Chinese modern dancers have frequently appeared on the stages of various international arts festivals in the past ten years. Sheila Melvin introduced to Western readers the development of China’s modern dance in her article, “Modern Dance Comes into Its Own in China,” in The New York Times on February 29, 2012. According to a count made by Chinese modern dancer Cao Chengyuan, there are currently about 53 (this figure constantly changes) modern dance troupes in mainland China and Hong Kong. It can be said that modern dance is “flourishing” in China.
We once asked a question to Tao Ye of Tao Dance Theater: what is the relationship between your works and the life of ordinary Chinese people? His answer surprised us very much. He said it had nothing to do with them. In fact, we had had a predetermined answer in mind: modern dance has a close relationship with the great changes in China and the lives of the Chinese people. But Tao gave a completely opposite answer, which let us reflect on what a strange phenomenon it is! On the one hand, modern dance troupes of various styles are flourishing; on the other hand, ordinary audiences can rarely see the performances of modern dance in the theatre. On the one hand, all troupes are faced with the difficulties of survival; on the other hand, they insist on writing, on showing a level of artistic creativity that cannot be underestimated.
Since 1978, China has ended the Cultural Revolution, begun the reform of its political system, and vigorous development of its economy, followed by the revival and development of culture. The four-year modern dance college set up by Guangdong Dance School in 1987 was a landmark event, marking the beginning of modern dance in China’s higher education, including such talented students as Shen Wei, head of New York Shenwei Dance Company, hailed as “one of the most outstanding contemporary choreographers” in American dance circles; Jin Xing, head of Jinxing Dance Company in Shanghai, who aroused public concern as a transgender; and Wang Mei, renowned professor and choreographer of Beijing Dance Academy. In 1992, taking the students of this class as the main members, Guangdong Experimental Modern Dance Troupe was establishe—the first modern dance troupe on the Chinese mainland. Ms. Yang Meiqi, head of the troupe and Mr. Cao Chengyuan (from Hong Kong), art director, have made extraordinary contributions to the development of Chinese modern dance.
Dance used to serve as the tool of political propaganda, first on the Chinese stage and the bodies of dancers were constrained and bounded by politics. Nowadays, modern dance means the freedom of body expression first for Chinese dancers.
“Since 2008, I have been exploring the memory of the body. The body is just like an archive, a library, and your personal experiences, your family and the influence of your parents are undoubtedly reflected in your body . . . our bodies, including all of us, are trained and regulated by the society. This is the politics of the body. It has already grown into your body and cannot be removed,” said Wen Hui of “Life Dance Workshop.”
Wen Hui and Wu Wenguang founded “Life Dance Workshop” in 1994. Wen Hui’s recent work is Red, a “literary dance drama” based on Red Detachment of Women, the theme ballet on China’s revolution, created during the Cultural Revolution. She tried to explore the “body influence” exerted by Red Detachment of Women on ordinary Chinese people, and uncover its “body memory.” In Red, there are only four female performers on the stage, who come from different family backgrounds, and one young girl is a migrant worker without any professional training in dance. The untrained girl holds a knife and repeats the chopping action—in response to the knives held by the revolutionary women soldiers in the ballet Red Detachment of Women, symbolizing the fight of women against their fates.
Wen Hui has written and published 100 Verbs (1994), Report on Fertility (1999), Dance with Migrant Workers (2001), Report on the Body (2002), and more. In these works, Wen Hui cooperates with different dancers, visual artists and non-professional performers from different circles to show her intense focus on modern life by way of dance, drama, the visual arts, and so on. In Report on Fertility, she interviewed a group of women from ages 25 to 90, from all walks of life, about their experience of childbirth and feelings about life. This work has attracted wide public attention after its performances. The female dancer on the stage twists her body, struggling in the pain of childbirth, narrating their life and experience.
For Dance with Migrant Workers, Wen Hui chose a to-be-demolished factory workshop as the site for performance, in which professional dancers co-perform with dozens of topless migrant workers, while the audience (quite a few are middle-class and foreigners living in Beijing) can move around freely during the performance, breaking the boundary between watching and performing. Singing work songs and folk songs, the migrant workers are passing bricks, rolling steel barrels, and climbing up and down scaffolding while the image of cracked glass on a building being demolished is shown on the screen. The on-site performance has a strong artistic “infection,” and shocked audiences by its rough and visually impactful performance.
Wen Hui’s works are of huge significance to both the dance and theatre circles of China. Sooner or later, people will find out that she is a truly remarkable artist.
“I love the body of ordinary people (different from professional dancers) very much. Such bodies are of a special tension and store the energy of life. How to tap the body and how to work with the body are quite attractive to me . . . I also focus on dancing, but I put more attention on how to connect the body with society,” said Wen Hui.
