
Feng Zhenqi (China)
He Ying (China)
Huang Wei (China)
Xu Chi (China)
Wang Bo (China)
Wang Luxi (China)
Wang Ke (China)
Wang Yang (China)
Yuan Wenbin (China)
Chou Tzuching (Taiwan)
Hsiao Anan (Taiwan)
Huang Hsiaoting (Taiwan)
Lai Tingtzu (Taiwan)
Lee Jyuenuoh (Taiwan)
Li Yichi (Taiwan)
Lu Yingchu (Taiwan)
Mauro Sacchi (Taiwan)
Ning Chi (Taiwan)
Tseng Wenyu (Taiwan)


Martin Welton (UK)
Ted Warburton (USA)
Rebecca Loukes (UK)
Ola Johansson (UK)
Alexandra Kolb (UK)
Stefanie Sachsenmaier (UK)
Naomi Inata (Japan)
Tong Yan (China)
Wu Yan (China)
Mu Yu (China)
Wang Xin (China)
Du Xiao Qing (China)
Pan Li (China)
Ping Heng (Taiwan)
Wang Yunyu (Taiwan)
Tseng Rayuan (Taiwan)
Lin Yatin (Taiwan)
Chen Yaping (Taiwan)
Ho Hsiaomei (Taiwan)
Tsou Shinning (Taiwan)
Renata Sheppard (Visiting Scholar Taiwan)
Liao Shanni (Taiwan)

Donald Hutera – Dance writer (UK)
Richard Layzell – ResCen Research Associate Artist (UK)

ArtsCross Partners:
Eddie Nixon — Director, Theatre and Artist Development, The Place (UK)
Jih-Wen Yeh – Artistic Director/Producer Step Out Arts (UK)
Andrew Lang and Nigel Boardman – Documentors (UK)

With support from: Arts ands Humanities Research Council

Special thanks to the ArtsCross Patrons: Dr. and Mrs. Richard and Rosalind Lee


Arrival: Getting to Know You (again)

I was met at the airport by the delightful Starry. This is her chosen English name. Alas, I didn’t jot down her Chinese name. (Given that I’d just gotten off of a ninehour-plusflight, I guess I was allowing myself to take it easy on the language front on my first day here.) I do know, however, that this name too was chosen. By her, I mean. In other words, when she was about 12 she changed her name. Quite admirablystrong-minded, that is, or so it seems to me. In any case, Starry also informed me with some embarrassment that the previous day she’d met another overseas guest at the airport and instead of asking, ‘How are you?’ heard herself saying, ‘How old are you?’

This, I suggest to her, could be adopted as the new greeting to fresh (or, in my case, not so fresh) arrivals in Beijing.

I checked in at the Beijing Shenzhou International Hotel [can I stay here indefinitely, please? I love my room!] and within half an hour had plunged into the deep end by agreeing to attend a meeting of fellow scholars in lieu of a nap. The term ‘scholar,’ by the by, designates the two dozen or so people who are mainly toiling in the fields of academia unlike me, the ‘great’ pretender. (Coincidentally, that pop classic playing this morning during breakfast just as I uttered this appellation to a colleague).

Sitting round a large conference table in the spanking new building of the Beijing Dance Academy, aka BDA, I realised that I needed to grab onto some facts in order to stay afloat and not succumb to jet lag. It’s my understanding that there are close to thirty dancers here (ten from Taipei and the remainder Chinese) at the collaborative service of ten choreographers: three each from Taiwan and Europe, i.e., the UK, and four from ‘mainland’ China. For the record, two of the UK artists, Robin Dingemans and Rachel Lopez de la Nieta, are associates of The Place, the London venue where the fourth phase of this project is meant to occur in Aug-Sept2013. The third is the British-bornAnnie Pui Ling Lok, whose parents originally hailed from Hong Kong.

But I’m either getting ahead or reaching behind myself in time. So, there I am at the scholars’ meeting and one by one we’re identifying ourselves, after which there’s a segue into  a longish but amusing discussion about the definitions of and differences between modern, contemporary and classical dance in China, This isn’t the place to clarify those distinction or, more to the point, I’m not the person best equipped for the job. Suffice to say the confusion that might arise from these varied strands of movement expression were an ongoing source of humour for the entire assembly. (The c-wordin this last sentence reminds me of Akram Khan, the kathak-trainedBritish-Bangladeshichoreographer, who has probably more than once remarked that his work is less a fusion than a confusion of form or styles.) But, as someone – was it ArtsCross Beijing lynchpin Xu Rui or, maybe more likely, his UK counterpart Chris Bannerman? – put it, this potential confusion really just means that Chinese dancers have more choices. (Cue the song, ‘Ac-cen-tu-atethe Positive…’.)

Academics meeting

Eventually splitting into three smaller groups, we continued to talk about ourselves and our interests. Now in general I simply cannot refrain from reducing just about anything I encounter to the level of a pop song or piece of musical theatre, song cue very much. In this instance my first thought was ‘Getting to Know You’ (as in, ‘…getting to know all about you / Getting to like you, getting to hope you like me…’) from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway classic The King and I. Why this happy tune? Because what we were doing wasn’t merely a sharedego-festbut, rather, a means of drawing out the sorts of ideas we might want to address during this strand of ArtsCross.

It might be useful to alert anyone reading this, or remind those who are aware of it, that the thematic focus of the conference set for this coming Sunday (and out of which no doubt various papers and possibly even a book might arise) is interpretation, translation and exchange. Clearly, Rodgers and Hammerstein were onto something. So, I think, are the scholars. Below is the list of questions we all came up with as triggers for thought and further investigation, as compiled by Martin Welton:

How active are the dancers in translating intention into action? What licence or choice do they have in doing so?
– What are the value systems (including our own) involved in the various contributions and how do they connect or conflict with one another?
– What languages are already in place?
In thinking about writing, what’s the role or benefit of the first person position?
– What is being exchanged here?
– How can we translate professional ideas to a mainstream audience? Should we?
– How are the training and background of interpreters changing the balance of imagery and instruction?
– What questions arise about training?
– Does the professional lead training or vice versa?
– How are the themes approached? What are the choreographers’ ways in? How does/does that change over the process?
– What are the pedagogic processes?
– Are intercontinental projects creating dance interculturalism, homogeneity, or something new?
– What does accent mean in the translation process?
– How is a moving identity shifted in the making process?
– What do we want to ask the choreographers and dancers? How do they begin? What drives their decisions?
– What is the significance of experimentation?
– What is the nature of exchange between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ aspects of the process?
– What is it to be a Western performer in an Asian performance context?
– What are the uses of cultural roots?

I’ll close this entry by saying that rather than hang out with choreographers or colleagues I took off into the night on a walk into the Black Bamboo Park just across the road from the entrance gate to BDA. (I know I called it Purple Bamboo in my previous post, but there’s a reason it is has two names – probably something to do with translation! I forget…) Tree and bush-linedpaths winding along lakes and canals. Many people there, too, all bundled up against the chill nocturnal air but, still, ambling along, or using some cold to the touch, metal devices for stretching, sit-upsand climbing, or ‘exer-dancing; in unison to a portable music player. (Two separate but surprisingly large groups were doing this last activity and both, I suspect, were comprised entirely of women.). Very few people that I saw were smoking. Nor did I see or hear anyone being drunk or otherwise disorderly.  A healthy society, then? It’s tempting but probably unwise to jump even gently to any conclusions about a culture, especially one not your own. What I’d really like to know is why people were crouching down besides the lake letting turtles crawl off the edge of the path and plop into the water, accompanied by praying and, just as the fall was due, photographic documentation – some early winter ritual, or were they merelyre-populatingthe lake? Sometimes one requires a translation of action even outside a studio or theatre. But, for now, those are two possible interpretations.


