Bridging Cultural Divides Through the Art of Chinese Dance: Interview with Ma Jiaolong (马蛟龙) and Zhao Zhibo (赵知博)

By Zhao Yang (赵阳)*

Ma Jiaolong and Zhao Zhibo are two acclaimed dancers from China, deeply knowledgeable about both Chinese and Western perspectives on dance. In this interview, they share valuable insights into bridging cultural divides and challenging stereotypes through the art of Chinese dance. The interview was conducted on Tencent Meeting on 13 July 2023 when I was at home in Edinburgh. Ma Jiaolong and Zhao Zhibo were at home in London but using different devices in separate rooms.

Ma Jiaolong, photo taken at the University of Roehampton, London. Photo: Qi Xinyuan

In this interview we explore the future of Chinese dance on both domestic and international stages, focusing on the aspirations and visions of practitioners in the field. Our talk delves into key themes such as the integration of traditional and contemporary elements, the need for cultural authenticity, and strategies for engaging global audiences. The discussion highlights the importance of creating performances that resonate with both Chinese and international spectators, while also addressing challenges in finding the balance between cultural specificity and universal appeal. Insights are drawn from the perspectives of experienced dancers, choreographers, and educators, shedding light on the evolving landscape of Chinese dance and its potential for broader international recognition and appreciation.

Zhao Zhibo. Photo taken at the University of Roehampton, London. Photo: Qi Xinyuan

I’d like to ask both of you to talk about your personal journeys and experiences as dancers in China, as well as how your interest in exploring Chinese dance in Western contexts began. You could give an example or talk about the most memorable or impactful moments for you. What was your journey like, and how did this interest develop?

Zhao Zhibo’s rehearsal, 2019, Siobhan Davies Studios, London. Photo: Avatâra Ayuso

Zhao Zhibo: How did this interest develop? In China, I received training from a young age at the Beijing Dance Academy, at their secondary school, undergraduate program, and postgraduate program, and then worked as a dancer in their Resident Dance Company for 20 years. As for developing an interest in exploring Chinese dance in Western contexts, it started with the ArtsCross project in 2009.[1] This project was my first time immersing myself deeply in this kind of China-West cross-cultural collaboration. Although previously, when touring around the world with dance troupes, there was some exchange and communication with local troupes, it was quite superficial and not like the ArtsCross project which was an in-depth, sustained research residency. It involved dancers, choreographers, and scholars from diverse dance backgrounds coming together. During this intensive collaborative process on themed creations, dancers fulfilled the dancer’s role, choreographers fulfilled the choreographer’s role, and scholars observed rehearsals. I feel this process revealed many misunderstandings and misinterpretations between us, but it was also a great opportunity for exchange. It allowed me to explore Chinese dance outside its domestic Chinese context, making me curious about how others view and understand Chinese dance, not just in Western contexts but in any non-Chinese context.

I’d like to ask Mr. Ma how your interest in exploring Chinese dance in Western contexts developed. Many people may know you from your past competitions and famous works which some people called “Sealing the Gods,” but even more so, from your recent YouTube videos[2] and short clips showcasing your performances across London. Could you share how this interest initially developed for you?

Ma Jiaolong: I started learning Chinese dance when I was 12, but I studied Chinese Classical Dance professionally at the Beijing Dance Academy when I was 18, and later worked with the Resident Dance Company. Then in 2018 I was dispatched to London, on a government scholarship to teach, and with the mission of spreading Chinese dance. But coming to this Western context, I certainly couldn’t teach in the conventional Chinese way we’re accustomed to.

Often, I observed the feedback from many non-Chinese students I taught. For example, if they were particularly interested in certain movements or expressions in classical Chinese dance. Only then could I gain more insight into how to tailor my teaching approach to them, and how to combine Chinese dance with the Western context in a way that could benefit my teaching.

Dr. Zhao mentioned the ArtsCross project earlier. Could you share any particularly interesting concrete outcomes from this project, or any meaningful collaborative experiences?

Zhao Zhibo: This project has been running continuously for over 10 years now, and as far as I know, there are almost no other sustained cross-cultural dance research projects like this globally. So just looking at that period, it has been tremendously valuable.

I also feel the most valuable part is that normally when we’re creating or rehearsing in the studio, it primarily involves the dancers and choreographers – that’s the most common setup. But you rarely get the chance to explore and discuss ideas together in the studio environment with scholars, because scholars have very different perspectives. Usually whether in China or other Western countries, you only see scholars at symposiums or academic discussion panels. It’s rare to see these three different roles blending daily in the studio, sharing their opinions and thoughts every day.

