Southern Dance Hall: Movement and Community in Post Pandemic Guangzhou, Southern China

Tiantian Xie*

Abstract

China’s extremely restrictive anti-pandemic policy has significantly affected the independent dance sector. A pioneer of interdisciplinary choreography in Guangzhou, Southern China, the Ergao Dance Production Group is transforming its creative mode, abandoning an artist-led model to construct a practice that radically reassesses the social significance of dance and its value to the public. In this way, the Ergao Dance Production Group has responded sensitively to the Cantonese social context. This article, which points out the community’s transformation from an individual to a collective-based practice model, is divided into two sections. The first section, “Nowness,” discusses China’s independent choreographers and the importance of considering their current living conditions. The second section, “Future,” focuses on the establishment of Southern Dance Hall and provides insight into the emerging form of independent choreography rooted in China’s post-pandemic socio-economic structure. This creative process is formative yet fluid as it evolves across time.

Keywords: post-pandemic, Southern China, independent choreography, community dance practice, social culture

Southern Dance Hall Group in Yangji, Guangzhou 2021. Photo: He Qiwo
Nowness: The Ripple Effect

Ergao Dance Production Group (EDPG) closed its physical venue in Yang Ji, Guangzhou, on September 13, 2023. He Qiwo, the artistic director of EDPG, invited the original members of the Southern Dance Hall (SDH) to participate in a performance called “Last Dance” on the day of the closure. In addition, there was “Bring Hometown Home,” a recycling activity to remove all items from the space. In order to restore this space to its original state, a collective and spontaneous dance was performed by the participants, followed by both the removal of the PVC flooring and torn-off tape and the disconnection of the speakers. Their venue had been situated in a residential area near the river since 2016; since this physical space is enclosed, the deconstruction of the venue which had occupied the space signifies the physical disappearance of the center, as well as the psychological demise of certainty and stability. A new model will replace the EDPG with a migrating SDH; this new format will adapt to the regional characteristics of various institutions and spaces as well as blend project topics across different cities, according to the characteristics of each.

Ergao Dance Production Group (EDPG) was founded in Guangzhou, Southern China, as a contemporary dance performance institution. He Qiwo, its founder, has focused on self-expression and is anchored by interdisciplinary aesthetics. Utilising dance theatre, screen dance, site-synthetic and community dance, he addresses, both absurdly and seriously, a wide range of issues in Chinese social culture concerning body, gender and identity. In his view, the body is both the object of examination and also the subject of creation.

Disco-Teca, a piece of dance theatre created by Ergao Dance Production Group in 2016. Photo: He Qiwo

For instance, the dance theatre Disco-Teca was inspired by China’s disco trend in the 1980s. An important aspect of the dancer’s body is its role as an arena for reproducing physical experience to reconstruct the living body as an archive in the history of social culture. Kung Hei Fat Choy is an autobiographical performance series that emphasises the flow of individual life experiences. It is, thus, capable of linking Cantonese folk activities, reactivating a region’s cultural memory and highlighting China’s socioeconomic differences and similarities. Significantly, He Qiwo is both an independent practitioner deeply engaged in local narratives and an individual proudly immersed in his own expressions, constantly seeking self-identity and interpreting cultural signs. During an interview, He Qiwo stated that he views the cultures to which he belongs from the perspective of personal development.

Kung Hei Fat Choy, an autobiographical performance created by He Qiwo in 2019. Photo: He Qiwo

Notably, Wen Hui, an avant-garde pioneer in contemporary choreography, has played a significant role in the development of independent choreography in China.[1] As Qing Qing observed, Wen Hui provides a narrative of individual experience and cultural memory which indicates that the existence of individual artists represents the emergence of a new artist subject with independent judgment and stance. This approach, thus, establishes dance as a social space in China where a form of art exists. As is also evident from the oral interviews with many performance practitioners, The Youth Performance Practitioner Program, established by Wen Hui and documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang at Beijing Caochangdi Workstation since 2006, has had a profound impact on the work of independent practitioners currently working in this field, including He Qiwo (EDPG), Tao Ye (TAO Dance Theatre)[2] and Tian Gebing (Paper Tiger Theatre Studio).[3]