Studio and seminar

I believe we academics like to talk in dichotomies and dualities – despite all claims to the opposite and numerous attempts to transgress or even abolish them. Our second working day in Beijing has come and gone. The two days were filled, in the mornings, with watching the final rehearsals of works created by Asian (Chinese and Taiwanese) choreographers and those representing the European, London-based dance scene. In the afternoon we would shift, our stomachs agreeably filled with delectable Chinese food, to the seminar rooms, where we morphed from mere observers into ‘academics proper’: i.e. those who discuss, dissect, analyse, label and evaluate dance. Split into three groups, we defined and developed together an array of guiding questions for our upcoming conference on Sunday.

Word and movement

Given the proposed theme of our conference: “Exchange: Interpretation and Translation in Practices, Processes and Performances”, we naturally gravitated towards defining topics that underpin this theme. The relation (oh no, not duality!) between oral language and movement was one, though there was not (yet) time to discuss exhaustively what is after all a wide terrain. There is indeed a lot to say about this relationship, for instance about the choreographers’ decision to use, or not use, speech and voice-overs in their works; how this decision relates to aesthetic choices; and how these might in turn be associated or congruent with certain cultural and possibly political tenets. One could, as we cursorily did, address the relative scarcity of texts and writings on dance in the public domain (by choreographers, writers and critics) in comparison with the early 20th century when such texts abounded: see, for instance, the writings and conference contributions by and about the likes of Isadora Duncan and Mary Wigman.  This is despite attempts to unite the scholarly (didactic) and performative elements in recent formats such as lecture performances. (Nota bene: one can only identify or establish cross-currents if two entities are perceived to be separate in the first place).

However, when watching the rehearsals, I was more pondering the fact that we needed a lot of interpreters (i.e. help) to understand aspects of the works conceived by the Asian artists. This reminded me of the claim, so often advanced by modern dancers, that dance is a universal language. I was always very suspicious of this view, and a scene from a TV programme broadcast in the UK or New Zealand came to my mind, in which a British family spent several weeks with the Himba tribe from a region in Northern Namibia which has a very harsh desert climate. When the teenage daughter of the British family gave a sample of Scottish highland dancing to their African hosts, they exclaimed: Oh, look, she’s dancing a grasshopper! This clearly gives rise to questions of the opportunities for, and limitations of, cross-cultural understanding through and in dance.


Since my arrival in the rehearsal rooms two days ago at the Beijing Dance Academy I wonder how I might begin to be able to refer to the various unfolding dance works that are being developed here. While I have not been able to visit rehearsals of all choreographers yet, I already have become aware of a wide range of stylistic approaches and crucially ways of working.

It is evident that we are witnessing a final rehearsal phase here. Most works are being ‘polished’ to their detail, with the performance material being already known and rehearsed by the dancers. We can only guess at how these projects may have begun, and in my view we should not do so, as simply we were not there. But it is around beginnings that my interest to interview choreographers and dancers circulates, now that I am witnessing the endings of their performance-making.

I wonder how the relationships between dancers and choreographers have evolved that I am experiencing in the studios. I am witnessing many parallel uses of certain vocabularies, such as a preoccupation with the idea of being more ‘natural’ when dancing. These notes are being transmitted in very different ways in different studios, which seems to be what crucially forms the works.

One of the terms I have become interested in since my arrival here is ‘experimentation’. I am interested in finding out from the dance-makers involved here in what ways ‘experimentation’ might be relevant to them. I am guessing that some might be describing their work as ‘experimental’ from the outset, and I am told that one of the UK-based choreographers at least, whose studio I have not witnessed yet, is still creating material at this stage, much to the surprise of one of the Beijing Dance Academy academics. Yet also other choreographic approaches that might work with pre-fixed performance material from the beginning of the rehearsal process might be dealing with ‘experimentation’ on a different level.

So one of my questions in Beijing at this time revolves around how ‘experimentation’ might be at stake in the very different ways of working that we are witnessing here. Is it a term that many choreographers are drawn to, and if so, in what ways? Where do they identify the risks they might be taking in their processes? On what level do they ‘experiment’?

Day 1

The first thing that hit me as I walked into the first session today was that some of the instructions that choreographer Zhang Yuanchun was giving to his dancers (translated by the interpreter) were very similar to ones that I give to my students: ‘Let yourself be surprised by the moment’, ‘The movement is good but the moment of stopping, stillness needs more’, ‘In daily life we look with our eyes but in dance we need to look with our whole body’.

Also, although I didn’t understand the words he was using the sounds he used to transmit the quality of the movement he wanted from his students was immediately clear.  I felt immediately excited — that I had travelled all the way from the UK to find principles being used in this piece that I understood and recognised straight away. 

Alongside this were also immediate questions: what tools are the choreographers using to try and communicate their intention to the dancers?  What is the relationship to the inner quality of the movement to the outer form that we observe and how important is this inner quality to each choreographer?

I was also thinking about the importance of acknowledging within this process how and from where are we looking at these practices?  What do we connect with and understand and why?  What are we drawn to? And what are the implications of this for our interpretation of the composition/rehearsal process?  Where is our starting point?

Onto the tightrope

We dance round in a ring and suppose
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows

Robert Frost’s short poem “The Secret Sits” from the collection A Witness Tree (1942) does what it says and is therefore, according to Jonathan Culler (1981), performative: it keeps its secret by inviting us to join a speculative dance round it. I guess we have been invited to Beijing on somewhat similar grounds: we are attempting to plan, organize, create and observe dance as a mode of partnership. Are we, then, doing what we say? Hard to say, especially because it’s not really meant to be spelled out that easily on linguistic grounds. So are our means and objective a secret? Not necessarily, I think, because it can’t be explicated in words, but rather because those words not only would need to translate something corporeal and spatial into linguistic signs but also because those linguistic signs would have to link up quite distant cultural horizons to the translated practices and words. This translation can be pretty challenging even in our own linguistic vicinity. No English speaking person would need a translator to understand the words used in Robert Frost’s poem, but that doesn’t mean that we understand his poem.

If Frost’s “The Secret Sits” resists an easy translation, or cultural interpretation, try the following poem by the eighth-centuryChinese poet MengHao-jan:

While my little boat moves on its mooring mist,
And daylight wanes, old memories begin…
How wide the world was, how close the trees to heaven!
And how clear in the water the nearness of the moon!
(trans. Witter Bynner, 1929)

Not so extremely hard to get, we might think if the poem sits before us in this shape. Well, this is the literal translation of the poem, with the grammatical function of the words in parentheses:

move (v.)               boat (n.)       moor (v.)       smoke (n.)      shore (n.)
sun (n.)                dusk (v.)       traveler (n.)   grief (n.)      new (adj./v.)
wild/wilderness wilderness/far-reaching/empty   sky (n.)        low (v./adj.)   tree/s (n.)

So, what translator Bynner actually did (and what a handful other English speaking translators have done with the same poem in the past hundred years) with MengHao-jan’s poem was to re-writethe entire poem in completely different words and in a completely different style, although with an honest intention, I assume, to convey the same poetic sensation to an audience far away from the poem’s own linguistic vicinity. In what follows, italicized words indicate the translator’s insertion to supply what he believes to be the missing links; words in bold type indicate the translator’s interpretation or paraphrase of the original images:

While my little boat moves on its mooring mist,
And daylight wanes, old memories begin…
How wide the world was, how close the trees to heaven!
And how clear in the water the nearness of the moon!

Wai-limYip, editor and translator of Chinese Poetry: An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres (Duke University Press, 2007) and who has also specified the italicized and bold words above, comments on the matter by assuming that the translators of MengHao-jan’s poem “must have been led by the sparseness of syntax in the original to believe that the Chinese characters must be telegraphic – in the sense that they are shorthand signs for a longhand message – and so they took it as their task to translate the shorthand into longhand, poetry into prose, adding commentary all along to aid understanding, not knowing that these are ‘pointers’ toward a finer shade of suggestive beauty which the discursive, analytical, longhand unfolding process destroys completely. The fact is: these images, often coexisting in spatial relationships, form an atmosphere or environment, an ambience, in which the reader may move and be directly present, poised for a moment before being imbued with the atmosphere that evokes (but does not state) an aura of feeling (in this case, grief), a situation in which he may participate in completing the aesthetic experience of an intense moment, the primary form of which the poet has arrested in concrete data” (ibid, p. 6).