I feel the ArtsCross platform itself was most important, for providing this opportunity. Beyond just enabling dancers and choreographers – the basic components of our studio – to gain deeper mutual understanding during the creative process, as I mentioned earlier, each person has different backgrounds, languages, and training, so when coming together daily around the same project and theme there were naturally many contradictions, cultural conflicts, misunderstandings, and even language barriers between the dancers and choreographers. But with the scholars joining and observing from the outside, and serving as a third party in the dialogue, it evolved from a two-dimensional interaction between dancer and choreographer to three-dimensional communication, making the dialogue more multidimensional, like connecting vertices of a triangle. So it enriched everyone’s ideas and enabled deeper mutual understanding.

Apart from being meaningful in this respect, in the past decade this project has created countless groundbreaking cross-cultural, cross-language dance works, some of which are still being performed. There are also related journals, many scholars’ records and articles about the rehearsal process, and many choreographers and dancers have done academic explorations and expressed their self-reflections on this project from their own perspectives. So I feel its value goes beyond just the process itself, it has generated outcomes and data. With such a rich decade-long foundation here, it has benefited our continued exploration of developing and researching Chinese dance in the UK today tremendously, like laying the groundwork for us.

I’d also like to ask Mr. Ma, in your experience of performing and teaching dance, what kinds of misconceptions or stereotypes have you encountered from non-Chinese people, and how is teaching them different from teaching Chinese students?

Ma Jiaolong, Dance at the Waterside, 2022, Highland, UK. Photo: Zhao Zhibo

Zhao Zhibo: I’m truly extremely interested in your question. Let me share a broad overview, and afterward Mr. Ma can supplement it with his own thoughts? I’ll start first.

I feel there are many deep-rooted stereotypes, and having been in the UK for several years, I find them especially troubling. How can these stereotypes and misconceptions run so deep? I’ve realized it can’t be explained through just one or two examples, so I’ve written out the following to share some commonly seen ones. I’ve roughly categorized them – you’ll be able to understand what I mean even without concrete examples. Firstly, when we discuss Chinese dance outside its Chinese context, whether with Western artists or general Western audiences, one of their stereotypes is undoubtedly that Chinese dance is just dragon and lion dances. This comes up regardless of whether they are artists, casual acquaintances or random strangers unrelated to dance.

And then it’s the notion that Chinese dance is very classical and traditional, from hundreds or thousands of years ago. Apart from dragon and lion dances they’ll ask, what else is there nowadays besides drum dances? When faced with such questions, I feel extremely uncomfortable and left speechless, because the misunderstanding runs so deep.

In reality, as you raised in your question, the Chinese dance of our current contemporary era encompasses tremendous diversity, including classical dance, folk dance, modern dance, various Chinese styles of modern dance, and vastly different genres. Classical dance is but one part of Chinese dance as a whole. But they classify it as either the dragon and lion dances as one facet or other ancient dances with some residual influence today.

And there’s also the stereotype that Chinese dance is just Kungfu performance. I feel when looking at this stereotype in Western contexts, we should adopt a critical perspective and examine the pros and cons. The pros are obvious, given the prominence of Chinese Kungfu in Western culture – it’s recognized by many as an integral part of Chinese culture, and widely enjoyed, to the extent that it has infiltrated perceptions of Chinese dance. From this viewpoint, you can really feel this is something positive.[3]

But the downside, as is evident in Mr. Ma’s videos, is that many in the audience seem to think it’s just a simple Chinese classical dance, when in fact Chinese dance is its own independent art form, but easily conflated with martial arts performance. From a professional standpoint, we can consider Kungfu as one element within Chinese dance, since it is part of our traditions. But we absolutely need to recognize that Chinese dance encompasses so much more than this single element. It has its own unique dance techniques, vocabulary, and expressions.

I may have gone a bit overboard in summarizing additional stereotypes, so let me add a bit more. There is also the perception that Chinese dance consists of strictly collective performances, with little individuality or artistic independence. But certainly in my research, I’ve also critically examined such stereotypes. As we look at Chinese dance today, beyond the many collective performances, there are also many works with strong individual expression and unique styles, such as Xie Xin[4] who is becoming increasingly well-known in the West, Hu Shenyuan[5] who performed in the UK last year, Yang Liping[6] who performed at Sadler’s Wells previously, and Jin Xing[7] who is very famous across Europe. Their works utilize their distinct bodily languages and emotional expressions to convey their artistry, which I feel demonstrates the individuality and independence of modern Chinese dance that you’re interested in discussing.

