by Peng Tao*

 Jin Xing: Jinxing Dance Theatre Shanghai

Jin Xing

How do you interpret “newness” in contemporary dance? Is it an inner strength needed for artistic creativity, or a marketing strategy?

I don’t think contemporary dance has a general or unified format. Newness is what you see based on your own culture and living environment. Innovation of movements is not my concern; you may see Chinese folk dance, Chinese classical dance, ballet, or even pantomime in my choreography, all these elements are to serve what I want to express, and that’s enough. I don’t develop movements; I’m interested in expression and perspectives—they are the motivations for my choreography.

It also has something to do with my educational background. I was taught to focus on the movement of limbs, which made my dance a little stiff, but it’s not easy for me to just give up all I was taught and to develop new movements. I began to realize, as I grew older, that I had developed very few new movements. Instead, I started to learn how to control my breathing, and became better and better at it. Control of the breathing comes from my culture. The Chinese are very particular about breathing. The rhythm of breathing at a young age is different from the rhythm of breathing at an older age. Breathing decides the rhythm of your expression, and the rhythm of your receiving. Rhythm changes with age.

How do you think of choreography in relation to politics, including the politics of race, gender, and so on?

I am not inclined to express a political viewpoint in my dances. It may exist in my subconscious; it comes from my personal experiences and from how I see things. But I am not at the service of it.

I was taught that dances in China are propaganda tools. That’s exactly why I’ve tried so hard to get rid of that influence in my dances. I don’t think my dances talk about politics; they’re just me expressing myself. However, it is true that feelings always radiate how people stand on things, so my feelings are interpreted by some as my attitudes towards politics, or even towards matters of gender. But this is other people’s interpretation.

I am not saying I have nothing to do with politics. It’s not possible. We are all human beings, playing a part in the political games, living under the political structure, and following the political rules—no one can ignore it. Politics is not the consideration in my choreography. Because of my personal experiences, with any choreography I do, people think it’s about gender issues—but again, this is their own interpretation.

Made in China: Return of the Soul
Made in China: Return of the Soul

What do you think of performance exploration and inheritance? And what do you think of dance techniques and training?

I think different dancers have different patterns and directions that are based on his/her physical experience and reactions. That’s why modern dance has many styles.

Dancers absorb what they need from my choreography. Some of them will leave when they find my choreography no longer fits them. Take me as an example: I took lessons from Martha Graham. I admired her creativity and her utilization of the body, but I could not continue because her style didn’t suit my body structure. So, I went to find other types of dance. I found Jose Limon. His style is based on classical ballet, with breathing more freely. It suits me better. But this does not mean I negate Martha Graham; it’s just that my body type kept me from getting close to her. Gradually, my studying helped me find the style most suitable, and which I am also most comfortable with. It does not waste my previous education, it gives me joy when I dance, and even helps me to continue to grow. It becomes my own style.

What types of audience do you have? Is the marketing of contemporary dance difficult for you?

The marketing of contemporary dance is difficult around the whole world, because it’s a niche. Dance in general is not a popular art. Maybe ballet and local folk dance are more popular, but real contemporary dance is still a niche.

Jinxing Dance Theatre has a market simply because of me. My success is not a typical case and it’s not replicable. People get to know me from my TV talk show, and they suddenly realize I am also a dancer; then, they start to know about contemporary dance.

Red Wine
Red Wine

What’s new in Chinese contemporary dance? Aside from your own dance theatre, what’s the present situation you see in Chinese contemporary dance?

The contemporary dance in China has come off the stage and walked into galleries and streets—to places that are not usual for dance performance. It breaks the traditional rules for where a dance performance should be. In the past in China, a dance performance was only a performance when it was on the stage with hundreds of seated audience members, but now many dancers also believe it’s a performance even if it’s only for 20 people. The beauty of contemporary dance is that you can dance anytime and anywhere.

What are the linkages between contemporary dance and China in this period of great change, and in the lives of the Chinese people?

I don’t think there is a linkage between contemporary dance and the lives of the Chinese people yet. The Chinese have given up many traditional arts and culture. How do you expect them to care about the modern arts?

What do you think are the characteristics of Chinese contemporary dance?

I really don’t like modern dances that carry a sense of national mission. I believe in expressing yourself.

Can you talk about the Chinese cultural elements in modern dance?