It was very rewarding to discuss the matter of translating classic Chinese poetry with my colleagues from Taiwan earlier today (14 Nov) and we will continue this discussion in our presentation at the conference on Sunday – although from a more accurate linguistic and culture-specificperspective than I have been able to offer here. What was so pleasing in our discussion was to notice that we not only opened up critical perspectives toward the matter of translation, but alsoself-criticalperspectives. When my Taiwanese colleagues read a classic Chinese poem with motifs of light and water (cf. the academic theme of the present ArtsCross meeting), one thought it was a lousy translation while another thought it was OK. One thought it was a mournful poem, while the other could sense a more hopeful vein through it. So it is hard to talk of a given cultural departure point and destination of this kind of art.

Nor is it enough to point to the linguistic differences between English and Chinese to appreciate the struggle to translate classic Chinese poetry; it has to do with ways of reading, writing, seeing, hearing, feeling – in shorthand, our different arts of living. This at once legitimizes Yip’s critique of the translators’ futile attempts to translate MengHao-jan’s poem and undermines the very same critique as it hinges on an unbearable argument, namely that the Chinese characters can do something which is not only incomprehensible in English but also “unimaginable” (ibid., p. 2). This quandary begs the question: If a translation of a poem like MengHao-jan’s is deemed unimaginable, is not, then, plausible to assume that it is the very mode of translation that is the problem? Wouldn’t it be better to translate the poem into, say, dance?

Or does that present us with a new set of quandaries?

The secret still sits there but that actually helps me keeping my balance on the intercultural tightrope I’m dancing on right now.

To be continued…

Eastern and Westernization

This is my second occasion to attend ArtsCross, as I attended the first ArtsCross (called Danscross) in 2009 at Beijing Dance Academy. I, who come from Japan, appreciate from the bottom of my heart the invitation to me for this ArtsCross in this difficult diplomatic situation between Japan and China. I am very glad to keep our communication and exchange with people from China, UK. Taiwan etc. through dance as an art form. At the first ArtsCross as I was the only Japanese, this time as well, it gave a broader cultural context, not simply a dualistic China and U.K., East and West but added another aspect; especially as Japan was so close to China before Modernization, almost the Eastern equivalent to Westernization, and then so close to Western culture in this past one and a half centuries. In this time academics become so cosmopolitan, different nationalities, origin and background gives rich diversity to this international research project.

Anyway, I found two dancers who danced in the first ArtsCross in 2009. I saw one had become an excellent “contemporary” dancer with enough flexibility, creativity and leadership, the other became an assistant to a choreographer. I would like to know how dancers made progress after two ArtsCross since 2009, and would like to see how these dancers, most of them dance students from BDA and Taiwan, will change in this time.

Lost in translation?

Picking up from Martin and Ola’s post I was thinking about the term ‘lost in translation’ (also used by Robin in his rehearsal – muttered under his breath, laughingly, as a lively debate ensued between the dancers and the interpreter about one of his instructions.  Although the problems of mis-communication and mis-understanding during any translation process are obvious, when the choreographers came to meet the academics yesterday Annie, Robin and Rachel spoke about the advantages of the translation process itself – that it provided space and time to reflect, and that for Annie the process encouraged her to be simpler in her ideas and the way she communicated them.

What then does the translation process create?  What does it open up and what is happening in that space between?  We’re looking at the artistic processes here within this specific project context but aren’t we also always trying to translate our own experience for different contexts?  What tools are used to do this and how do we deploy them?

In my own work with RedCape theatre I’ve recently been reflecting on how we as actor-devisers working to develop a piece negotiate our own languages and lineages of training.  Although the three co-founders of the company all come from similar cultural backgrounds (British, middle class, university educated) our theatrical trainings are quite diverse.  During the making process of our first piece we learned a great deal about the different ways that we not only move and communicate with each other but how we see – see the making process, see an interesting moment, see what we think works and what doesn’t.  As we have continued to work together these ways of seeing have become less distinct, but what has been created that is new from this process?  Something that is more than simply adding two things together.

Annie spoke about the translation process making her work simpler and clearer and Rachel spoke about enjoying and using the sometime ‘confusion’ of this process.  These comments firstly make clear that the process of translation is not, of course, just about their work being translated to the dancers but the translation process gives them something back too.

The discussion Ola mentioned about the Chinese poem in our group discussion yesterday was fascinating because it was easy to see immediately not only the myriad possibilities for translating the words themselves but the atmosphere or sense of the poem was almost impossible to pin down.  This got me thinking then about what exactly during these artistic processes that we’re privileged to witness, is being translated?  An idea, a movement, a memory, an intention, a particular embodiment of culture, of training?  And this process of translation is of course in operation on many levels at the same time and in both directions…

What is being translated, how and by who?

Towards a contact zone

Great questions, Rebecca (see “Lost in translation”, 2012-11-15, below). I find questions as useful as answers in the present circumstances and so can the hiatus of translation be in creative processes, as you and the mentioned choreographers point out. In your last paragraph you pose the question of what it is that is being translated:

“An idea, a movement, a memory, an intention, a particular embodiment of culture, of training?  And this process of translation is of course in operation on many levels at the same time and in both directions… What is being translated, how and by who?”

However, a natural born sceptic (such as myself) may ask:
Even if the translation occurs on many levels in both directions, does it mean that it connects ideas, movements, memories, intentions, or an embodiment of a culture, or a training concept? I would say no. And therefore it is so relieving, and provocative, that you add the query of who’s doing the translation.

Can the potential misinterpretation of artistic translation be productive? Indeed. But that doesn’t reconcile the issue of a lopsided translation process. A choreographer from one culture can create a masterful piece of dance with highly skilled dancers from another culture without there being a reciprocal understanding or agreement about things like aesthetic concepts, movement phrases, personal concerns or purposes, cultures or artistic training methods. I think we are all carrying a quite heavy post-colonial luggage about that.

In a similar manner I can listen to the classic tune “The Moon is High in the Sky” by a Chinese musician playing the zheng and find my childhood memories evoked from the nights of cray-fishing in southern Sweden. But this hardly qualifies as a translation, nor as an understanding of the Chinese tune (unless we consider translation as anything goes per association, an attitude which might, in turn, be quite problematic in a cross-cultural rendezvous). In fact it comes close to the mistranslations of classic Chinese poetry I mentioned in my last posting (“Onto the tightrope”, 2012-11-14); claiming the significance of “The Moon is High in the Sky” by reference to nocturnal streams in southern Sweden is like augmenting a Chinese landscape painting with moose, reindeers and roads full of Volvos. Such “mistranslations”, or “aesthetics of failure”, or “pathological poetics” can be funny, inventive and even successful in the arts, but usually under the aegis of an agreement within a certain (inter)cultural sphere.

And this is what I believe qualifies as “translation” in our case here at ArtsCross Beijing 2012: we are gradually coming to different sorts of agreements of what can qualify as translation of artistic practices and culturally informed observations in virtue of our intercultural and interpersonal exchange. This may sound like a tautology, but I see it as an ever shifting “contact zone”, as Mary Louise Pratt puts it, of negotiations, which has to be carefully considered as we go along. Just to bring up an observation via negativa: we are often speaking of European and American influences on Asian dance, but seldom about influences in the other direction. This is not only a dance historical fact, but it also pertains to our very meeting. This will be something to keep in mind for ArtsCross London next year when Chinese and Taiwanese choreographers will work with European dancers.

In my next blog posting as well as at the conference on Sunday I will discuss examples of rehearsals from the past week that I think have contributed to a contact zone of creative translations across cultural boundaries.


Because we sinned in our desire — our hubris – to equal God, we were scattered like lost sheep “abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).