The defining role of independence is one of the main characteristics of independent choreography, according to Tian Tian (73), associate professor at Beijing Dance Academy. The purpose of this analysis is to determine whether the creator is conscious of his or her independence and to explain how the creator’s work displays a distinctive appearance of novelty, diversity, blending and synthesis. Furthermore, an individual style that reflects the creator’s attitude could be conveyed through devised choreography; it is not important whether it survives inside or outside of the system. In light of the post-pandemic era, this paper asserts that understanding how independent choreographers survive is crucial to understanding the essential characteristic of independence; the analysis utilizes a dialectical approach to exploring whether Chinese independent choreography can survive in the future and if so, in what form.

Utilising the word “isolated” to describe the present state of Chinese stage art, Sun Xiaoxing emphasises that theatre, dance and music have all been relegated to their own centres, with the brinks becoming vacuums, and that the price of interdisciplinary is that it normalises the brink and results in the loss of audiences. “EDPG’s work is both dance and theatre, while it is neither dance nor theatre at all” (Xiaoxing 19). It could be argued that, in the absence of state funding, the independent choreographic community has experienced continuous stress, which has been exacerbated by repeated quarantines during the three-year pandemic. Specifically, this section discusses three aspects of independent choreography; namely, sources of financing, deployment of resources and organizational logic; while a comparison with mainstream dance practitioners is established, a sharply defined comparison/contrast of the two is not undertaken in the present study.

Kung Hei Fat Choy, an autobiographical performance created by He Qiwo in 2019. Photo: He Qiwo

In terms of financing, the government provides regular funding each year to mainstream dance practitioners, depending on their affiliation.[4] Independent dance practitioners must be self-sufficient and bear the cost of their creations and operations. They may also apply and look for social or private financial support.[5] However, the amount of government funding versus private capital is vastly different. Furthermore, there is often an imbalance in the distribution of economic resources that prevents independent creators from receiving sufficient funding. In an interview, He Qiwo acknowledged that he had been unable to make ends meet due to the three-year income crisis. To survive, he had to close, due to the high rental costs of physical space.

Capital increases affect the successful deployment of social resources. It is quite likely that mainstream dance practitioners will be able to integrate social resources optimally. Being able to interact with the public on a wider scale makes it easier to establish a relationship with the broader community. By engaging in creative partnerships with organisations, individuals and businesses who support independent choreography gain more exposure through media communication, occupy better-performing venues and perform more successfully in a number of markets. For instance, Only This Green premiered at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in China, 2021, co-produced by China Oriental Performing Arts Group in collaboration with The Palace Museum and People’s Daily Online.[7] During the dissemination of Only This Green, the production was the focus of more than 5,000 articles published in the official media press, with a media exposure of more than 10 billion consumers(China Oriental Performing Arts Group “Only”).Throughout the year of 2023, there were 120 performances, in a total of 37 theatres located in 32 Chinese cities, including Hong Kong and Macau (China Oriental Performing Arts Group “120!”). In the absence of adequate funding, marketing efforts are hindered and restrictions in scheduling are common. As a result, independent practitioners find it difficult to create a virtuous cycle in which their creative work is nourished by the market.

Regarding organisational logic, the main challenge is to determine whether to continue and/or under what conditions to do so. It is common for independent choreographers to develop their works in the form of project collaborations. A company-style operation model, such as TAO Dance Theatre and Xie Xin Dance Theatre, is also feasible. Yet, consistent performances, a steady box office revenue stream, and/or private capital investments are required to maintain the stability of the group and the continuity of work production. Those artists who work under such circumstances experience more instability in creative sustainability, and they may move from one creative group to another more frequently. It was mentioned in an interview thatTAO Dance Theatre would have to disband in April 2022; however, they was able to restart for two main reasons, first, because they received a three-year business cooperation from Jiangnan Buyi Group, a Chinese fashion brand, and second, because they received two significant donations that ensured the survival of the dance company for the following year (Lehao).

