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A Dance of Their Own: Modern Dance in China

Due to its nontraditional and sometimes heavy themes, modern dance has struggled to take off in the past in China. However, as dancers find ways to tell their own personal stories at home and abroad, modern dance may finally have the chance to take center stage.

February 28, 2017
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Willy Tsao leads a technique class for the dancers of Beijing LDTX, a modern dance company he helped found and where he serves as artistic director. Courtesy of Yin Peng

Originally published by US-China Today on February 28, 2017. Written by Holly Blackwelder. 

Willy Tsao started his modern dance training in the U.S. in 1973, but it was forty years later that he would feel the art form had truly arrived in China. In 2013, he celebrated the success of the sixth Beijing Modern Dance Festival, a two-week whirlwind of modern dance performances and master classes in conjunction with artists from all over the world.
 
As he stood on a balcony overlooking the festival’s after party, Tsao, a founding member and artistic director of China’s first modern dance company, smiled down at the world he helped create. Below him, dancers of all ages celebrated and writhed about with an exhilaration that made the room feel alive.
 
Emily Wilcox, a University of Michigan professor who studies Chinese dance, looked on: “You saw people who looked like they were 15 or 17 and they had just performed for the first time, and you saw people who were from the first generation of people trained in modern dance in the Guangdong program back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and you saw them improvising together and getting in groups and cheering each other on, watching each other dance.” The moment had been a long time coming, and was thanks in no small part to the current popularity of modern dance in China.
 
There is no question that modern dance has been on the rise in recent years, seen through an increase in funding, audience education and volume of companies and festivals. Despite this surge, however, the art form hasn’t taken off in quite the same way that it has in the US.
 
The introduction of new funding sources is a promising improvement for struggling young companies, but even those that have been successful abroad still struggle to sell tickets at home, since rural audiences in China still haven’t quite warmed to modern dance. The older and more established companies have gleaned a definite audience base, but even they must be wary of the content they explore. Still, growth seems to be the main topic of discussion, and the dance form seems to be only on an upward trajectory.
 
The State of Modern Dance in China
 
Modern dance is a free and expressive form of dance that arose out of the United States and Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The dance form first arrived in China in the late nineteenth century, when Yu Rongling, the daughter of China’s ambassador to France, studied in Paris with modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan. Yu brought modern dance back to the Chinese courts, but it never fully took hold and was soon squeezed out by the government in favor of ballet, folk dance and traditional opera.
 
It wasn’t until China opened up to the West in the early 1980’s that modern dance really began to establish roots in China. In 1986, the first modern dance training program was established in Guangdong, China, by the Ministry of Culture and with considerable help from the American Dance Festival and the Asian Cultural Council. From this training program, China’s very first modern dance company, Guangdong Modern Dance Company, was founded in 1992. Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, more modern dance companies emerged, including Jin Xing Dance Theatre, TAO Dance Theater and Beijing Dance Theater. Within the past decade, due largely to increased modern dance education, revised funding structures, and new opportunities for young choreographers, the dance form has grown even more. According to Alison Friedman, founder and director of Beijing-based Ping Pong productions, the best word to describe the arts scene in China is “more.”
 
“There’s just more of everything,” Friedman says, “There are more theaters being built, there are more festivals starting, there are more audiences for everything, especially dance, there are more troupes trying to start, more works being created, there are more funding bodies trying to support younger artists. I think there’s just this sense of more, more, more that’s been growing.”
 
This increase is due in part, as Friedman mentions, to changes in the arts funding structure in China. In 2013, Minister of Culture Cai Wu announced a new China National Arts Fund, which will help support both independent and government-run arts organizations. The fund awards grants annually and reports the results on its website. In the coming year, 2.47 billion yuan ($360 million) of the 7.6 billion yuan ($1.1 billion) awarded will be allocated to the performing arts. Within the performing arts category, recent reports categorize the chosen works based on production size and type of performance (acrobatics, opera, puppet theater, etc.). Dance pieces are classified as either ballet or general dance, making it difficult to discern how these grants have affected modern dance companies specifically. However, the fund is transparent about its preference both for projects run by state-owned organizations and for works pertaining to Chinese culture, socialist values and/or the Chinese dream.
 
Dancer and choreographer Wang Yabin received funding in 2015 for her contemporary dance company to create and perform a project entitled The Moon Opera, which is a modern take on Bi Feiyu’s 2007 novel of the same name depicting the life of a Beijing opera performer. 
 
For now, most companies in China still rely on ticket sales as the main source of income, rather than on grants and individual funding, like American companies do. Audiences, however, are not very big, making it hard for companies to survive on ticket sales alone. Modern dance has yet to gain a foothold with the larger Chinese public, so audiences there primarily come from China’s elite. According to Friedman, average ticket prices for a modern dance show in China are at least as expensive -- if not more -- than a typical Broadway show in New York City. Reliance on ticket sales drives the price of those tickets up, restricting exposure to modern dance in poor and rural areas of China. Lack of access aside, however, these audiences don’t have much interest in modern dance. According to Wilcox, average Chinese audiences see modern dance as difficult to understand and often focused on topics too heavy for a night of entertainment.
 
Tsao, founding artistic director of Guangdong Modern Dance Company, notes that less privileged audiences are generally more interested in “the entertainment… They want beautiful girls acting onstage, they like to listen to familiar music, see familiar dance forms.” Still, with the support of the wealthy elite, the art form has been gaining steam since its inception in the 1980s as seen through the growing number of companies, festivals, dancers and choreographers.
 