Previously a united humanity which migrated from the East speaking one tongue, we were now isolated geographically and socially, vainly longing to reach one another and forced to communicate in multiple languages: “God there confounded the language of all the Earth” (Genesis 11: 5ff.) The issue of translation and cultural (mis)understandings, if we trust in the Bible, is hence as old as the erection of the tower of Babel. Sources from as early as c.200, for instance Clement of Alexandria, list the emergence of 72 languages as a result of the Babel ‘incident’.

Whether one is a religious believer or not, this goes to show the historical relevance (long before global computer-connectivity!) and cultural ramifications of exchange and translation: our current ArtsCross topic. When translation proves difficult and communication is of the essence, then having hundreds (indeed, thousands) of languages is detrimental to business and the transmission of abstracts concepts alike. So thought the 17th-century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and readily suggested – to hark back to the seeds of my earlier blog – the conception of a universal language, a “characteristics universalis” which would allow people (aka philosophers) to transmit abstract ideas in spite of linguistic and cultural divisions. Chinese characters, albeit in a rationalised version, were to provide a basis for this undertaking, which was motivated in part by the desire for universal knowledge and world harmony.

The advantage of Chinese characters, of which Leibniz had learned in German libraries and through correspondence with Jesuit missionaries, over the Latin alphabet was its provision of “a system of signs that directly represent things (or, rather, ideas) and not words, in such a way that each nation could read them and translate them into its own language” (Couturat writing about Leibniz’s ideas in La Logique de Leibniz). If my vague memory of de Saussure’s theories does not betray me, in linguistic terms it follows that the relation between signifier (the word or sign, for instance “tree”) and signified (the object or idea expressed by a sign, the actual tree with twigs and leaves) is no longer merely arbitrary but directly recognisable by all people. I imagine he was thinking of a language composed of pictures, or as we might say today, icons that speak to the reader through direct association or representation in the natural world, as for instance in the Chinese symbol for twins:

To hark back to the ArtsCross conference topic, it’s the pictorial nature of this envisaged language that allows us to create analogies between the characteristic universalis and dance as a universal language. More to follow as I am looking at the clock…

P.S. Leibniz later dropped the idea of using Chinese as the foundation for a universal language based on the reasoning that “their pictures […] are not reduced to a fixed alphabet… with the result that a tremendous strain on the memory is necessary, which is the contrary of what we propose”.  (Leibniz, On the Art of Combination).

Grey shades

I read Alex’s and Martin’s entries with great interest: Alex’s caution about conceptual dichotomies and oppositions in our observational/writerly challenges and Martin’s affirmative stance of a sense-based mode of perception in response to an experiential excess – and, of course, the ensuing task how to formulate overdetermined events. I particularly concur with the view that the promise of translation lies in our intercultural approach to both mundane detail and grand concepts.

It is not only that we have similar references to discrete phenomena like “bucket”, “water”, “steps”. We also find ourselves agreeing on, or contentedly disagreeing on, value judgments: “Yes, that was so beautiful!”, “Wasn’t that quite interesting?”, “Oh gosh, that was embarrassing”, “Well, that didn’t really work out, did it?”.

As a devote Wittgensteinian, I don’t believe that things like beauty lies in the eye of the beholder; it wouldn’t be meaningful to call anything beautiful unless the object, situation and perception of a beautiful phenomenon weren’t shared among, or at least expected to be recognized by, a larger group of people.

The real trial of translation lies, instead, in the journey of Martin’s arrow: we all know what a bucket is, but not necessarily what it is used for and therefore associated as on all sides of the cultural arts-cross; we know what water looks and feels like but not what the image of a river brings with it; we all take and see steps, but that’s a long way from being able to enact or grasp movements.

In this midfield of grey shades there is a strange familiarity between Wu Yisan’s fan-based dance work with an all-Chinese group and Rachel’s radically inter-cultural bucket-dance. I’ll try to elaborate on this on Sunday.

Lost & Found

On exchange and translation in light and water

In America, when one has lost something—a sweater forgotten in a dance studio for instance—one goes to the “Lost & Found.” At my school, the Lost & Found is a cardboard box in a dressing room of our theater. One makes the detour hoping to find that something forgotten left behind, hoping for a happy reunion. Sometimes one finds it. Sometimes that special something remains gone forever.

Because I’m always losing something, I occasionally visit the Lost & Found, more out of habit than curiosity. Sometimes I find something I like: something that I would have liked to have lost. And, upon finding it—and after a suitable interlude of time—I make it mine. On these occasions, I am reminded that one does not always know that something special has been lost, until it is found.

It occurs to me that this may be a cultural attitude, a particularly American voracity. But for me, the experience of dance—dancing and making dance and viewing dance—is somewhat akin to going to the Lost & Found. Sometimes I rediscover what has gone missing forever: a finely crafted movement phrase. Other times, I find what I did not know I most desired: a red bucket repurposed as creative instrument or new insight to a “contemporary classical” form. And still other times, I get what I most need: a long wait for one happy, tiny accident moving through space and time.

This past week, ArtsCross has been my Lost & Found. I arrived not knowing where to begin: did Chris move the lost and found box again? Undoubtedly, I will leave with more questions than answers. Picking up from a conversation yesterday, and reading both Ola (Toward a contact zone) and Rebecca (Lost in translation) blog posts, I offer a personal meditation on what is found in the exchange, what is lost in translation, what is lost in the exchange, what is found in translation.

Robin and the Art of Waiting, Again

“No.” Robin says softly. The dancer stamps his foot, grabs his head. Robin waits.

Robin stands as though lying comfortably on the floor. His verticality defined more by the displacement of space than by a feeling of weight. He looks grounded with soft, not locked, knees. I am aware of the center of his body: head to heel, his spine is a plumb line running the length of his long body. On a long exhale, Robin lifts both arms forward, sustaining a measured flow upward letting the hands drift overhead, like a slow rolling wave. He looks at the dancer, nods his head, and whispers “again.”

Ten minutes later …

“No.” Robin says softly. The dancer stamps his foot, grabs his head. Robin waits.

Robin stands as though lying comfortably on the floor. His verticality defined more by the displacement of space than by a feeling of weight. He looks grounded with soft, not locked, knees. I am aware of the center of his body: head to heel, his spine is a plumb line running the length of his long body. On a long exhale, Robin lifts both arms forward, sustaining a measured flow upward letting the hands drift overhead, like a slow rolling wave. He looks at the dancer, nods his head, and whispers “again.”

Ten minutes later …

“No.” Robin says softly. The dancer stamps his foot, grabs his head. Robin waits.

Robin stands as though lying comfortably on the floor. His verticality defined more by the displacement of space than by a feeling of weight. He looks grounded with soft, not locked, knees. I am aware of the center of his body: head to heel, his spine is a plumb line running the length of his long body. On a long exhale, Robin lifts both arms forward, sustaining a measured flow upward letting the hands drift overhead, like a slow rolling wave. He looks at the dancer, nods his head, and whispers “again.”

Ten minutes later …

“Okay.” Robin says softly. The dancer stamps his foot, grabs his head. Robin waits.

What is found in the exchange? Attention to process, place, detail and pace … Robin makes a deceptively simple gestural phrase illuminate the possibility of success or failure in the moment of movement. He asks the dancers to care about the enacting of effort and quality. Moving past derision, through frustration, into weariness, the dancers’ attention span begins to lengthen into something more. They seem to observe Robin more closely, with more … respect? Perhaps we find in this exchange the growing awareness of a personal artistic concern embedded in Robin’s subtle choreography, painstakingly rehearsed with a patient, rigorous care.

