What we talk about when we talk about Chinese contemporary dance

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In the wake of China’s rise as global superpower, the eyes of the world are turning to its cultural scene. After the boom of visual art in the early 2000s, it is now the performing arts’ turn, with international festivals competing to bring home the next big thing. Within this new wave of performances the rarest of birds has been spotted: Chinese contemporary dance. And, as the bird-watching begins, the international audience starts wondering about this specimen’s characteristics. What do these artists tell us about China, through the language of dance? Which original aspects of “the contemporary” do they bring forth?

Before moving on to these questions, let’s clarify something: this bird didn’t have it easy. In its short-lived existence, Chinese contemporary dance had quite a few challenges coming its way: digesting the century-old tradition of Western modern dance; re-discovering Chinese traditional culture after it had been vilified and suppressed for decades; re-elaborating both traditions into a coherent, original language. All of this has been done with little support from the state, while facing an audience totally unaccustomed to non-narrative modes of performance. Impossible, you say? Yet here they are, dancing their way through.

PARALLEL HISTORIES. China and the Western world, while now sharing a common vocabulary, do not share a common chronology when it comes to dance. “Contemporary dance” in the West is an umbrella-term encompassing a wide range of styles, yet all somehow tracing back to a single origin: the rupture with classical ballet occurred in the early 1900s. The following evolution, however diverse, originates from this point and follows a continuous development spanning over 100 years.

In China, modern history unfolded in an erratic way, and so did dance. With the exception of Shanghai, the cosmopolitan hub of the 1920s to 1940s, the wave of modernism left Chinese dance untouched. When another revolution (the communist kind) came along in 1949, modern dance was branded as decadent, and banned along with psychoanalysis, literary modernism, and similar bourgeois frivolities. It wasn’t until the “cultural fever” of the 1980s, when China ended its decades’ long isolation from the capitalist West, that modern dance entered the Popular Republic.

If we are to name one year, it is 1987. While youngsters were shaking it to disco-music and break-dancing in the streets, Willy Tsao from Hong Kong opened the first modern dance class in Guangzhou Dance School. As if Martha Graham and Michael Jackson entered the country together, walking through the back-door under suspicious stares, contemporary dance (in both its highbrow and pop-culture varieties) summoned the spirit of the times. The young generations were enthusiastic and craving for change; the older ones distrustful bordering on hostile. Within a couple of years, this contrast reached its peak in Tian’anmen Square. The message was clear: cautious reform was to be encouraged; iconoclastic fervour would not be tolerated.

ONE TABLE, TWO CHAIRS. The dictum of the 1990s was to accelerate the Reform phase and “catch-up with the West” to gain a seat at the WTO table. Much to the Party’s chagrin, modern dance ended on the “to catch-up with” list, and a little support was grudgingly given. In 1992 and 1995 two state companies were founded: Guangdong Modern Dance Company led by Willy Tsao and Beijing Modern Dance Company (BMDC) led by Jin Xing. Trained in the US and internationally renowned, Jin and Tsao were ideal candidates for a swift system update. Working within the system, they carved a space for China in the international scene, developing a sleek aesthetics and elaborate technique which could relate to its Western counterpart.

Meanwhile, to blur the trauma of June 4th and project an image of liberalism, the State restored money-making as an honourable activity, and granted larger artistic freedom. At one condition – keep away from politics. A sector of the artistic community turned down the deal, including choreographer Wen Hui. After graduating from Beijing Dance Academy, in the 90s Wen travelled abroad, collaborating with Trisha Brown and Pina Bausch companies. Using Poor Theatre aesthetic, daily-life movements, and video documentary, her production Living Dance Studio dived into sensitive issues; the living condition of migrant workers, sexual exploitation of women in rural areas, and the rewriting of history. The defiant stance of Wen and her circle granted them the status of dissidents, projecting them under the watchful eyes of the censors while also gaining much praise from over sea observers.

These two trends coexisted and, while fighting very different fights, both carried the torch of modern dance. Tsao, hopping between Hong Kong and the mainland, mobilized his network to introduce dozens international companies to China. Gao Yan Jingzi (BMDC) and Wang Yuanyuan (Beijing Contemporary Dance Theater) joined this strain, departing from a “Western contemporary” basis to explore possibilities for Chinese dance, while squeezing the system for support. Barely tolerated by the authorities, Wen Hui and her collective CCD Working Station has kept working at the margins, living off the support of progressive (mainly over sea) patrons; a stronghold for the independent scene.

THE EYES OF THE BEHOLDER. Back to the start: what do this new wave of artists tell us about China, and which aspects of the contemporary do they uncover? These questions are as alluring as they are misleading. Contemporary dance evolved along diverging trajectories in China, and the new generation swiftly surfs across them, picking from all without identifying with any.

Choreographer Gu Jiani is a case in point. In her piece EXIT, the traces of Western-style training, from ballet to modern dance, are evident. Yet influence of Chinese classical dance surfaces in her expressive physicality and masterfully controlled movements. Is this enough to define her “representative” of Chinese contemporary dance? Once again, analysing such works through national identity seems as productive as looking for a nanoparticle with a magnifying glass. Perhaps we should remove the “Chinese” factor from the equation for a moment, and take Gu’s work at face value. Picking freely from the contemporary and the classical, the local and the foreign, with a gesture of indifference towards any canon, her work escapes simplistic classifications.

Wang Yabin’s The Moon Opera displays more identifiable origins: Beijing-opera-inspired costumes, eerie visuals and stylized gestures, every second of the show screams China. The piece is based on Bi Feiyu’s novel which, in turn, is based on the traditional opera “Chang’e Flying to the Moon”. But do not be fooled by appearances; the creative DNA of The Moon Opera is a combination of Chinese and international genes (with maybe a disproportion towards the latter). Costumes, scenography, lights and music are entrusted to high-calibre artists from Akram Kahn’s and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s companies. A feast for the eyes and the ears, Wang artfully doses her ingredients into the dance equivalent of a fancy dish of fusion cuisine.

Perhaps, after asking what do Chinese dance artists tell us about China, we should ask ourselves: which China do we look for when we enter the theatre? If it’s the exotic China of floating sleeves and painted faces, productions such as The Moon Opera are more likely to accommodate our expectations. If we’re more drawn to the riddle of Chinese postmodernity, independent productions like EXIT offer a more challenging puzzle to solve.

Like beauty in popular wisdom, China seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

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