I don’t purposely design Chinese cultural elements into my performances. Anyone can recognize that we are Chinese dancers as soon as we come on the stage. No one will mistake us for Japanese or Korean performers. We may share the same ethnic group, but we have a totally different temperament. This cannot be disguised by any costume or symbol.

You have returned to China to work in contemporary dance for more than 20 years. Do you think the modern life in China has changed your choreography?

Yes. A lot of my early works were about expressing myself; now, my dances have more dramatic elements. The change has come from my experiences with plays in the theatre since 1997. I found that many forms of expression in drama are very powerful; it’s not just body language anymore. After 2000, I adapted “Thunderstorm” by Mr. Cao Yu to modern dance. It’s more dramatic. In that work, I used four family pictures to show the personal relationships. I want to show the intertwining relations Fanyi has within the family: a wife, a lover and a mother. That’s why I named the dance “Shanghai Tango,” because the tango is about struggling, sexuality, and competition.

Do you mean you didn’t care much about the plots or narrative structure when you adapted “Thunderstorm”?

Yes. I only wanted to present the struggle between a woman and three men, but not to tell a story. When I brought “Thunderstorm” to France in 2004, somebody told me that I should write an introduction to let the audiences know it’s from a famous Chinese play for the theatre. I decided not to, because I was not telling a dramatic story. After my performance, a French audience member told me he understood it: the woman on stage was Shanghai, Shanghai was dancing with its past, present and future. How wonderful! This is the beauty of contemporary dance, I started from drama, but a different message was delivered. This is interesting.

My work is from a female’s perspective, but this doesn’t mean I am a feminist. I also stand in between genders in some of my works, I try to stay neutral. This is what I am good at.

Edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud

Tao Ye: TAO Dance Theatre

Tao Ye

What does “newness” mean to you in modern dance?

In the initial creative process, newness means doing what others have never done. But you would find that this way of thinking is actually a trap. There is virtually nothing that has not been done. The truth is that so-called newness is always endless. My answer, therefore, is that newness does not exist. Or it exists at all times. This is because every moment, every next second, is new.

How do you see the relationship between dance and politics, including race, identity, and so on?

The body is what I use as material, which accompanies you at all times from birth, to aging, to illness and death. Dance is about the source issue of the body; in other words, how to move. Movement is a permanent topic of conversation because all creativity arises from it.

I feel that politics, religion, or all sorts of human cultures, are all things outside art. I don’t think there can be any dialogue when art meets politics. I reject such dialogue because art in itself is something very personal. Apparently, it is impossible for an individual to hold a dialogue with a country, a group, or a religion. This is because individuals are narrow and limited. I very much approve of this narrowness. Only in narrowness can human creativity be possible. The more limited, the more creative. The smaller, the bigger.

I am talking from the body’s perspective, and, actually, I am going back; this is also my answer to your first question. Newness, as I perceive it, does not mean going forward as always and creating something unknown. I think going back takes some courage and you have to avoid too much interference. Such interference is misleading, making us feel as if we human beings are omnipotent. But we are limited and we are narrow, so we need to know what our limits are and discover the unlimited in individuals.

I, therefore, don’t think newness or oldness will cause interference for me. It is also impossible that dialog can occur between art and politics or human culture.

Art is the expression of individuals, while individuals can create all things.

Island
Island

The auto exhaust that fills this city, the changing times, the world you live in—all these are certain to have an influence on you. When these influences work on your body, will they have great impact on what you create?

What I create tries to avoid such interference.

I subtract where possible, to remove such matters. I try to go back, to the source issue. Actually, all issues boil down to one issue: what is the value of your existence? That is about the relationship that you have with this age. Whichever angle you take to answer, the answer will be excessively complicated. How do you prove your value then? You can do many things: you can create media of your own, do your own business, and act as your own spokesman, your own master. But the source issue is always there, and we need to value it. In my creation, I am aware that human beings are not all-powerful, but in the process, the desire can go endless. The resources of the world are limited and all matter has a finite life span. Therefore, only by going back to the source issue can you understand the relationship between human beings and nature—not just about human beings.

Steps
Steps

What do your audiences mean to you? And how do you think about the relationship between you and your audiences?

When I create my work, I can have no audience in my mind. This is because when you go back to the source issue, the audience is virtually yourself. You must know: why do you create this work? What’s the value of it?—and whether you can answer the questions you have raised yourself.