The independent choreographer in China represents a self-contained entity comprised of people with a strong sense of authorship and subjective creativity. There is no doubt that these artists are dissatisfied with mainstream body aesthetics, the notion of a typological body and the disciplined body acquired through Conservatoire training. Tian Gebing, the artistic director of Paper Tiger Theatre Studio who currently lives in Berlin, stated in an interview that most Chinese dancers are eager to enter the official dance world to demonstrate their abilities and establish the relationship between the so-called personal and institutional through various competitions. “Dance has become a competitive sport in this country which has shaped dancers’ competitive personalities” (Gebing and Qing). Independent practitioners as a group, on the other hand, have chosen their own marginal position in performance creation. This marginal position does not represent a vacancy of values but, rather, an alienation from the centralisation of discourse power and a fundamental adjustment to the independent state of one’s self-spiritual existence (Tian 41). Therefore, this spirit of independence is the escape from the norms that we are used to, the subtle rejection of the tight network of the dominant discourse, as well as the maintenance of the artist’s individual unique identity, and, to that end, the expansion of a new space in the field of contemporary discourse on China, created by the citizens of China. As members of an alternative community, independent practitioners seek to disengage from the mainstream power discourse prevalent in Chinese artistic creation which leaves audiences with an impression of ideological bias.

In short, it is generally recognised that conditions are fragile for the survival for independent choreographers in China, particularly in terms of socioeconomic guarantees, availability of performance venues, extent of fundraising and/or allocations of resources from other sectors of society.

The structural distribution of socioeconomic resources may be responsible for such disadvantages. Zhang Xian once used the so-called Work Virtualisation to describe the survival strategy of contemporary Chinese performance practitioners. Their purpose is to develop in the long term under complex circumstances, rather than face rapid elimination; this includes utilising various methods, both linguistic and nonlinguistic, to record and describe what they are doing or what has been done, and attempting to avoid overreliance on physical space and consumable resources (Zigeng). In addition to exhibiting a ripple effect in the post-pandemic era, EDPG’s closure provides a glimpse into the survival conditions of independent choreographers in China at this time; as a result of this transformation, independent choreographers have reacted and adapted to current circumstances. Echoing what He Qiwo explained in the interview, “We must first survive, then constantly develop while remaining independent.”

Southern Dance Hall Workshop in Yangji, Guangzhou. Photo: He Qiwo
Future: Embracing Uncertainty

Southern Dance Hall (SDH) was originally initiated and established by the Ergao Dance Production Group (EDPG) in 2020 as an independent non-professional dance troupe. Training and working methods have changed towards a more inclusive and diffusion-oriented methodology of decentralisation and deindividuation. Their approach is based on two main goals. The first is to establish a creative group system that replaces the artist-led model and explores an alternative language of body movement based on participants’ personal experiences; the second is to allow dance to flow in different social fields by paying more attention to its functionality, participation and creativity. Despite its name, SDH does not discriminate on the basis of age, occupation and gender, and it does not aim to train professional dancers. Rather, dance is used to share a physical experience of flow and life with others. Additionally, it promotes self-awareness and development by encouraging self-expression by means of the body. Following the closure of its venue, Southern Dance Hall will move to a different city in the future. The specific topics of its projects will vary according to the local characteristics.

Southern Dance Hall Workshop in Yangji, Guangzhou, 2021. Photo: He Qiwo

A major motivation for establishing SDH has been its focus on community dance. EDPG has been devoted to the practice of “Non-dance” over the past ten years and has continuously explored whether dance could be a means of communication and exchange, and whether it could create extensive connections between people and their relationships. Every Dance Movement workshop was conducted in the community to provide opportunities for interaction among ordinary citizens. Ten female residents of varying ages and identities were selected to re-examine and explore their daily activities.