Wen Hui insists on breaking the boundary between dancing and life, between professional dancers and non-professional dancers, and between audiences and performers. She eyes more the imprint left by the era, society and politics on individual bodies. To her, the freedom expressed by the body is the freedom of the mind. Catering neither to politics nor to fashion, she always adheres to her own, independent, observational position with tremendous courage.
Jin Xing is one of the founders of China’s modern dance and she herself is a most complicated cultural phenomenon. Being a transgender, a talk show star and the head of Jin Xing Dance Company in Shanghai, she has become a public concern. Her talk show has won her a huge of audience in China for her bitter satire and outspoken personality.
“In my opinion, the most important change in China’s modern dance is the change of performance space. Dance walks off the stage and enters a different performance space: gallery, club, or even street. . . . The charm of modern dance is to express its thinking at any time, any place and in any space,” said Jin Xing when talking about China’s modern dance.
In 1995, Beijing Modern Dance Company was founded and Jin Xing was its first Artistic Director. Her works of this period are Half Dream, Sunflower, Red and Black, and more. These are filled with imagination, brilliant colors, gorgeous and smooth dance movement. In Half Dream, she re-stages an ancient Chinese love story: a lady in a red dress dances with long sleeves to a plaintive Violin Concerto, creating a colorful dream with her graceful dance language. In her eyes, life is but a dream, which half is bitterness and half is happiness; half is the beautiful dream and half is the cruel reality.
In 1998, Jin Xing left Beijing Modern Dance Company, and later founded Jin Xing Modern Dance Company in Shanghai. This was China’s first private dance troupe.
Her works of this period are Shanghai Tango (2000), From East to West (2002), Farthest and Nearest (2006) and Chinese Style Communication (2009), as well as others. To Jin Xing, the position and fate of women, the relationship between individual and group, the conflict between soul and flesh—these are always the theme of her works. In Shanghai Tango, Jin Xing adapted Thunderstorm, a modern drama by China’s classic writer Cao Yu, into a modern dance. In this adaption, Jin Xing doesn’t try to narrate the dramatic plots via dance; rather, she makes the conflict of the heroine the center of focus, demonstrating her longing and the deep struggles in her heart while facing her husband, lover and son, the three most important men to her. In The Small Island, two nearly naked male dancers are the focus of attention. They support each other with their bodies, as if they are an isle of co-existence, demonstrating the statue-like beauty of the male body. Jin Xing’s works wander back and forth between the traditional and the modern, the East and the West, the same sex and the opposite sex, with rich imagination and passion, pursuing the form and style of aestheticism.
Gaoyan Jinzi is the current artistic director of Beijing Modern Dance Company. Her representative works are Awake (2004), Midnight Rain·Wish (2006), and The 24 Solar Terms (2012). She is particularly good at integrating modern dance with traditional Chinese cultural elements, thus creating fully expressive dance images on the stage. In Midnight Rain· Wish, five performers act as flower, bird, fish, insect and grass respectively, demonstrating the forms of lives in the universe on a rainy night.
Flower, bird, fish, insect and grass are the images of living things often seen in traditional Chinese poems and paintings. Now, Gaoyan Jinzi moves these images onto the stage in dance language and demonstrates a different aesthetic concept. In classical poems and paintings, these images usually express the aesthetic concept of “The Unity of Man and Nature.” But, in Gaoyan Jinzi’s dance, they embody the longing, struggle and passion of life. According to Gaoyan Jinzi, this work represents her understanding and interpretation of Buddhist Samsara, and reveals the anxiety and contradictions deep in her heart. In Buddhist thought, one must give up the sexual passion between man and woman in order to get rid of Samsara. However, in her dance, we see the struggle of sexual passion of flower, bird, fish, insect and grass and their love of this world. Her answer to Samsara is not to seek the relief of paradise, but to cherish time, to be serious in love, and to live in the cycle of life.
Gaoyan Jinzi does not pay particular attention to designing dance movements since she thinks body movements are naturally made by a dance’s artistic conception. In Midnight Rain·Wish, she once inspired the dancer acting as the “flower”: “I am a flower. I have no legs and can only feel I am walking by means of wind. A weak life I am, but I blossom without any complaint or regret, waiting with my whole heart for the next life and countless cycles of life.” It is inspired by her that the dancer is able to find the proper dance movements.