When you understand all this and present your work on the stage in front of your audiences, what you see is a mirror image of yourself, another self, and this dialog is exceptionally important.

The audiences have their desires; they can choose what they get when entering the theatre, to laugh, or to cry. . . . Of course, many works now are designed for audiences to laugh or cry at a certain point. But my works are just the process itself, no laughs, and no cries. This is my attitude in pursuit of art, and my search for truth about personal values. When you present this purest and most shared value on the stage, you will not feel terrible for anybody. This is the best answer for the audiences.

As for management, I have to go back once against to my understanding of dance. Before you can share your dance, you must, first of all, learn to enjoy it yourself. This enjoyment comes from the dancer’s perception, which is sort of an endless pleasure, and you can express all at once whether you get it or not. I think performing artists cannot indulge in their own personal senses, cannot enjoy themselves alone, and cannot walk down a path that gets narrower and narrower.

My works require performers to think over in performance the instincts of their limbs as well as their relation to space.

It’s not enough just to enjoy your work, you must share it, otherwise it is better to go into the mountains and dance with heaven and earth. Dance entails interpersonal communication. Art is to understand humanity, or to confront, so to speak, the fear of humanity. My dancers and I, for instance, do monotonous movements year after year, and actually deal with each other. You must be acquainted with the dancers’ hobbies, interests and temperaments. Only a pure-hearted person can put up with this monotony and stay on.

Dance is a communication with dancers and dancers sharing it on the stage with audiences. Those who share the same interests then walk down the path together, eventually to solitude and fear. It is an issue of life and death. It sounds scary, but I think the value of dance is to pass down those moments that cannot be reproduced.

The Closest The Furthest. Photo by Luana Borgognoni
The Closest The Furthest. Photo by Luana Borgognoni

What about your performance market? I have seen your performances scheduled for the year, most of them will be staged abroad. . . .

We have few chances to perform in China. Our overseas earnings are absolutely our income, help us survive. This year we participated in 19 arts festivals—that’s the best we could do, and all of us joked we were coolies. We couldn’t physically do more.

Edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud

Wen Hui: The Living Dance Studio

What’s your motivation for persisting in modern dance?

Many people have asked me how I made it. Actually, I didn’t persist, because it [dance] is something very interesting to me. From 2008, when I began to work on a “memories series,” I felt it more interesting and more closely linked to the reality of society. It’s not a producing theatrical troupe anymore: because of that closer contact with society, I instead had a sense of responsibility.

I created Red with the intention of preserving the memories of ordinary people, to let the younger generation gain insight into that part of history.

And in that process, it didn’t matter much whether you were creating a work or doing art, what mattered more was that it was associated in some way with the society.

Memory
Memory

How did you transform your Jin Xing-style modern dance into dance theater that casts light on reality?

Working with Jin Xing helped me to liberate my body. When she returned to China in 1993, Jin founded a workshop, in which she engaged experts from various national dance troupes to participate. I joined while I was still working for The Oriental Song & Dance Ensemble, and was exposed for the first time to such dance, which made me feel the liberation of the body.

I majored in choreography at Beijing Dance Academy. My courses were routine: ballet, classical dance and national dance, just like all the other dance students’ in China. It was around 1985, when people’s minds had never been so open and active. The Academy often invited foreign experts to come and give us lectures, which freed our minds greatly.

Though I had a desire to express, I didn’t know where to start. Later on I met Jin, and she captivated me immediately.

Time/Space
Time/Space

As a full-fledged choreographer of a national troupe in your thirties at the time, you had a promising career, and your works were likely to win some national awards.

Absolutely, but I had no interest in doing it, not at all. On the contrary, I was happier in the rehearsal hall.

What truly set my mind free was my experience in New York in 1994, to learn modern dance.

Before I went to the United States in 1994, I had wanted to create works of my own, but I didn’t know how. I had no theatre, no lighting, and no money to hire performers. How could you do that with so many problems facing you, right? But there in New York, I found all those problems were no longer problems; if you wanted, you could perform on a bridge or in a bus. The notion of the performance space changed. Upon my return to China, therefore, I created my first work, 100 Verbs, and founded The Living Dance Studio on my own.