What is lost in translation? Wait for it … Talking with Robin over breakfast I heard (again) the acknowledgement that some important part of his working method involves a creative tension between clear articulation, in words or movement, and vague explanation. It’s a not uncommon practice and technique that leads inevitably, with the experienced and inexperienced performer alike, to misinterpretation and frustration. Indeed, Robin’s temperament, his calm demeanor and relentless attention, seems to drive his dancers mad, their sighs and moans becoming increasingly audible along with sudden flares of temper and sharp words. But I find Robin’s clever genius in the way he employs repetition as a surgical instrument, achieving precision through meticulous practice, rather than as a bludgeon to enforce adherence to a standard of perfection or style. His strange art of waiting (again) is difficult to translate and perhaps even more challenging to interpret in any context, transcultural or otherwise.

What is lost in the exchange? Accent … The breath once held becomes sustained. The wrists once strong and flexed become relaxed and extended. The arms once curved and tense become lengthened and limpid. The timing once staccato becomes continuous. The chest once proud becomes humble. The dancer’s accent, his entrained habitus, once obvious becomes as subtle as the choreographed phrase. I wonder if what is lost in the exchange, in the process of stripping away the varnish of technique, may be in part the security of a cultural identity for the contingency of a moving one.

What is found in translation? Shock. Ignorance. Confusion. Sullenness. Impatience. Chaos. Surprise. Insight. Clarity.

In my next post and at conference, I will perhaps revisit the Lost & Found department, with an eye toward unpacking the growing Asian influence on my understanding of European-American Contemporary Classical Dance.

Watching sideways

Both this year, and last, I have been struck by how often I have watched the rehearsals sideways. Instead of watching from the front ‘as if’ in a theatre, I mostly watch from where the wings might be. This is largely accidental, and dictated by trying to sit somewhere as unobtrusive as possible after entering the room. There is more to be said about that, and certainly more to be said about sitting, but I will save that for another blog.

What I am trying to figure out here is a relationship between the actuality of watching sideways – the material fact of doing so in terms of angle, perspective and so on – and the metaphorical thought processes it leads to, as a way of thinking about dance, interculturalism and, in some respects, thinking itself.

Thinking and writing about theatrical watching is often constructed around distance. Theatre’s are set up for it, and even when performance works or social conventions have subverted or reduced it (as in the eighteenth century practice in Europe of wealthy patrons sitting on the stage), the presentation of the work is ordinarily from here to there: from the performer’s position, to that of one who watches. In dance terms, this means that a spectatorial perspective is part of the choreographic weave, which assumes a position from which it should be watched. The choreographer’s composition is not only configured around the bodies of dancers, but also those of watchers. As a result, when we watch dance in the theatre, we are most usually looking at it; that is to say, directing our attention towards a composition which works to gather and order it. Watching sideways, however, one is more usually looking through the composition, and one’s attention is more diffuse. This means that it’s less focussed in some respects, but also that it is as driven by distraction as by direction and has a different temporality from the theatrically conventional; it is less an attention to the moment, than a concatenation, a drawing together of different movements. This is also reinforced by the fragmentary nature of rehearsal room processes; things stop and start, run at odd paces, are marked-through, rather than expressed, and so on.

I was conscious of this watching Liu Yan’s rehearsal earlier this week. Watching from one side, and slightly behind the little boy and his older partner who are the sole performers in the piece, I was only partially aware of their expressions – both facial and bodily – as they drew level with where I was sitting, or as I happened to glance in the mirror at the end of the room. Being seated on the floor, looking at them also often meant looking upwards, at quite a sharp angle. There’s a whole section of the piece where the boy sits on his partner’s shoulders. During this, they move around the space, but also make gestures in parallel, and mime a gunfight together. Often, when watching performers point on stage, and especially if it is towards somewhere which is off-stage, I find my awareness drawn into an expanded imagination of space. It’s a very theatrical thing to do, pointing, particularly if it’s at things, places or persons which are not really there. It draws the focus of your imagination beyond what is immediately obvious, and invites you into the fictional possibility of a world of difference. Watching these two, and perhaps because they were pointing together, I found myself looking across the room, along the contour and flow of their gestures, looking through them almost. The geographer David Seamon wrote of what he called ‘place ballets’, the careful, but barely conscious ways by which regular everyday movement behaviours arrange and establish place. You can’t really grasp a place ballet by simply observing a person, or even the trace or mark which they might leave behind, but by observing how one’s own perception or conception of the environment is also ordered in consequence of watching them. Following the pointing of boy and man, a set of trajectories, turns, and zones of acceleration or rest became apparent, in a room which was there before, but never in the same way.

In looking sideways at dance, one sees not only what it expresses by way of ideas, emotions, or ambience, but also the recalibrating of one’s own attention.

This leads me to thinking about interculturalism. As much as I would like to leave the term behind in favour of something a more particular, more contingent on the peculiarity of our (or any other) context, it’s going to have to do as a placeholder for ideas for now. In the past, interculturalism has been something which artists have tried to foreground, drawing cultural fusions or juxtapositions into focal attention as a qualified aesthetic. There are some instances in ArtsCross where I suppose one might say that that is occurring, but on the whole the intercultural is to be found at a practical, rather than an aesthetic level. Again, seen from the ‘front’, this might not always be so apparent. In ‘looking sideways’ – and especially at a rehearsal — you have a sort of on and off stage experience. You’re both watching performance, but also privy to the labour of its production. You’re not in the performance space exactly, but equally, neither are you entirely removed from it. This is to do with one’s relationship to the studio-space and those working in it in the first instance, but it also works – metaphorically at least – to describe an intercultural perspective. This perspective, I suggest, looks less towards aesthetics than it does towards production – the sorts of labour involved in getting things done, and the processes of ‘getting it’ that this involved.

To ‘get it’ in idiomatic English (in British English anyway) is to have a complex process or thought that was previously confusing become clear in your mind. This is an issue for intercultural performance it seems to me, not only because the linguistic or demonstrative means for working towards ‘getting it’ are often passed through layers of translation, but also because, ‘getting it’ is often something which involves more than one person at a time. Watching Robin’s rehearsal I was conscious that he was trying to ‘get it’ as much as the performers were. He was asking them to try and find a whole-body sense of the interconnections between small gestures linked to the breathing, and for them to sense a similar sense of interconnection between one another (a pretty basic gloss of half an hour’s pretty intensive work!). At the same time, I was aware of him working also, to try and sense a connection to the dancers in order to better try and instil his ideas within them. From my observer’s position – ‘looking sideways’ – what drew my attention was not only what was being prepared for performance on stage (the movement they were trying to make), but the labour involved, by each dancer, by the group, by Robin, and by Robin as part of the group. And all this is to say nothing of the spoken efforts of translation…

A radical geography

“Really?!” Martin leaned forward suddenly, a smile sneaking across his face, “You use the word in that sense?” We were sitting in the hotel lobby. I had referenced the word, “radical” as adjective, as in “of or going to the root or origin; fundamental.” I nodded slowly, squinting at Martin: a very witty guy, one never knows precisely where “really?!” might be going. “Yes!” Ola punched the air and leaned forward eager to engage. Martin continued, “Oh, right, you’re our psychologist. Your men are John Dewey and William James.” Translation complete, I thought, and historically, at least, accurate … whew. Ola interjects, “Yes, and I am reading Chinese poetry that is called ‘radical’ in exactly that way.” Synapses crackle and fire. We sit in silence for a moment, making connections.

(As an aside, it’s interesting to note that, in contrast to Taipei last year, some of the most generative conversations in Beijing have transpired in the in-between spaces around scheduled activities: in taxis, restaurants, and lobbies. We all agree that “in, between, and around” is an important part of the academics’ experience and requires a larger discussion and explicit framing, perhaps at the planning meeting for London 2013.)

I had been thinking aloud about ArtsCross Beijing as a construction site for a kind of radical geography of the psyche. Psyche from Greek psykhe refers to the soul or literally “breath,” the invisible animating principle that occupies and directs the soma or physical body. I find allusions to breath and breathing and intention in abundance here. Choreographers make repeated exhortations for a more permeable being that seem to invite change through relationship: self to inner self, self to outer self, self to important other, self to group, self to world.

