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The Hidden Political Messages Behind Chinese Dance Theater Like Shen Yun
Lunar New Year brings celebratory Chinese dragons, drums and dance to the streets and stage. But throughout the year, Chinese dance-theater productions have become a frequent presence on American stages. In New York City, the visits are so regular the Chinese seem to outpace dance from much closer nations.
Behind the frequency is a cultural-diplomacy effort designed to increase trust and understanding. What's unclear, though, is whether or not contemporary Chinese creative output is actually reaching a diverse group of Americans. Ironically, the New York-based dissent group Shen Yun may be reaching a broader audience—with a message opposed to the Chinese regime.
China's official cultural efforts have been ongoing for several years, says Shirley Young, who chairs the US-China Cultural Institute, Cultural Associate of the Committee of 100, a Chinese-American leadership resource.
"People-to-people and cultural exchange is critical to the diplomatic relationship between China and the U.S.," she said. "It's a national priority, and what comes with that is funding."
Dance, which presents no language barrier, "is an inherently apolitical way that China can project civility and sophistication," says Tom Doctoroff, author of "What Chinese Want" and an expert in branding and marketing in Asia.
The open question is how effective the efforts are.
In January, I attended both Shen Yun and the dance-drama Soaring Wings: Journey of the Crested Ibis, presented by China Arts and Entertainment Group's Image China, a cultural exchange initiative. Both were at Lincoln Center's Koch Theater.
In Soaring Wings, the performers from Shanghai Dance Theatre were clearly well-trained and the production created effective illusions, especially with bird-like costumes. But the man-versus-nature story—about the rediscovery of a bird thought to be extinct and the dehumanization of industrial society—had no pulse.
The audience was overwhelmingly Asian. Two parties of New York-based white women that I spoke with said they didn't know much about the show but liked the images in the advertising.
The audience looked similar back in August 2015, when Legend River Entertainment presented a dance play about Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning writer Pearl S. Buck, who grew up in China then lived as an adult in the U.S.
The production's wow-factor came from a river created on stage, but the story plodded through the facts of Buck's life in parallel with segments of a nature poem. Then, in a sharp shift, the finale was an unrelated scene promoting the global appreciation of children.
The flatness of the stories is not an accident. Only content deemed safe is going to be approved to go abroad, says Doctoroff, now a senior partner at Prophet, a global brand and marketing consultancy. "There will be no social commentary and no raciness."
By contrast, Shen Yun, the cultural arm of the spiritual and political group Falun Gong, presents a show with overt criticism of the Chinese government: Vignettes about their persecuted followers, one of whom is beaten by Communist thugs, are interspersed among dance numbers explaining Chinese historical style and costume.
In the nearly sold-out theater, all walks of life were present. My third-ring seat cost $80 (there are no press tickets or publicity office) and near me was a young white couple on a date, a solo Asian woman, a young sulking boy of no clear ethnicity (seated separately from his friends), a multi-generational black family and group of four or so middle-aged white women.
It was hardly a rally of supporters: People "oohed" and "ahhed" at the beauty and tradition of Chinese culture. They sat politely through the political messages. No trace of anything political is in their ads, which look roughly similar to that of Soaring Wings, with a beautiful dancer in a colorful costume.
While people may respond to ads for both Soaring Wings and Shen Yun, the latter audience is more mixed because its marketing is aggressive in the extreme. As one elderly white woman I spoke with afterward said, "You can't avoid it."
Shen Yun advertises on television, radio, outdoor spaces, subway cars—even in print—and with street teams. They also have the benefit of recurring tours.
Ad campaigns for the China-based productions, by contrast, gear up before the tour, but without the extreme canvassing of platforms.
"If the goal is to help Americans understand more about Chinese culture, they need to a do a better job of reaching the public, which they don't," says Young.
The key to connecting with Americans, she says, lies in collaborating or working more closely with established American presenters, venues or companies.
Young, a board member of the New York Philharmonic, points to the orchestra as uniquely effective in this effort: The Philharmonic is about to host its seventh Lunar New Year concert, a program that pairs American and Chinese music and talents. And it attracts both the Philharmonic regulars and Chinese music lovers.