Zhao Zhibo’s Crying of Four Seasons, 2022, at the University of Roehampton, London. Photo: Qi Xinyuan

Connected to this, some feel that Chinese dance is limited to collective performances, too adherent to tradition with little innovation, merely preserving the old forms. But this is inaccurate. Today’s Chinese dance respects tradition yet is also eager to innovate. Many choreographers actively create new works fusing traditional and modern elements.

Some artists, while recognizing that Chinese dance encompasses many genres beyond just Kungfu, feel that Chinese dance focuses too heavily on Chinese themes, lacking exploration of universal themes in global contexts. You likely understand my meaning. Indeed, much of Chinese dance is related to Chinese culture and draws from our traditions, often with aesthetic considerations. But the expression and exploration of Chinese dance today are extremely far-reaching, touching upon universal human emotions and experiences we all share. For instance, our work last year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (in 2022), Crying of Four Seasons explored the cycle of seasons as a metaphor for time’s passage – a universal theme appreciable across cultures. So it had international appeal, beyond just China-specific relevance.

Ma Jiaolong: When I film videos, many non-Chinese students may ask questions, like “What dance is this”?[8] They’ll ask me these kinds of questions. When I say it’s Chinese dance, they certainly don’t know what that means. Their idea of Chinese dance is likely not dragon or lion dance, but more based on tai chi, having seen my flexibility and control, and the way I express spirit and artistry. They are quite intrigued, and it’s via the rhythmic movements in classical Chinese dance that their traditional stereotypes about it change.

My students are even more interesting. They usually think Chinese dance is rigid and sparse — just waving your arms, supporting your weight, then ending with breathing exercises as a routine. They don’t realize the many connections in Chinese dance, physically and in the arms and hands. Only after learning do they realize Chinese dance is truly quite difficult, not due to the moves themselves but the way the whole posture and temperament are expressed, unlike any Western dance. That’s how it is.

Ma Jiaolong, Red Fan on the Mountainside, 2023, Valley of Fire, USA. Photo: Zhao Zhibo

I’m curious how you would balance the relationship between traditional and contemporary elements, and what challenges you’ve encountered conveying this to non-Chinese audiences?

Zhao Zhibo: I feel balancing tradition and modernity itself is an immense challenge. First, respecting tradition is a must. We must retain the core of our traditions. But at the same time, we also need to explore some new elements, integrating modern ones. For instance, we can employ new movement, and as young artists of this new era reflecting on our own perceptions, experiences and history, explore some new presentational dance forms based on that.

In fact, the video works Mr. Ma creates are themselves an entirely new format for presenting Chinese dance,[9] because while stemming from our traditional training, they break free from the confinement of the studio environment and stage performances. He adopts the perspective of on-site video filming, then editing, sound design, and essentially re-creating the Chinese dance itself through this process. In terms of accessibility, outreach, and publicity, this may far surpass the reach of traditional dance presentation formats.

In maintaining this balance, respecting tradition while creating new works, it is tremendously difficult to strike the right balance, you need to retain the core of tradition yet also intrigue audiences. We can’t completely discard the old in favor of unfettered experimental works either – that would be impractical. So based on our expertise, understanding, and respect for tradition coupled with exploration, I feel it’s not just incumbent upon us dancers, choreographers and scholars based in the UK, but this is a question that future generations must also contemplate: How can we better develop Chinese dance today not just for domestic audiences but for global audiences?

Crying of Four Seasons, Edinburgh Fringe 2022,  at the Royal Mile, Edinburgh. Photo: Zhao Zhibo

Mr. Ma, do you have anything to add from your own perspective?

Ma Jiaolong: Often, I’m mistaken for a professional performer or face disruptions by crowds and security in the streets (public places). These encounters, while challenging, are also intriguing. Yes, I’d stop as they instruct and not continue, since we ought to follow the rules in others’ countries, right? Can’t make trouble for them. I understand.

How do you interact with audiences? As we discussed earlier, whether with students or random observers, how do you convey your integration of tradition and modernity to audiences unfamiliar with Chinese dance?

Ma Jiaolong in rehearsal, 2022, at Goldsmiths, University of London. Photo: Qi Xinyuan

Ma Jiaolong: Usually after theatre performances, many non-Chinese friends will come up, they’ll proactively share many thoughts, expressing what they saw and how they felt. Sometimes their reactions and ways of interacting really surprise me. For instance, in the theatre some may be moved to tears, or grab your hand passionately.

Some are also exceptionally excited and emotional. Indeed, many react this way to our performances, being very stirred up. But causal interactions when filming outdoors are quite simple. I mainly rely on our props, the fans for instance, as the best interactive medium. I’ll teach them how to open a fan, recognize the water sleeves, and experience the fan techniques and movements. So my usual tactic is to engage them through traditional Chinese props. That’s how it is.

