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After dancing with five-inch fingernails in the Philippines and dodging scooters in Vietnam, Ashley Werhun of the Trey McIntyre Project shares her "surreal introduction" to China. Read on for a glimpse into her experiences with the students of Guangzhou Academy of Arts, eating super spicy food in Chengdu, and more.
A summer monsoon welcomed us to Guangzhou, China. Wandering under big umbrellas to drop off our laundry, we were amazed at the beautiful Chinese characters that lined the marquees of businesses. We ducked into a small teahouse to take cover from the warm rain. A young woman served rounds of Pu’er tea into saucers that were no bigger than the palm of our hands. She mindfully poured the water over the twig-like tea leaves in a rhythmic fashion, finishing with pouring excess water over small clay animals on her table, believing it would bring her teahouse good fortune. Soaked from the rain, learning about the art of the Chinese tea practice was a surreal introduction to this country.
In a trip to the Guangzhou Academy of Arts, I felt like I was transported back to my summers at the National Ballet of Canada: both had similar feelings of formality, dedication, and distinction. The government-funded school in Guangzhou chooses and grooms dancers from a very young age. In teaching a master class, I struggled to find major technical corrections—each of the young dancers was blessed with ballet facility. The hard-working students were open and quick to pick up choreography despite our language differences. When Benjamin Behrends (below) taught them some of TMP’s repertoire, they brightened and smiled. Fascinated by the music of Preservation Hall Jazz Band, they asked about where it came from.
The senior students were on a mixed bill with TMP at the Huang Hua Gang Theatre. Here, we observed the fruits that the strict discipline sowed. One piece, performed by students majoring in Traditional Chinese Folk Dance, was remarkable. Each young student, all of whom were the exact same height, wore long pink mermaid-like skirts. They waved their hips with strength, fully aware of their bodies, and oozed with a maturity beyond their years. Their lines were so precise, I felt like I was watching schools of fish swoosh seamlessly from formation to formation. It was an honor to share the stage with them.
Following our two days in Guangzhou, we traveled to Chengdu, which is in the Sichuan province, and is well known for its spicy foods—we were cautioned about the spicy food at our briefing in Washington D.C. last winter and again upon our arrival in Chengdu. Some of my fellow dancers described the heat of the food as “hitting you in the front of the mouth, numbing your lips.” Our hungry bellies ignored our numb lips and we dug into two traditional Sichuan meals graciously hosted for us. At the first dinner, a large "lazy susan" (as we call it in the U.S.) twirled around, letting us sample everything from rabbit to braised duck. The second was a formal 21-course meal hosted by the Sichuan Provincial People’s Friendship Association with Foreign Countries. In speech after speech, our hosts spoke about the relationship between China and the U.S. and their hopes that we would return. As I listened, my eyes welled up with gratitude (a pattern for me on this tour). I patted them dry, passing it off as a result of the Sichuan pepper.
Scattered on bright green Marley like lily pads on a lake, we finished tech rehearsal early and my fellow dancers and I were all stretching and talking. We had been told that lunch had arrived, but we were too tired or too engaged in conversation to move—these moments of community and connection that happen during international tours are beautiful. We were all just hanging out, not rushing to the next activity. No one was checking their text messages or shooting off emails. There were barely working toilets in the theater and we all laughed about squatting in our pointe shoes or our lost-in-translation moments. There was no lack of laughs among dancers on this trip.
But those still moments in rehearsal were followed by a show of surprises that night. Held in the Long Hu Theater at the Sichuan Normal University, our performance felt a little bit like a game show—hosting and broadcasting majors from the university made incredibly enthusiastic introduction speeches. That style of welcoming us extended to the pre-show announcement and eight speeches later, the curtain went up. During our In Dreams bows, we had an unexpected visitor on stage. I don't think the translation got through to his headphones quick enough as, much to our surprise, he walked onstage and began thanking us for our performance. We smiled and kept bowing; being attached to "how the show usually runs" is something that I've learned to let go of. Honoring our host country’s traditions and way of doing things is of the foremost importance. I've found that abandoning expectation works best and instead, I welcome each surprise as an opportunity to try something new.
Early mornings have been a regular thing on this tour, and we were ready for a 5:45 a.m. departure from our hotel. No sunrise in sight and tired-eyed, but still happy and positive, Trey McIntyre Project loaded into a bus and headed to the airport. Seoul, Korea, is the next and final stop on our DanceMotion USAsm tour.