Community Dance Project Every Dance Movement (2015). Photo: Gu Tianchang, provided by He Qiwo

Face – To – Face Timetakes social relationships as its theme and employs dance and behaviour to re-establish the relationship between oneself and others. The project encourages dance enthusiasts to draw inspiration from their experiences with close friends or family members as they work to prepare a collaborative performance within the time frame of one month. An art event entitled Dancing Square brought together a group of senior citizens as they participated in daily square dancing[7]in Chongqing, Guangzhou and Shanghai, and subsequently moved their regular activities into the art museum in Shangai. Wondering at Home is an online project undertaken during the quarantine that provides children with opportunities to cook, clean, listen to their families’ voices and create their own movements and dances based on these experiences. EDPG Huangbian EA Shop is a living dance theatre hidden within the community which sponsors a series of events designed to respond to current situations in the local community. A ten-day pop-up dance studio was opened in Huangbian, an urban village in Guangzhou.[8] Private lessons are offered by the studio to village residents; additionally, the artists learn square dance from the older women of the community and perform with their fellow villagers.

Community Dance Project EDPG Huangbian EA Shop (2020). Photo: Li Ji, provided by HeQiwo

As noted above, Southern Dance Hall (SDH) was organized in 2020 by the Ergao Dance Production Group (EDPG) as an independent non-professional dance troupe; at the present time, however, SDH is in a temporary state of migration. Thus, rather than describing current SDH projects, I will focus instead on their major objectives, which are as follows:

  1. provide physical training that prioritizes fitness, dance, performativity and community derived from daily life and folk activities;
  2. promote the creative method of Site-Synthetic, that is, the integration of sound, video, movement and comprehensive materials to synthesise a performance scene, emphasising interdisciplinary, incidental and local characteristics;
  3. adhere to the creative aesthetic choices in kitsch, exaggerated and hybrid, aiming to shape the artificial body landscapes.

A temporary group is formed with an aim to transcend constructed boundaries of discipline, age, life experience and aesthetics, and includes three types of individuals:

  1. arts practitioners, such as the original EDPG Artists, and inter-disciplinary practitioners, represented by groups such as Media, Moving Image, Sound Arts and Scenographer;
  2. dance amateurs from all walks of life; and
  3. diverse individuals from a variety of backgrounds, including members of the LGBTQ community, people with physical challenges, elderly citizens and children.

By creating such a diverse group of participants, SDH connects daily life with Cantonese folk activities, and helps participants develop mutually beneficial relationships in which intervention, awareness and participation are of utmost importance. This style of collaboration results in the creation of novel systems of body movement and performance. The following flow chart provides an illustration of the concept and its practical application.

Southern Dance Hall Concept and Creative Model

The establishment of the Southern Dance Hall has shifted creative autonomy from single individuals to the community at large. In addition, the public nature of the community provides opportunities for its values to be disseminated, which further stimulates the participants’ creative expression. The active participation of ordinary citizens has contributed greatly to the dance group’s great success, since it allows them to convey their subjective experiences at a high aesthetic level. Although practitioners currently face a number of uncertainties, the transformative experiment of the Southern Dance Hall allows for a new form of independent choreography which is embedded in the socio-economic structure of post-pandemic period China.

The term “Southern” in Southern Dance Hall not only refers to the geographical location of the practice but also characterizes its research methodology. He Qiwo describes the SDH as a physical practice that embodies “the collective modality of Southern (ness), Cantonese (ness) and ethnographical characteristics.” There has been a growing discussion of the term “Southern” as a concept or description of cultural significance that is not limited to cultural geography; this discussion could gradually lead to a symbolic expression of history, the humanities and realistic situations, thereby providing the term “Southern” with a unique spiritual structure and direction. As Hu Bin suggested, discussing the South does not seek to exoticize, alienate, or construct a new central discourse of the term “South.” Rather, the intention is to draw on regional research which provides a broader understanding of China’s narrative as a whole and encompasses a wide range of discourses. In sum, the goal is to disrupt the existing mainstream narrative and bring forth voices that may have been ignored or marginalised.[9]


Endnotes

[1] Wen Hui founded Living Dance Studio in 1994 as China’s first private contemporary dance studio, introducing the concept of independent choreography to China. She incorporates dance in everyday life as well as in individual narratives, as seen in her works such as Body Report, Birth Report, 37.8 Report and Dance with Migrant Labourer.