Zhao Zhibo: I feel interacting with audiences stems naturally from their very attendance at your show, which demonstrates their interest in Chinese culture and that the performance itself was appealing. How to better interact depends on the performer’s own capacity and creative vision. You need certain strategies, for example, guiding the audience on how to appreciate your work, like Mr. Ma described when asked about the fan. They may ask if it’s a Japanese fan (of course not), to which we’d directly clarify it’s a Chinese fan. We also use such opportunities to educate audiences, so after watching they gain new knowledge different from their prior impressions. For example, Mr. Ma also has his audience try out the fan, letting them experience the props and dance, so they may gain a deeper understanding of his artistic expression. This is what I mean by guiding the audience’s viewing experience.

I also feel that in a theatre setting, how you guide their viewing is important,  like in past collaborative work, we designed the theatre with a 4-sided audience who could freely choose any seat, not fixed positions. By setting up this kind of environment and giving the audience autonomy, you guide them on how to watch in a way that deeply immerses them in the experience, very different from conventional passive viewing.

There are also other ways to guide audiences; Mr. Ma mentioned interacting with them after the performance, or before, such as through program notes or summaries giving them an overview of the work before they enter the theatre.

I feel that continuously promoting Chinese dance workshops and lectures is very meaningful, even if we have limited people and resources overseas. Persistently creating and disseminating information, and directly communicating with audiences allows them to better understand artists’ ideas. Such direct dialogue and exchange are most effective, audiences can ask questions and give feedback, even directly sharing their interpretation or thoughts after watching your work, which they are often eager to do. As art communicators, gaining such information lets us rethink and better facilitate these kinds of experiences for audiences.

Zhao Zhibo’s Merge, 2023, Kensington Park, London. Photo: Zhao Zhibo

Of course, audience experiences vary depending on how you design your work. I feel the most important element is cultivating the next generation of audiences – middle or elementary school students – to appreciate Chinese dance in the future.

Do you have overseas social media to promote dance?

Ma Jiaolong: Yes, mainly YouTube. I also have TikTok, but I’m not very active on it. YouTube is influential globally, so I upload videos there. However, reposters often upload my content from Chinese platforms like Douyin to foreign YouTube channels, affecting viewership. I started managing my YouTube channel actively to clarify my original content. I aim to reach non-Chinese audiences and provide translations to avoid confusion.

Why not use WeChat, which Chinese audiences are more familiar with?

Ma Jiaolong: WeChat doesn’t provide comprehensive analytics like YouTube does. Also, YouTube is for international exposure. While gaining views and likes on YouTube is challenging, it’s worth the effort to protect my content and reach a wider audience.

Overseas platforms prioritize original content. You should assert your copyright. Dr. Zhao, can you share information about the workshops you mentioned?

Zhao Zhibo: Sure, we conducted hybrid workshops for both Chinese and non-Chinese audiences during the pandemic, including upcoming sessions at Central Ballet.

So, the online lectures catered to both Chinese and non-Chinese audiences?

Zhao Zhibo: Yes, they were for everyone.

Okay, the next question is about the future of Chinese dance both domestically and internationally. What are your hopes and visions for the development of Chinese dance in the coming years?

Ma Jiaolong: I hope there can be more programs that showcase the essence of Chinese aesthetics while also appealing to non-Chinese audiences, not just catering to Chinese viewers. They should have the spirit and aura of Chinese culture, and be profoundly Chinese, while also intriguing and touching non-Chinese people. Most importantly, we need to accurately identify what captivates non-Chinese audiences. Once we find that point, it may be easier to reach international markets. The issue is often not the performers’ skills or the choreographers’ abilities, but the difficulty of discovering what appeals across cultures.

Zhao Zhibo: I strongly agree with Mr. Ma. We rarely see the faces or hear the voices of Chinese artists in venues like Sadler’s Wells in London, where only Hu Shenyuan has performed in recent years. Of course, we hope more Chinese artists can represent China and create works abroad in different contexts, with unique personal expressions. Some works created for international commissions lack Chinese aesthetics and Eastern rhythms when created solely by choreographers. The collaboration between Hu Shenyuan and Aakash Odedra[10] worked because they challenged their own ideas and had a common goal of exploring a theme while using different dance vocabularies. Shenyuan represented the dance language of Chinese dance, and Aakash Odedra used the language of Indian Kathak to explore a common theme and emotion. The theme was universal.

