Author’s Note: As a dance enthusiast, this entry is meant less as a critical review of the performances discussed and more as a way to spark dialogue about modern Chinese and Chinese American culture.
As leaves signaled the start of New York’s new Fall Season, many choice cultural events caught my attention. I was very excited to attend three modern dance performances within a week of each other in late October, including one at MOCA: Reflections (2011) by Chinese American choreographer Lenora Lee, a part of the Works-in-Progress series on Target Free Thursdays. The other two performances were presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) Next Wave Festival. BAM hosted two international dance troupes from Asia: Wang Yuanyuan’s Beijing Dance Theatre, who presented Haze (2009), and Lin Hwai-min’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, who performed Water Stains on the Wall (2010).
As I enjoyed the programs, I found myself searching for similarities. I looked in the movements, the themes, and the narratives (or the lack thereof). I wanted to see if these particular choreographers, in these particular pieces, had anything in common for discussion. Given that the choreographers were Chinese, Taiwanese, and Chinese American, I thought there might be some cultural intersection between their works. I was wrong, and was glad of my discovery.
Reflections was created by Lenora Lee, a San Francisco-based dancer and choreographer. Lee incorporated martial arts, working with Kei Lun Martial Arts and Enshin Karate and the South San Francisco Dojo, as well as lion dance, contemporary music by Francis Wong, video by Ben Estabrook, text by Genny Lim, and media design by Olivia Ting. At the core of this multi-media production stood the stories of three men in Lee’s family: her grandfather, father and brother. Digging deep into her family’s past while using traditional martial arts and lion dance movements to root the piece in Chinese culture, Lee explored their collective experiences in a performance about memory, heritage, and the struggle to find oneself within the rapidly changing cultural and global environment.
Water Stains on the Wall was choreographed by Lin Hwai-min, with music by Toshio Hosokawa, lighting by Lulu W.L. Lee, projection by Ethan Wang, and costumes by Lin Ching-ju. It drew its movements from chi kung, internal martial arts, mediation and calligraphy. Wondering how calligraphy might inspire movement? Calligraphers balance the moves of their brush with heavy emphasis across the parchment and weightless transitions between strokes. Dancers of Water Stains on the Wallmimicked that with weighted meditation and flowing movement (which was also reminiscent of chi kung), and a transfer of concentrated energy from one part of the body to another or from one dancer to another.
Water Stains on the Wall told a simpler story rather than the symbolic history of Reflections, with a basic structure for the audience to “read.” Each dancer and their movements represented the individual characters of a sentence. The piece started with a solo, which made the work’s first “sentence.” Lin then added a dancer, creating a duet—the piece’s second sentence, and so on and so forth until the performance climaxed with eight dancers in complete unison. (All the while playing with combinations, such as having five dancers moving in unison, then breaking them in to a duet and a trio, then a solo and a quartet.) These “sentences” at the end of the piece told a beautiful story of simplicity and grace, energy and strength.
Haze was choreographed by Wang Yuanyuan, with music from Henryk Gorecki and Biosphere, sound design by Liu Bo, lighting by Han Jiang, set design by Tan Shaoyuan, and costumes by Zhong Jiani. The piece took on the current economic and environmental crises of the world. Given this larger emphasis, Wang was not drawing movement from any one specific culture. Similar to Water Stains on the Wall, there was no narrative in the work. The dancers balanced and performed on a foot-deep cushioned platform, dancing as if they were jumping on a mattress. The theme of unsteady times was reflected in the dancers’ every step and a weighted air manifested as a constant fog which filled the stage.
Based on these descriptions of the performances, there isn’t much that these works had in common. But where I thought I would find cultural similarities was where I instead found the heart of this post—how each of the choreographers chose to work with Chinese culture. Lee set her work squarely within Chinese culture and presented marital arts, both Chinese and Japanese practices without stylizing the movements to create a modern dance form. However, that is exactly what Lin did with his piece. He reinvented very specific concepts within Chinese culture, like calligraphy and chi kung, and in doing so he brought into being something new.
Wang could certainly have done the same with Haze. Not only because she was the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony choreographer (in which she utilized that knowledge to modernize various Chinese dances), but also that China is the subject of great environmental concern. But Wang chose instead to create a 70 minute piece completely free of specific cultural references, making the piece quite neutral and therefore international. In this way, it reflects the truth of the situation: the economic and environmental concerns are in fact global.
I offer as well that Wang was not looking inward towards Chinese culture because China also does not looking inward. China has instead chosen to position itself as a global power, defined through the international lens. Further similarities can be found in Lin’s pieces, as Taiwan’s tumultuous relationship with China is brought to the forefront: the piece was tethered to Chinese traditions, but worked to modernize them at the same time. As for Reflections, Lee’s family experiences portrayed in the piece also reflected the search of other Chinese Americans for a contemporary identity. Whether purposefully or not, the choreographers each projected the deeper undercurrents of their respective heritage.
I mentioned I was wrong, and I am glad of it. I wasn’t glad to find them different, they were bound to be, given the choreographers’ backgrounds and experiences. I was glad to have witness the three distinct approaches to the use of, or the purposeful disregard for, Chinese cultural influence in these three fairly new works. Not only did it provide a framework for my discussion, but also demonstrated the varied focuses our contemporaries take in the manipulation of culture, thereby moving us forward in time in these interesting and intersecting ways.
Assistant to the Director