For example, earlier in the week, Steff noted how often she had heard choreographers say to dancers “be more natural.” I followed up with Wen Su, a BDA choreographer, in a group interview with helpful translation from Yatin. She said, “I want them to be natural within this stylized [Chinese classical] form … to do it with a more neutral expression … to be in the here and now instead of backward … not so coy, because in the historical tradition those characters are very feminine and they have to please the audience (Wen Su tilts her head coyly, with small smile and twinkle in eyes)… and now when I choreograph I try to get rid of that, to bring a present, contemporary sensibility.”

This comment has too many levels to unpack here. But, to return to the studio, what struck me again and again was the way in which Wan Su, like Robin, used repetition to make explicit what cognitive scientists call the “subject-object” phenomenon: the question of how one’s body’s physicality may express one’s body’s subjectivity. (FYI: I find in Evan Thompson 2005 a detailed and persuasive solution to the so-calledbody-body” problem or “the problem of how to relate one’s subjectively lived body to the organism or living body that one is.”)

To some degree, most all choreographers employ a fundamentally twined approach to the subject-object problem: where more cognitive aspects (observation, simulation, imitation, execution) are balanced with more emotional aspects (aroused, attentive, felt, expressive) of movement. (Erick Hawkins’ (1992) concept of “think/feel” as the basis for dance thought is an especially evocative historical example of the fundamentally twined nature of knowing in dance. The cognitive scientific conception of the subject-object phenomenon is related but different from this notion.) But choreographers take different paths to solving this problem. This preoccupation of mine goes back to ideas developed in Taipei.

In the small slice of what I’ve seen of Robin’s working method here, I found a particular kind of somatic empathetic approach. Of course, the idea of somatic awareness has a rich history in movement practices (e.g., Bartenieff, Feldenkrais). In fact, experienced dancers will often talk about how they sense things in the body movements of others that non-dancers screen out, some signal or vibration, some sensory cues about another’s state or intention. As described in previous post, I think this psychosomatic (psyche-soma) level is precisely what Robin seems to be inching towards with his dancers.

Wen Su, on the other hand, seems to emphasize a more mimetic empathetic approach in which dancers themselves describe as connecting to the choreography and by extension the audience. This ability is a kind of mimesis that is more appropriately characterized as mimetic empathy. This term emphasizes not just some simulated, outward mimicry, or aping, but something deeper and more intense. I mentioned Willerslev, a kind of anthropologist-cum-dramatist, in a 2011 Taipei post. But I think he’s worth mentioning again, quoting at length. In his (2004) ethnography of the Yukaghirs, indigenous hunters in Siberia, Willerslev found a belief that humans and animals can turn into each other by temporarily taking on one another’s bodies: “By mimicking another’s bodily behaviour, senses, and sensibilities empathetically, I can assume the quality of the Other’s perspective, because although the experiences that I come to share with the Other through practices of mimetic empathy are imagined as shared, they are not fictive. By this I mean that they are not pure fantasies, but acquire a sense of ‘reality’ through their connection to my lived body.” Thus the nature and role mimetic empathy plays in a dancer is not mere representation, but a materiality grounded in bodily experiences of the choreographer’s way of dance-making which, through mimetic mirroring of movement qualities and emotion and intent, becomes a shared vision both in actual presence and, possibly, in actualizing absence, as suggested by the term “Chinese contemporary classical dance.”

In these two ways, the explicit use of somatic and mimetic empathy in choreographic process seem to me to be not only an effort at having dancers re-present or re-imagine, but have a decisively corporal, physical, tangible quality from which the dance ultimately emerges and from which it derives aesthetic, cultural, historical, and social significance. Or, put another way, it’s creative process as radical geography of the psyche.

Translation across Time (part I)

On Thursday I had the privilege of watching some of the dance classes at BDA. The experience brought a new perspective to me with regard to the overarching theme of “translation” in ArtsCross, which has underlined many discussions this year in Beijing and last year in Taipei. Translation implies boundaries to be crossed over as well as practices and meanings that need to be made sense of. There are not only boundaries between cultures that have to be negotiated, but also boundaries of time, our imagination or conceptualization about dance practices and aesthetics in a culture over a long history. The history of Chinese dance(s) requires translation and interpretation across time. The classes I observed are indeed such exercises at the present time at BDA, which also has its own history embedded in the revolutionary China.

The rapid transformation of China in the past twenty years calls for new attempts to translate again the cultural heritage which is called “Chinese dance.” The rehearsals by two of the Chinese choreographers that I attended testify to such efforts. Aside from demands on the timing and precision of movements, Won Su relentlessly worked on purging her dancers, five BDA students and graduates, of the codified expressivity charactering female dance roles in both Chinese classical and folk dance styles. In the conversation between her and several academics on Thursday, she explained the need to resensitize the dancers to the sensation of moving and to liberate them from the many dance images that have been passed down to them and preoccupy their mind, in other words to heighten their awareness of moving in the space and time of NOW. An important aspect of the dance, in my view, is her “translation” of femininity from the past tense to the present mode as a way of illustrating her understanding of Chinese contemporariness. (After seeing the final rehearsal of the dance with costume and lighting this afternoon, I’m wondering if there’s also a sense of tongue-in-cheek in her rendering of the traditional dance postures and performance style, but I’m not sure.)

To be continued….

Richard Layzell at Penghao Theatre

While the intensity of the work at BDA continues and as we move into the new theatre for the final rehearsals, another aspect of ResCen’s ArtsCross work takes place in central Beijing, in an independent arts centre called Penghao which is located in a traditional hutong building near the Central Academy of Drama.

Richard Layzell, a ResCen Research Associate Artist conducted two days of workshops with local artists and arts students. It is early days in our relationship with Penghao, but there already seems to be potential for further development and exchange. We often look for ways to increase our interaction during, or following on from the main collaborative project, and it has been a pleasure to work with Penghao. We have visited them on a number of occasions and have always discussed possible ways of working together. Now we have started and we look forward to further developments

For more information about the workshops, please visit:

What is the taste of a strawberry?

I’ve been thinking along the same lines as Ted in terms of the translation process (Radical Geography).

A moment from Rachel’s rehearsal on Tuesday, when she was speaking to the translator who was about to pass this on to the dancer: ‘The other day when we were doing some practice in here she was referencing some things that came up from her childhood that were really beautiful… don’t say that… she was referencing some stuff from her childhood and maybe she could just go through the memory of that… the light… light and seeing…just have a think about what that was…’

I was drawn to this moment, which I observed in rehearsal, at first, because I was fascinated by what Rachel described as ‘beautiful’.  As someone who both makes and teaches devised, performance work I’m interested in the tools that are used to translate an idea to the stage.  Rather than attempting to manipulate a ‘finished’ action Rachel is finding ways to enable the dancer to imbue the movement in with particular a sensory quality – in this case, drawn from the dancer’s memory of moving in the light from childhood.  For Rachel, here, ‘beautiful’ movement means the dancer finding a ‘connection’ to the movement that enables her to be fully present and engaged.  This means using the memory from the past as a tool through which she is able to connect more fully with the present moment.

In conversation within my group this week we talked about the meaning of the word ‘beautiful’.  Yunyu described how in Taiwan when someone refers to ‘beautiful’ in relation to movement it can have the connotation of ‘appearance’ of beauty rather than a fully embodied movement.  She remembered when she was a young dancer, Martha Graham, observed her work in class and said to Yunyu’s teacher that she was a ‘beautiful’ dancer.  Her teacher then scolded her for being ‘too’ beautiful – implying that the danger of being ‘too’ beautiful is about an emphasis on external form over internal connection or ‘sincerity’.

In the rehearsal I observed, following Rachel’s instruction, the dancers ran the section (which unfortunately wasn’t caught on film).  I could easily spot the moment in question.  Within the group choreography with buckets there was a moment when this particular dancer was left alone and she slowly raised her upper body, face and arms towards the ceiling and seemed to be playing in a shaft of sunlight.  The external form of this phrase of movement was very simple but the internal quality drew my eye to it immediately.