The Politics of Modern Dance in China
 
Given the countries’ very different social and political environments, modern dance has developed quite differently in China than it has in the US. In the early 20th century, the modern dance movement in the U.S. reflected and was facilitated by the American values of individuality and freedom of expression. It was a clear objection to the constrictions of European classical ballet, with its pointe shoes and corsets.
 
Tsao recalls studying modern dance in the U.S., where his teacher never told him that he was studying “American” modern dance. Instead, she told him he was “studying modern dance, which is about the individual...not about the country, not about the culture.” His view is that modern dance in China is influenced by Daoist thought and the ancient traditions of kung fu and tai chi.
 
The Chinese government has been known to repress individual expression through art, often labeling such expression as subversive. However, Tsao maintains that politics do not interfere with modern dance in China. Unlike in America, where modern dance is often used as a platform to discuss social issues, Tsao claims that his students create works based on their own personal lives. “No one here even dreams of overthrowing the government or doing any subversive works,” he claims. Wilcox agrees, adding that “the new funding structure has explicitly created opportunities for people to stage works where they don’t go through the official censorship process.”
 
Some, however, like Beijing Dance Theater co-founder Wang Yuanyuan, have no problem upsetting the status quo. Wang’s 2011 modern dance rendition of the controversial novel The Golden Lotus became the subject of much debate in China, and the performance was eventually banned. In addition to its critique of government corruption, the story is also known for its explicit sexual content which, according to Wilcox, is not yet considered comfortable territory in China, and is a surefire way to get censored. Despite restrictions, Wilcox affirms Tsao’s assertion, claiming that “most people feel like there’s a lot of space to still be creative within what’s acceptable.”
 
Shen Wei, founding member of Guangdong Modern Dance Company, co-choreographer of the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, and director of Shen Wei Dance Arts in New York City, agrees that although Chinese modern dance stems from the movement of American modern dance, Chinese artists are creating works with very different content. According to him, they are “finding their own voices and visions” and looking to “their own histories and culturally specific experiences for inspiration and material in their dances.” As Tsao puts it, “They are not interested in doing another work of Martha Graham” (one of the American modern dance pioneers). “They are not repeating what Americans said in the ‘20s and the early 20th century. They are addressing their issues at this moment in China.”
 
Modern Dance and the World
 
According to Friedman, modern dance has recently come to be seen internationally as the face of modern art in China, but it hasn’t always been given credence domestically. Like many other art forms in China, it had to be recognized abroad before it could be seriously considered at home.
 
She quotes the common Chinese saying, “墙内开花墙外香,” or qiang nei kai hua, qiang wai xiang which can be loosely translated as “the flower that blooms inside of the wall is fragrant outside of the wall.” She offers an example of this: her company, Ping Pong Productions, helped TAO Dance Theater book a show at Lincoln Center in New York City. The Chinese government had not previously given TAO Dance Theater much attention, but upon hearing about their Lincoln Center performance and successful tour abroad, they were much more willing to support them.
 
Friedman attributes this international success to a few factors. Modern dance, a non-verbal art form, is much easier to present cross-culturally than, say, theater. In addition, international audiences, particularly since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, have been eager to understand contemporary China. Further, due to the help of the American Dance Festival and the Asian Cultural Council, modern dance in China has always been connected to the West through its founding, and particularly to the United States.
 
This international success sparked interest in Chinese modern dance both in China and abroad. In recent years, Friedman claims, the level of talent has reached that of countries that have been exploring modern dance since its founding, and the dance form is starting to be seen as real art outside of China. People are no longer just trying to “check their China box,” as Friedman calls it, and they are instead seeking out Chinese modern dance troupes and choreographers because of their skills alone. This, of course, ups the ante for modern dance in China, which must match the caliber of talent and innovation in other countries in order to compete. Friedman claims that in recent years “the art has gotten a little bit more sophisticated coming out of China…and the West has gotten a little more sophisticated in their views of China.” Both are necessary for the development of modern dance within China, and for its continued success abroad.
 
In China, the development of modern dance is still limited by lack of funding (which might be remedied by the young China Arts Fund), creative constraints, and a lack of interest from beyond China’s elite. Modern dance artists are focusing on cultivating the younger generation, which will become both the art form’s newest artists and its newest audience members. Tsao attributes much of this cultivation to the increase in university students studying modern dance in China, some of whom will go on to become professional dancers. Others will pursue unrelated careers, but maintain an appreciation for modern dance and become the patrons that China so desperately needs. Dance companies and festivals have also begun to give grants and awards celebrating emerging young choreographers in an attempt to encourage their continued work in the field of modern dance. One example of this is Shanghai International Arts Festival’s Rising Artists Works (R.A.W.!) Program.
 
Pointing to the recent progress of modern dance in China, Tsao has called these past few years a “renaissance of Chinese culture.” Friedman recognizes that while modern dance has grown significantly, there is still room for improvement. She believes that the Chinese modern dance scene is not lacking in artists or potential audience; what’s lacking is “the infrastructure that connects the two. And that’s sophisticated marketing departments, audience outreach, educated programming departments in these venues and festivals-- that’s really where the problem lies, and I think it’s what needs to change for there to actually be a renaissance in China in the more contemporary art fields.”
 
 
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