Dancing with Jin was physically liberating, but in New York my notions changed considerably. I can absolutely be dancing freely. The sound of water, of rice, of taking a bath, of buckets colliding, can all be my music, I can just express the living state of a woman in a day. I can wash clothes, mop the floor, take baths (in my dance). All these are related to life.

I like the body of an ordinary person very much. Such a body has particular tensions; in them is the energy of life. How to tap such a body and how to work with it?—that is a great attraction to me.

The same is true for the performers who have collaborated with me so far. For the work Red, for instance, we had four performers, myself included, as well as a 60-year-old veteran dancer who had danced in the Chinese ballet, Red Detachment of Women; her body has been completely conditioned stylistically to that ballet, and when she danced, her eyes were glittering. I always say that I am like a bridge. My arts learning began with model operas. Our training foundations and ballet movements were all basic movements in Red Detachment of Women. Though I had never performed in that dance, that part of history, and the training I received, left imprints that cannot be erased. Looking back at that part of history, I realize that it is no different from a piece of political propaganda. But I would not think so at the time, and I will still be excited when listening to that music now. Nothing you can do about those—associated with the body’s memories. My body is tangled. I was trained that way, and I spent more than 20 years learning modern dance practicing relaxation techniques. With all these repeated exercises, my body now is tangled. Another female performer is a post-1980 modern dancer, who worked for five years at a national troupe and has an exceptional traditional foundation for dance. Another female performer is the one I spoke about just now. A former factory girl, she has a body entirely of clay, very real. In training, we often asked her to make movements for us to mimic, but we found it impossible for us to do so, no matter how hard we tried. We try to discard those traces imprinted in our trained bodies, but we just cannot.

From 2008, I kept on exploring body memories. The body is like an archive, a database, where there is your history and the influence your family and parents have on you. You cannot even be conscious of their presence. I produced a work called Memories in 2008.

Dance with Grandma
Dance with Grandma

The works of both Tao Ye and Jin Xing are somewhat different from yours. Yours are concerned with social reality, about ordinary people. In some senses what you do can be said to be theatre of thought or of observations of life, while others pay more attention to the body and form.

Actually, I pay attention to dance, too, but I’m more concerned about how to link the body to society.

Can I say it is political?

Absolutely. Definitely there is politics in it. Take discipline as an example: our bodies and we, are disciplined in this society. This is body politics. It has grown in your body, an impression you cannot erase. I’ve tried in vain for more than 20 years to wash away the traces left in my body by being disciplined using methods of modern dance.

What relationship do you think there is between your works and audiences. Every author, I think, wants his or her works accepted by more people. But your performances at present are relatively few and hard to see in this country.

Yes. But it’s not my concern anymore. Our works have absolutely nothing to do with the box office. The performance mechanisms abroad are clearly distinguished: festivals and commercial performances, for example, represent two paths.

I don’t think I should be concerned with the issue of audiences. People who are fond of your shows will come, will find you themselves. For instance, I assisted Power Station of Art (Shanghai) in orchestrating this performance, and at the beginning I said to them that the location of the theatre was quite out of the way so they should be prepared that the audience attendance might not be good. I also assured them that we would perform for even one audience. As a matter of fact, it turned out that we had an audience occupancy rate of 80% on our first day and all seats were sold out for our second day. The performance of the work Red met with a very ardent response owing to its association with the audience’s collective memories.

Dance with Farmworker
Dance with Farmworker

If you are asked to comment on modern dance in China, what will your response be?

Too little [for the number of modern dancers]. From 1993, when I began to study modern dance, up to the present, there have only been a few people doing modern dance. Most of the graduates in modern dance each year get teaching jobs in college or middle schools; they need a public service job to make a living. Basically, none would think of a career in the creative arts.

Are state-owned troupes promoting modern dance?

No. They don’t have this type of dance at all. Beijing Dance Academy only has a modern dance major, not even a department. Modern dance has always been rejected.

Edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud


Peng Tao

*Peng Tao is theatre critic, Professor and Head of the Dramatic Literature Department, at the Central Academy of Drama, in Beijing, China. He graduated from the Russian Academy of Theatre Art with a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts. His main publications include: “A Reading of Three Sisters”(2005/3), “Notes on The Seagull” (2007/1) and “A Study on Lin Zhao-hua’s Interpretation of Chekhov’s Works”(2008), all of which appeared in Drama: The Journal of The Central Academy of Drama.

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Reflections on Contemporary Chinese Dance: Three Interviews