[2] TAO Dance Theatre is a full-time contemporary dance company founded by Tao Ye, Duan Ni and Wang Hao in 2008. It is the first contemporary dance company in China to be invited to perform at the Lincoln Center Art Festival in the U.S.A., the Edinburgh International Art Festival in the U.K., the Sydney Opera House in Australia and Theatre de la Ville in France.

[3] Paper Tiger Theatre Studio is an independent artist collective founded in 1997. Together with dancers, visual artists and individuals of various professional backgrounds, theatre director Tian Gebing leads a creative initiative on a collective basis. Their clearly expressed intention is to act as spoilsport (players in a game who carry out sabotaging intentions) and, thus, expose the brutal absurdity of carefully fabricated narratives which function to hide instances of cruelty in our society.

[4] For example, The National Ballet of China, China National Opera and Dance Drama Theatre, and China Oriental Performing Arts Group are all directly administrated by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. For more information check its website. Accessed 22 Sept. 2023.

[5] Examples include Youth Incubation Platform (YIP, Shanghai International Dance Centre), Rising Artist’s Works (RAW, Shanghai International Arts Festival) and National Young Dancers Development Plan (NYDDP, China Dancers Association). He Qiwo has been nominated for the NYDDP twice.

[6] As one of the largest comprehensive online media on the Internet worldwide, the People’s Daily serves as a representative of China’s official media for propaganda purposes.

[7] “Square dancing” (guǎng chǎng wǔ) refers to a form of recreational folk dance popular in public squares and open spaces in China. It typically involves groups of predominantly middle-aged and elderly participants dancing in synchronised patterns to music, often a mix of traditional and contemporary tunes. The practice features organised choreography and is often led by a dance caller who guides participants through the steps. Square dancing has gained widespread popularity in urban and rural areas of China, representing a cultural and communal pastime with both physical and social dimensions.

[8] “Urban Village” (chéng zhōng cūn) is a concept in Chinese urban planning. It refers to areas within cities that have evolved from rural villages due to rapid urbanisation. These regions often exhibit a mix of old and new buildings, high population density and substandard living conditions. Urban villages are typically characterised by a lack of modern infrastructure and services, resulting in unique socio-economic challenges. They have become a significant aspect of urban development in China, with ongoing debates on how to integrate them into the urban landscape and improve living conditions for their residents.

[9] See “‘Southern Contemporary’ from a Global Perspective.” A seminar hosted by Pingshan Arts Museum on September 23, 2023. The text is available in Chinese here. Accessed 30 Sept. 2023.

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—.Only This Green Touring Launch.” Accessed 23 Sept. 2023.

Gebing, Tian, and Qing Qing. “Contemporary Theatre and Body.” Oral Theatre. Accessed 25 Sept. 2023.

Lehao, Kuai. “TAO Dance Theatre: What Have We Experienced from Disbandment to Restart?” Southern People Weekly, 27 Feb. 2023. Accessed 25 Sept. 2023.

Tian, Tian. “History of Dance Theatre in China: Characteristics, Styles and Forms.” Journal of Beijing Dance Academy, vol.4, 2022, pp. 68–77.

—. “Body ‘Impurity’: Physical Practice in Contemporary Dance Theatre.” Journal of Beijing Dance Academy, vol. 6, 2018, pp. 36–42.

Xiaoxing, Sun. “The Marginality and Exhibitionisation of Contemporary Performance: Starting from the Ergao Dance Production Group Performance ‘Southern Dance Hall’ at the First Pan-Southeast Asia Triennale.” Stage and Screen Reviews, vol.49, July. 2022, pp.18–29.

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*Tiantian XIE worked with He Qiwo as a dance dramaturge in 2019. At the present time, he is a PhD student in Theatre and Performance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London; his doctoral project is entitled Performing Post-Socialism: The Political Culture of the Dance Industry in the People’s Republic of China, from Pedagogy to Practice, 2012–22.

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