writers on dancing


China: Passion for Freedom and Change

Beijing Modern  Dance Company
Guangdong Modern Dance Company
City Contemporary  Dance Company
Terrace Theater
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, D.C.
October 9, 2005 

by Naima Prevots
copyright©2005 by Naima Prevots

Three modern dance companies from China at the Kennedy Center sent a message:  artists are in the forefront of change in a society still characterized by repressive elements and strong attachment to tradition. We had a chance to view the only three groups with contemporary voices in dance, companies from Beijing, Guangdong, and Hong Kong. The evening was a revelation of brilliant and original choreography, extraordinary technique integrated with sensitive artistry, and passionate commentaries on breaking the bonds of conformity. My only regret is that we did not get to see a whole evening of each company, and that the Kennedy Center management chose the smallest venue for this showcase. There is indeed an important tension between the old and the new in China, and the balance in the Festival of China was unequal, and weighted more towards  conventional expectations. Modern dance in China has had an uphill fight for recognition and acceptance, and this evening showed groups equal to any of the best in the world.

“All River Red” by the Beijing Modern Dance Company, was the first piece on the program. Choreographed by Li Han-zhong and Ma Bo (premiered 2001), it was perhaps the most startling in terms of its political message. Although developed abstractly with music based on themes from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, it signaled rejection of ideological repression. This was done with a constant motif of the individual struggling against the group, and the use of red fabric in a variety of ways.  The opening image showed all the dancers, with red fabric bags slung over their shoulders, in suspended stillness and then with arms reaching out. The final image showed these pieces of fabric tied together in knots, being wound around all the dancers, and finally thrown off.  

The choreography had wonderful shifting group patterns, and dynamics that  froze images and released vibrant energies. There was a continual sense in each body and with the groups of being caught and struggling to be free. Movement flowed effortlessly from torso to legs, to arms and through space. There were references to the “Rite of Spring”. We saw the sacred virgin bound and blindfolded, and ritual moments of the entire company coming together and pounding the earth. Overall the feeling was of a powerful sensuality and passionate reaching for individuality and release of boundaries.   

The Guangdong Modern Dance Company came next, and showed four sections from “Upon Calligraphy”. This piece received its premiere in June 2005 in Guangzhou, and was choreographed by Liu Qi, with music by Li Chin Sung. The opening image consisted of Chinese calligraphy emerging in lines on the closed curtain, the characters dancelike in their flow from side to side, and up to down. The lights played with the letters as if they were written for us, and the Chinese characters seemed to come alive in their wavy emergence in the space. As the curtain opened, a pool of light showed us a dancer in place to start the first section, “As the Form of Bone Script”. Staying firm in their designated places in mainly solos and duets, it was as if the dancers were writing with their bodies. As they clearly raised arms and legs, made curves and lines with torsos and bodies, the eleven dancers created single and multiple Chinese calligraphic characters before our eyes. The second section, “As The Form of Official Script” had a very different ambiance, with the male and female duet costumed in a simplified version of traditional clothing. Shapes were created through formal comings and goings of the two dancers. There was a sense of court ritual as they moved gently through space. The bodies took on centuries of tradition and moved gently through space, carving out an ancient written language.

The next two sections took us into a contemporary mode where language exists in a different context. “As The Form of Regular Script” was an all male quintet, showing strength and power. The individual dancers by themselves and together moved boldly in space, changing the dynamics of the first two sections. The last section, “As The Form of Cursive Script”, with the entire company, consisted of incredibly fast and virtuoso movement as the dancers shot through space and defied gravity. The women were featured in the beginning.  With their shooting legs and arms, and defiant falling and rising, they gave us a form of calligraphy that spoke of China in the twenty-first century. The progression through four sections spoke clearly to moving away from the past, and reaching boldly into a future where freedom for the individual was an important value.    

The City Contemporary Dance Company, the last group on the program, put together excerpts of works by five choreographers. The composite was called “Silver Rain”, performed originally in Hong Kong (2004), marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the company.  No dates were given for premieres of individual excerpts.  Given this was the first time in Washington we saw the company, it would have been fascinating to see complete works. The excerpts did show talented choreographers and performers with a range of aesthetic perspectives and movement vocabularies.

The first piece, “Wanderings in the Realm of Lightness,” by choreographer Willy Tsao, had a man in white moving slowly from center stage to exit, as the company danced around him. There was no mistaking the statement of independence, where each person sets their own pathway.  “Le Beau”, by Yuri Ng, consisted of five men in business suits. They were juxtaposed against a man performing ballet phrases at a barre, reinforcing the sense of an individual in a freer world, not conforming with those operating in the conformist world of conventional success.  In “Lost in a Melodramatic City” by Pun Siu-fai, two women interacted in a display of affectation and pretense, with one finally jumping off the stage. “Eulogy”, by Mui Cheuk-yin, was an evocative solo for a woman with an umbrella and falling pieces of glittering miniature papers stars. The woman was on her own, indulging in her dreams and desires.  “Show Your Colors” by Helen Lai,  had  confrontational elements, when the peasant dressed dancers descended into the audience as if begging and questioning, and then back on the stage in a sort of  break dance segment. The finale, “China Wind-China Fire”, by Willy Tsao, provided a more conventional ending with all dancers in white bringing together recognizable traditional Chinese movements with contemporary vocabulary. As different as these six excerpts were, they had a common theme, where boundaries no longer existed, and individual goals took hold.

This company is the first and oldest modern dance company in China. It was founded by Willy Tsao in Hong Kong, and has been a hub of contemporary dance activity in China. The company based in Guangdong also owes its birth and development to Tsao, as does the even more recently founded Beijing Modern Dance Company. It is hard to say from just this one joint performance what, if anything, characterizes the choreography of each group. All the dancers have virtuoso technique and are talented artists, with charisma and sensitivity on stage. The vocabulary is not derivative from any particular school of contemporary dance. On occasion there are glimpses of various traditional Chinese forms, but these are either included to make a specific statement, or integrated with the total dance statement. All the choreographers have clarity and originality in their work, showing  ability to make the stage come alive in a new way while developing and extending their themes and movements. Modern dance is a new phenomenon in China, and the artists we saw at the Kennedy Center were superb in all ways. Let us hope we see more of them, as they continue to explore freedom for themselves and for their society.

Volume 3, No. 38
October 17, 2005
copyright ©2005 Naima Prevots



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last updated on October 17, 2005