I’ve been fascinated this week in observing moments from the creative processes to look at how the choreographers are communicating their ideas, and have wondered on the blog about where this translation process is happening, who is doing the translating and what is it providing?

In this clip, several things seem to be going on at once.  Rachel seems to be using the translation process as a part of her thinking.  So she explains something to the translator: ‘The other day when we were doing some practice in here she was referencing some things that came up from her childhood that were really beautiful’, but then Rachel tells the translator not to ‘say that’ directly to the dancer.  She doesn’t want to reveal everything and it seems to me that she’s asking the translator to play between both the literal words she’s saying and her intention, giving her quite an amount of power to withhold and re-form the instruction that the dancer is given.

These short observations this week have raised questions for me about what is really happening in these moments of translation in the studio?  It seems to me that we all spend our lives trying to translate our experiences to each other, even if we speak the same ‘language’.

One of the teachers in the lineage of body awareness training that I have undertaken for many years (derived from the work of German Gymnastik practitioner Elsa Gindler) said, ‘trying to explain this work is like trying to explain the taste of a strawberry to someone who has never tasted a strawberry’.

How would we do that?  What tools would we use?  Which words would we choose?  How would we use our bodies in that particular process of ‘translation’?  As I digest the fascinating experiences of this week I’ll be thinking about these strawberries.  The sensations I experience can never be the same as yours, but in the process of communication with each other I think that something different and extremely valuable can emerge.

Ways of practising the ‘self’

Reading the various blogs, what draws my attention are the varieties of complex fluidities between experiences from the rehearsal spaces and the larger and wider contexts and exchanges. The various practices of performance-making in the studios here at Beijing Dance Academy, and how they may or may not relate to each other, are of course part of a larger ‘set-up’, very much arranged by the philosophy and approach of the Artscross project.

In my experience of the first phase of this project in Taipei in 2011, the idea of the ‘other’ was very prominently discussed. I made the point at the time that while the various dancers and choreographers are ‘other’ to ‘each other’ due to being practitioners or practitioners-in-training from different localities and training backgrounds, we also encounter much ‘sameness’ in terms of the practices involved: certain etiquettes linked to rehearsing and performing as well as a certain technical registers are crucially shared. Hence each practitioner, to ‘an-other’, whether dancer or choreographer, bears both ‘strange’ but yet ‘familiar’ characteristics at the same time.

What interests me in this curious space of working with an ‘other’ or ‘different’ familiar, is that the ‘self’ seems to be heightened by the mere set-up of Artscross. Ways of working and ways of practising the self are sensitised in this context, and many permutations of such exchanges in practice are being witnessed here, from sharing and passing on of techniques and creative strategies to what might arguably be perceived as clashes (hopefully constructive ones!).


In working across cultures, translation is mostly presented as a matter of how to speak to one another, but the difficulty of communicating across languages and cultures is also often a matter of how to listen. In this respect, we also need to remember that culture is a meaningful part of each person’s life, rather than something that exists separate from them

Although it’s not an obviously intercultural matter, in the way that communications between an English choreographer and a Chinese dancer might be, in watching Liu Yan’s rehearsal, I was made aware of both the significance of listening and of the personal nature of cultural experience. Although both the choreographer, her assistants and performers are all Chinese, one of them – Fan Jie — is both deaf, and a child. The world inhabited by children is different from that of adults, and adults speak to them differently. Similarly, the language of a deaf Chinese boy is different from that of his compatriots. Furthermore, the boy in question is not a trained dancer, and does not have the same repertoire of ready to hand techniques and concepts that come with training. The language of dance had to be spoken differently with him.

Liu Yan’s assistants, showed the moves the boy needed to make, and tried to give instructions about direction and timing, but they also tried to show him something of the sorts of feelings they wanted him to try and embody and express. At the same time, they spoke – the effort to communicate seemingly as important as the information itself. ‘What are they telling him?’ I asked the translator. After some thought, she told me that ‘They want him to work with the feeling of listening’, going on to explain that if he’s feeling it, the audience should feel it. As I asked her to explain the translation further she told me that this was gong ming or resonance.

Talking later with my Chinese and Taiwanese colleagues, I have discovered that ming can be understood to refer in part to the sound of birds, and that it has a resonance in speaking, vibrating in the nasal cavity.

Words are not only ideas, but sounds too. At certain frequencies, these sounds can be felt in the body.

In English, resonance means literally to ‘re-sound’, for a sound to repeat itself in a new body. It is drawn from ancient roots, which in Old English also come together to form the word ‘swan’ or ‘sounding-bird’. A different tradition, but a similar resonance. And what could more represent the Western dance tradition than a swan, as Bula teasingly showed us.

Briefly now, I want to give another example of gong ming. This is a picture I took yesterday at digital exhibition of art from the Taipei National Museum, at a gallery in the 798 art district. It shows a scroll painting of birds and flowers called ‘A Brocade of Spring Radiance’ by LangShih-ningin the Ching dynasty – or the sixteenth century by a Western reckoning.LangShih-ningwasalso known as Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian Jesuit sent to China in 1715, and who drew together Chinese and European styles of painting, as can be seen here especially in the painting of the birds.

In our group we asked questions of what might actually be exchanged in the processes we were observing. Again, we are sometimes given to believe that translation involves the movement of the meanings held by one language into another. However, just likeLangShih-ning’s birds, like Bula’sswan-boys,  and likeFan-Jie, it is not what we are left with that is important but the resonance of here and now, the bird calls we make together, our collective feeling of gong ming.

Blog from London

I’m writing this on the train from gatwick airport into London to catch my next train to Exeter in the south west of England. Another context in which to consider the questions we’ve been discussing this week!

I’m so sorry that I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye last night — I had to run straight after Bula’s piece to get a taxi from the airport. I thought about you all at the conference while I was flying over St Petersburg…

I look forward to hearing how the strands of discussion we’ve all been having were shared with the whole group.

What struck me when I was watching the performances in the theatre on Saturday was what a leap it was from the rehearsal processes we observed. I was watching the work in a very different way — asking myself not so much about what was going on for the performer as I had been a few days before but whether the pieces were ‘working’ for me as an audience member. Another process of translation…

We’ve talked about the places from which we watch and the effect that has on what we see. It struck me that my view from the plane as we began our approach to London was akin the view I had of the work in the theatre as opposed to the micro level of the rehearsal process. The sense of scale is obviously completely different — as is what is possible to read. Where do we watch from and how in all parts of this process?

I look forward to more thinking and talking over the coming months and continuing in London next year…

Final Throughline

Last day in Beijing and I sense a need to make the past week’s throughline as clear as the day outside the hotel window.

For two reasons my focus has gravitated towards classic Chinese poetry as an entry point to a contact zone of translation: first, for the obvious linguistic reasons that reflect differences between our uses of language; second, though, for the reason that the latter uses indicate seemingly insurmountable differences in use only of we abide by language as a means of translation, while the poetry actually invites us to “read” its signs with all our senses and in complex situations. In a previous blog posting I suggested that dance might very well be a more pertinent way of translating classic Chinese poetry than word conversions since our linguistic differences are so vast. This also seems to be the stance of translatorWai-limYip, even if he opts to comment on the matter by way of linguistic exercises.

Wang Wei, for instance, composes his poetry as miming gestures of a perceiving act of invisible phenomena. Arne Zaslove proposes that Wei’s kaleidoscopic poetry can be read in a similar manner as a mime artist lifts a fictitious object by counter-weighingitsloadby her leaning body:

白雲迴望合           White clouds – looking back – close up
青靄入看無           Green mists – entering to see – nothing

As “viewer-readers” we need to be mobile, suggestsWai-limYip, by revolving around the multifaceted signs in order to appreciate their visual curves, phases, and points of view:

大漠孤煙直            Vast desert: lone smoke, straight  (Wang Wei)
滄海月明珠有淚     Dark sea. Bright moon. Pearls with tears.  (Li Shang-yin)

So the viewer-readermovesintoa “total environment to experience the visual events from different spatial angles” (Wai-limYip) not unlike the observers of rehearsals at Beijing Dance Academy in the past week.