To become international, we cannot only discuss issues relevant to China that outsiders cannot understand, nor completely cater to Western expectations that seem inauthentic to us. Balance is crucial. During global integration, emotional resonance and communication are very important, when your work moves audiences to share their experiences and you rethink based on their feedback. This indicates success. Continued high-quality international dialogues through collaborations, exchanges and conferences are essential, as are more platforms for young people. Opportunities for creation, dialogue and lectures have not ceased these past few years.

I know our roles here are interviewer and interviewees, but as someone who knows you both and as a fellow dancer, I sincerely feel you both have already done so well. Spreading dance cannot rely on a few people or a few years, but continuous effort by generations.

Zhao Zhibo: Yes, those before us pave the road for those after. Through this process, we help educate audiences, so next time they see Ma’s fan, they know it is Chinese, not Japanese, and that this is not martial arts but traditional Chinese dance. Transformation requires a long-term effort.

When you return to China, how do you plan to engage in discussion and interaction with non-Chinese artists and their works?

Zhao Zhibo: Participating in international dialogues and collaborations cannot cease. Whether Chinese artists go abroad or non-Chinese artists come to China, these meaningful exchanges must continue, ideally of a high quality, not just superficial. Exchanges through co-teaching, student exchanges, and scholar exchanges are valuable. Communication benefits both sides.

Ma Jiaolong: I will likely continue to use social media. Back in China, I can better utilize Chinese elements like costumes, props and locations to accentuate that my dance is distinctly Chinese, unlike the confusion abroad over whether it is Chinese, martial arts, or acrobatics. I will maintain connections with non-Chinese choreographers and friends while also showing that I have studied and worked in both China and the UK, and I have now returned to my motherland to promote Chinese dance through our cultural context.

I know we live in an age of globalization where our identity isn’t restricted to geography or nationality. Wherever we are located, we can make a difference.

Finally, what advice would you give to beginners interested in exploring the fusion of tradition and modernity in their dance practice and choreography, especially for non-Chinese people with limited experience?

Ma Jiaolong: I would recommend watching works like those at Sadler’s Wells that include Chinese artists, since they were clearly impactful cross-cultural collaborations of quality. Entering the theatre to watch more works is better than risky online searches that may expose them to poor quality performances, leading to misunderstandings about Chinese dance.

Zhao Zhibo: Anyone interested in Chinese culture may not just be interested in dance. They can appreciate multiple art forms, whether music, poetry, calligraphy or painting. These are all connected, with common aesthetics. Those who love dance can start by picking an aspect of Chinese culture they enjoy, which will help them understand the others. This provides a better introduction than only surface-level impressions of dragon dances.

Thank you both for your time and detailed answers. It was wonderful to see you again after so long.


Endnotes

[1] ArtsCross is a long-term project that started in 2009. It includes Chinese and non-Chinese dancers, choreographers, and researchers based in Beijing, London, Taipei,  Hong Kong and beyond.

[2] Ma Jiaolong’s video. See the link.

[3] Ma Jiaolong’s video, taken by Zhao Zhibo. See the link.

[4] https://www.deltadanse.com/en/companies/xiexin-dance-theatre/

[5] https://bagrifoundation.org/media/30-artists-30-years-hu-shenyuan/

[6] https://live.stanford.edu/blog/january-2020/get-know-iconic-dancer-and-choreographer-yang-liping

[7] http://www.jinxing-dance-theatre.com/about.html?lang=en

[8] Ma Jiaolong’s video. See the link.

[9] Ma Jiaolong’s video. See the link.

[10] https://www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on/aakash-odedra-company-samsara/ 


*Zhao Yang is a PhD student in Dance Education with a project focused on Scottish country dancing. She has experience of performing in intercultural Chinese dance shows and experience of teaching during her studies in the UK and EU. She completed her masters in Choreomundus, an Erasmus Mundus joint master awarded by four partnership universities, and she was actively involved in learning Scottish dancing while studying for her MSc in Dance Science and Education at the University of Edinburgh in 2016.

Ma Jiaolong is an acclaimed Chinese classical dancer and member of the Beijing Dance Academy Resident Dance Company, with over 10 million social media followers. He gained popularity for his visually impressive dance videos. He taught Chinese classical dance at Goldsmiths Confucius Institute, University of London as part of a cooperation project initiated by the Beijing Dance Academy.

Zhao Zhibo is a National First-Rank Dance Artist and a highly experienced Chinese dancer and choreographer. She completed her PhD at Middlesex University with a focus on contemporary choreography and dance training for Chinese dancers in an international context. In addition to her academic achievements, she is also a tutor at the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy.

Copyright © 2024 Zhao Yang
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