"The goal was not to make it an event for the Chinese-American community, but to add them to the Philharmonic's audience," says Young.
Doctoroff points to the broad mix that gathered at Asia Society, the educational group that describes itself as "promoting mutual understanding" between Asia and the United States: "A lot of the events are at least 50-50."
Chinese presenters do know, says Young, that prestigious venues will at least give them the chance at attention. And because they can rent the Koch, they can be at Lincoln Center.
But there is one crucial element to a successful show that does not necessarily come with the use of any rented hall, said Young: "What you don't get is the audience."
Whether playing a saucy soubrette or an imperious swan, Irina Dvorovenko was always a formidable presence on the American Ballet Theatre stage. Since her 2013 retirement at 39, after 16 seasons, she's been bringing that intensity to an acting career in roles ranging from, well, Russian ballerinas to the Soviet-era newcomer she plays in the FX spy series "The Americans."
We caught up with her after tech rehearsal for the Encores! presentation of the musical Grand Hotel, directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes and running March 21–25 at New York City Center. It's another tempestuous ballerina role for Dvorovenko—Elizaveta Grushinskaya, on her seventh farewell tour, resentfully checks into the Berlin hostelry of the title with her entourage, only to fall for a handsome young baron and sing "Bonjour, Amour."
When Andrew Montgomery first saw the Las Vegas hit Le Rêve - The Dream 10 years ago, he knew he had to be a part of the show one day. Eight years later, he auditioned, and made it to the last round of cuts. On his way home, still waiting to hear whether he'd been cast, he was in a motorcycle accident that ended up costing him half his leg.
But Montgomery's story doesn't end the way you might think. Today, he's a cast member of Le Rêve, where he does acrobatics and aerial work, swims (yes, the show takes places in and around a large pool) and dances, all with his prosthetic leg.
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
A flock of polyamorous princes, a chorus of queer dying swans, a dominatrix witch: These are a few of the characters that populate the works of Katy Pyle, who, with her Brooklyn-based company Ballez, has been uprooting ballet's gender conventions since 2011.
Historically, ballet has not allowed for the expression of lesbian, transgender or gender-nonconforming identities. With Ballez, Pyle is reinventing the classical canon on more inclusive terms. Her work stems from a deep love of ballet and, at the same time, a frustration with its limits on acceptable body types and on the stories it traditionally tells.
The latest fitness fad has us literally buzzing. Vibrating tools—and exercise classes—promise added benefits to your typical workout and recovery routine, and they're only growing more popular.
Warning: These good vibrations don't come cheap.
My life is in complete chaos since my dance company disbanded. I have a day job, so money isn't the issue. It's the loss of my world that stings the most. What can I do?
—Lost Career, Washington, DC
Dance Theatre of Harlem is busy preparing for the company's Vision Gala on April 4. The works on the program, which takes place on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reflect on the legacy of Dr. King and his impact on company founder Arthur Mitchell. Among them is the much-anticipated revival of legendary choreographer Geoffrey Holder's Dougla, which will include live music and dancers from Collage Dance Collective.
We stepped into the studio with Holder's wife Carmen de Lavallade and son Leo Holder to hear what it feels like to keep Holder's legacy alive and what de Lavallade thinks of the recent rise in kids standing up against the government—as she did not too long ago.
The encounter with man-eating female creatures in Jerome Robbins' The Cage never fails to shock audiences. As this tribe of insects initiates the newly-born Novice into their community and prepares her for the attack of the male Intruders, the ballet draws us into a world of survival and instinct.
This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jerome Robbins' birth, and a number of Robbins programs are celebrating his timeless repertoire. But it especially feels like a prime moment to experience The Cage again. Several companies are performing it: San Francisco Ballet begins performances on March 20, followed by the English National Ballet in April and New York City Ballet in May.
Why it matters: In this time of female empowerment—as women are supporting one another in vocalizing injustices, demanding fair treatment and pay, and advocating for future generations—The Cage's nest of dominant women have new significance.