As potential analogies to the poetry we saw a few choreographic processes that used very precise means, methods or techniques in order to reach an open-endedconceptin time, space and imagery.

I found one example in Rachel’s way of using water in buckets and dancing bodies that played with these objects as a condition of the dance. It’s a very literal approach to the theme of the ArtsCross meeting (light and water), although in the form of an open performance concept and relational aesthetics for the viewer-readerto translate.

I found an odd twin to Rachel’s work in Wan Su’s classic Chinese performance with fans. Wan Su exemplified a master-apprenticepedagogyas she rehearsed the sweeping moves of the fans and long scarfs with meticulous measure and pace. In a conversation with Wan Su I got to ask her if the precise technique and open imagery of her piece can be viewed as one of those loaded signs in classic Chinese poetry and she retorted in English: “Exactly!”

So even though there are vast aesthetic and pedagogic/processual differences between Rachel’s and Wan Su’s performances, they share a sharp focus towards the instantiation of precise material and image-basedmeansfor an open-endedperformancethatallowsviewer-readersto approach the event from various angles in his or her oscillating translation process.

There is another way of linking Wan Su’s and Rachel’s performances and that is by a genealogical pirouette. During the ArtsCross meeting we have used a genre-basedand developmental terminology in order to come to grips with the different geographic meanings of classic dance, modern dance, contemporary dance, contemporary classic dance, and so forth. This has made me think of an alternative route of common understanding.

Classic Chinese poetry provided a way for American modernist poets, such as Ezra Pound, Williasm Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein, to sidestep the singing Whitmanesque tradition and instead use a more “objectivist” mode of approaching poetic motifs. This had an influence, in turn, on Charles Olson who used this open and relational mode of poetry for collaborative purposes. In the mid 20th century Olson created Untitled Events at Black Mountain College together with musician David Tudor, painter Robert Rauschenberg, multi-artistJohnCageand choreographer-dancerMerceCunningham. The collaborative work marks the inception of what became known as performance art and postmodern art and it is not at allfar-fetchedto see classic Chinese poetry as an influence of this multifaceted, de-centered, relational, kaleidoscopic, although very precise, spacious and elegant performance practice.

It is fair to say that it is hard to imagine a work like Rachel’s Beijing bucket blues without the mentioned collaboration (incidentally, one of the musical phrases of Untitled Events consisted of the pouring of water into a bucket.) And if classic Chinese poetry helped make postmodern performance possible, then I guess Wan Su’s work made Rachel’s work possible? That might be a rather steep inference to make. But it might be useful to think in these patterns, i.e., as an alternative to developmentalgenre-designations, when we consider the possibility of translating ideas and practices.

If classic Chinese poetry could have a sway on Ezra Pound’s writing, surely there must be room for influences of East Asian dance on contemporary Occidental dance – rather than just the other way round? I think the very room for this exchange needs to be reconsidered before we meet again in London next year. Perhaps the room could take the following configuration as a departure point:

曠          [wilderness/far-reaching/empty]

On Chinese characters, smileys, and grasshoppers

… a continuation of my blog from 16 November …

After many years of thinking about Chinese as a basis for his universal pictographic language to improve understanding between peoples, the philosopher Leibniz abandoned this undertaking; however he retained a deep adoration for what he saw as the ‘other’ concentration of human cultivation and refinement (alongside Europe) – namely China.

As I was pondering (again) his suggestion of using Chinese characters for the conception of his universal language, I felt that he was onto something. It occurred to me that in its pictorial nature, Chinese – and Leibniz envisaged ‘rationalised’ version of it – are perhaps comparable both to the modes of communication used in modern media technologies (such as icons on computers and touch-tone telephones) and to bodily languages such as specific dance forms. The digital form of the smiley, a stylised representation of a smiling human-like face, is now used quite widely worldwide, as I can testify from receiving email messages signed with smileys, or occasionally the opposite  , from all corners of the world. On the internet I found the following image of a sign in Yerevan, Armenia. The text reads: “Have a nice day”:

Tracing the development of this phenomenon, I soon found out about an Internet method of expressing emotions through simple typographical symbols such as dots, circles, etc. called Emoticons (a hybrid of emotions and icons). They apparently first appeared in the 19th century, hence the pre-Internet period, in casual writing when they were designed to alert the addressee of a message to the mood of the correspondent.

Emoticons work because people worldwide grasp the sign, and its associated expression, instantaneously without the need for translation. Facial expressions are universal, so universal in fact that we share many facial expressions with primates such as chimpanzees, as scientists have shown in many publications in this field. (Admittedly, the view of the universality of facial expression in a species, expressed most prominently by Darwin, has also had its challengers).

This brings me back to the topic of dance, as this commonality of facial (and, to a large extent, bodily) expression is the foundation of modern dance: remember the New York dance critic John Martin’s theory, which claims that we as audience members empathise with dancers on stage both psychologically and even physiologically through corresponding reactions in our musculatures. It is our bodily memory that allows for what he called “kinaesthetic empathy”: we ‘read’ the facial/bodily expression of the on-stage character, relate it back to our own experiences and expressions of that emotion (for instance grief) and sympathetically ‘suffer’ with him or her. Presumably this was how Martin thought we would watch Graham’s “Lamentation”. Now, Martin – ‘our’ Martin! – these are my thoughts about not going too far into the other direction – and you are right.

So, in theory, Asian and European participants in and viewers of dance can grasp the emotive nature of each other’s dancing or works immediately. And perhaps they do. We ‘know’ immediately whether a piece is ‘angry’ or reconciliatory by picking up on gestural and facial clues or the atmosphere – to refer back to Ola’s blog – but I guess that this only works when we are expressing fairly basic emotions or moods. In the instant when we seek to incorporate representations from our everyday life, it becomes a little trickier.

We might perhaps pick up on Pacific Islanders using rowing gestures in their dances. However, the grasshopper example shows that if we interpret dances according to what they represent in the real world, translation issues can become a problem. And as our discussions about the various Asian and European choreographers’ demand for a ‘natural’ means of expression shows, what is considered ‘natural’ is not a universal given ‘by nature’. And when works are neither expressive nor narrative nor representational, but for instance conceptual, I wonder if they are more or less difficult to comprehend?

Farewell Party

For those of you that missed the post-performance reception on Monday 19 November 2012:

During the post performance party for the participants of ArtsCross Beijing 2012 on the second floor of the new BDA building, many dancers were invited up to share their experience during the past three weeks. It turned out to be an extremely emotional occasion.

Whether they were from China or Taiwan, male or female, almost everyone cried and had to keep pulling tissues to wipe away their tears.  But these tears swelled up from within, due to their three weeks of hard work in the studio with the choreographers and dancers, rehearsing day and night.

The party lasted until midnight!

TNUA alumni/dancer Ms. Ning Chi spoke of the demanding drills their choreographer Rachel Lopez de la Nieta made them repeat ruthlessly with the buckets in the studios, yet without water used in the actual performance, for it was against the policy of the new studios. So Rachel asked them to trust her and keep going, it was only quite late, by the time they got into the actual theatre, that they were finally were able to include water in their work. Only then could she understand what Rachel had envisioned all along.  Although they could not get warm enough water for this piece, resulting in some of the performers catching colds, they delivered a phenomenal performance!

As many dancers were more mature graduate students, they cherished each and every opportunity to perform on stage, for they understood the harsh reality of the competitiveness of their profession, not to mention the risks which could arise anytime from injuries and so forth. Many dancers were extremely grateful for taking part in this project. They felt the works in which they performed were created with each of their individual contributions drawn from deep within, something they had not always had the privilege to do so in the past.

In short, a touching scene to have witnessed, the night before leaving Beijing…


Choreography by Rachel Lopez de la Nieta, with dancers Feng Qi (Left, from China) and Ning Chi (Right, from Taiwan)