In her latest work, The 24 Solar Terms, Gaoyan Jinzi demonstrates in dance language the 24 solar terms of China’s lunar calendar year related to agricultural work, and shows the seasonal alternations of the year. Performers constantly change their roles on stage from flower to grass, from fox to snake . . . trying to give expression to the interactions of various living beings with nature in the changes throughout the year, and trying to let busy people in the city slow their fast pace to return to the nature, to feel the change of time, to feel flowers bloom and fade as well as the cold and warmth of the four seasons. In terms of the forms and actions of dancing, Gaoyan Jinzi breaks the boundaries among Chinese classical dance, Western ballet, and modern dance, not minding the criticisms put forward by commentators.
Gaoyan Jinzi is full of confidence as to the market. She believes that it is only a matter of time before the public accepts her work, and that what she needs to do is to promote, create and wait. Indeed, at present her dance works have won popularity among many viewers. Of course, like other modern dance troupes, Beijing Modern Dance Company is still faced with huge financial pressures.
Among dancers of the younger generation, Tao Dance Theater has “attracted eyeballs” ever since it was founded in 2008. Tao Ye was born in 1985, and set up his workshop in the suburban arts area near the airport in Beijing. Tao is not only a talented choreographer, but also has the mind of a philosopher. His works, named only with numbers, have been performed at arts festivals in over 30 countries so far, and had strong international influence.
In the early days of its founding, Tao Dance Theater only had Tao Ye and his co-operator, Wang Hao. Later, Duan Ni joined the team (and became Tao’s wife afterwards). Since they had no site for rehearsal, they had to take the bus for five hours every day to rehearse in a small city beside Beijing, to save money. Tao has a strong will and his everyday life is just rehearsal, rehearsal and rehearsal. In Weight *3, the first work of Tao Dance Theater, two dancers join hands, repeatedly walk to and fro and rotate on the stage, forming a rhythm of minimalism. Tao starts from the basic movement of “walking” on the stage, returns to the body itself and to sport. He does not seek the external expression of value, but rather the forms and meanings of dance via focusing on the body and sport itself. 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 and the latest work, 8—the subsequent works are also named with numbers—all follow this path. Up till now, the number of dancers equals the number in the sequence of his works. In the latest work, 8, there are eight dancers dressed in gray, lying on the ground side by side. None of their body movements leave the ground; only their bodies twisting and fluctuating, like moving sculptures.
In Tao’s works, the repetition of body movements and the communal unity create a sense of ceremony. Viewers cannot see any emotional changes in the dancers as they perform, but viewers can experience the change of the inner emotion based on their visual experiences. If Tao has a certain inner aesthetic pursuit, minimalism and The Imitation of Nature may become the symbols of his choreography. Tao Ye explained:
My work, “series of numbers,” accumulates the logic of movement and presents the repetition ritual of natural sequences through numbers—an aggravation of the way humans penetrate nature’s rational structure. Insofar as such perpetual, progressive, endless movements bring about a sense of weightiness, I challenge every viewer not to live in the present moment without active self-awareness. For each present moment is always in need of dedication and self-awareness for its completion.
To Tao, time is the important theme of his dances. It is in the passing of time—the repetition of body movements—that human life undergoes the cyclical process of birth, aging, sickness and death. Dance is a way to fight the terror of fading life. In the process of dancing, a human is able to reflect on the value of his own life. Tao Ye, the young dancer, reaches the heights of philosophical meditation through his works.
Although Tao stresses that he does not care about the boundary between the East and the West, his works are heavily marked with oriental imprints. Although he claims he does not give a hoot for politics, isn’t the freedom expressed by the body a kind of politics in today’s China?
Nowadays, Western audiences and commentators may focus more on the artistic forms and oriental color presented by China’s modern dance, but they always neglect the cultural linguistic context of the dancers. To China’s modern art, the free expression of the body is an extremely important signal; it is a path leading to freedom of mind. It is not the “newness” of formalism, or “avant-garde”: it is the revolution of thought and artistic conception.
The characteristics of China’s modern dance can be summarized as following: first, stick to the perspective of independent artistic creation without being constrained by political propaganda. Second, integrate with different elements of theatre and create rich and various stage forms. Third, absorb nutrition from the traditional oriental arts. Although some people may intentionally underline the oriental color more than others, all their works carry oriental imprints never to be erased. . . . We could go on listing the characteristics of China’s modern dance. However, theory pales before creation. We are looking forward to more surprises brought by dancers full of artistic creativity.
Edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud.
*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.
**Dan Feng is an independent theatre critic and writer. She graduated from the Central Academy of Drama, where she majored in Dramatic Literature. She has published many reviews of Chinese plays. As an actress for more than 10 years (since 1996), she worked in films, in TV dramas, and stage plays. She also worked as Chief Editor for a number of website and fashion magazines, such as Madame Figaro, Figaro Girl, Go Travel, and SOHU.com, from 2000-2006. From 2007 to 2009, she worked as a Gallery owner, with particular interest in Chinese contemporary arts.