Beijing's Gone Modern

January 25, 2009

The bustling city of Beijing is full of movement. Arms of calligraphers sweep delicate brushstrokes on the sun-drenched slate at the Temple of Heaven. Legs of cyclists pump their pedals as they speed down busy streets returning from the market with heaps of green onions. Even the red and gold lanterns that appear everywhere—from storefronts to archways on the street—seem to move with a syncopated sway.


Beijing’s modern dance scene is adding to the city’s rhythm. In a country known for its history, modern is not the first word that springs to mind. And yet modern dance here is alive—young, fresh, and refreshing. In less than three decades, China has broken ground with contemporary works that spring from traditional Chinese dance forms with new life.


For example, during the Booking Dance Festival Beijing (see sidebar, page 38) Fei Bo’s Kunqu Vision revealed the current appeal of modern dance in Beijing. A single spotlight pours down on a classically trained ballerina in a sculpted white dress. Her three male partners guide her through the space by braiding her long black hair, a familiar element of traditional Chinese ethnic dance. These performers represent China’s past, present, and future: Cao Shuci, a prima ballerina from the National Ballet of China; Yi Jie, a member of the China Er Pao Army Song and Dance Troupe; Li Xing, who performs with the People’s Liberation Army; and Fei Bo, who graduated from the Beijing Dance Academy for choreography, has studied traditional dance and now works with the National Ballet of China. What started as a gentle, sweet pas de quatre erupts, and the ballerina furiously dances in a tight space while the men sway back and forth under her spell. But a greater spell spreads across the stage when these four contemporary dancers are confronted with China’s long, elaborate history—a performer dressed in traditional Kunqu opera regalia slowly walks across the back of the stage, nodding to acknowledge the future of dance in China.


Fei (surnames come first in China) says about this work, “We draw on elements of Kunqu opera to discover a new kind of modern expression from an ancient culture.”

A Dance Scene Is Born
In Beijing—a city the size of Belgium, with a population of more than 17,000,000 (double that of New York)—there are a handful of modern and contemporary dance companies. Beijing is known as China’s cultural center, yet it wasn’t the first city to make its mark on Chinese modern dance.


Until 1980, modern dance had been banned in China. But as the Communist party began to loosen its grip and China became a more open society, the interest in modern dance began to grow. Willy Tsao, often called China’s father of modern dance, had studied modern in Tacoma, Washington, at Pacific Lutheran University. He returned to Hong Kong and formed its first modern dance group, the City Contemporary Dance Company, in 1979. (Tsao would go on to help form two more modern dance companies on China’s mainland.) Then, in 1986, Chiang Ching, a choreographer and actress, helped to set up a scholarship program for Chinese dancers to study at the American Dance Festival. Charles Reinhart, director of ADF, tells the story of Yang Mei-qi, one of the first scholarship recipients, who came to his office after a Limón class with Betty Jones: “She asked me, ‘Why do they fall on the ground?’ I thought, do I start telling her about fall and recovery? But instead I said to her, ‘Why not?’ The next day she came back and asked me to help build a modern dance program at her Guangdong Dance Academy.”


Through its Institutional Linkage Program (ILP), ADF sent American teachers to the Guangdong Dance Academy in Guangzhou, and the first graduating class became the Guangdong Modern Dance Company. The company had 18 members, including those who were proficient in ballet, Chinese folk, and classical dance. Among this class was Shen Wei, who moved to the U.S. 15 years ago and formed his own company, and was invited back to China last summer to choreograph for the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. His piece for 15 Chinese dancers created the effect of calligraphy on a huge canvas. The entire opening ceremony, directed by filmmaker Zhang Yimou, included 14,000 dancers and musicians.


In 1992, Beijing joined China’s modern dance revolution via the Beijing Dance Academy. Gao Yanjinzi was in the founding class of modern dance in Beijing. Her teachers, Wang Mei and Zhang Shou He, established the first choreography program at the Beijing Dance Academy. In 1995, Wang, Zhang, and the students of the class founded the Beijing Modern Dance Company. “When we left the academy, we could pull ourselves out of the training and discover our own voices,” says Gao. The first artistic director of BMDC was Jin Xing, a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army who trained at a Chinese military dance academy. Known as one of China’s best dancers, in ’96 he underwent a sex change operation and became one of the first transgendered women officially recognized by the Chinese government.


A few years later, Tsao took over for Jin Xing at BMDC. Now, Gao is the resident choreographer of the Beijing Modern Dance Company and her husband, Zhang Changcheng, is the director. “BMDC has been a platform for artists to develop their individual voices,” she says.

Modern Dance in Beijing Now
Currently, there are four major companies in Beijing. The Beijing Modern Dance Company is still housed in the Beijing Dance Academy and draws members from its graduates. The work is often a modernized abstraction, like Gao’s Oath, which includes traditional Chinese Opera costuming paired with expressive, modern choreography. BMDC is striving to build a fan base in its hometown. The company dubbed last year the Year of Modern Dance in Beijing, and performed monthly.  


Tsao broke away from BMDC in 2005 and formed Beijing Dance/LDTX. The company works with various choreographers, including Li Hanzhong and Ma Bo and Rolex protégé Sang Jijia (who has worked with William Forsythe’s company for four years). They tour frequently, and host an international dance festival in China each year.


The Living Dance Studio was formed in 1994 by Wen Hui, a graduate of the Beijing Dance Academy who has studied dance in New York. Her progressive works are known for their feminist subject matter, like Report on Giving Birth.


The fourth company is the National Ballet of China. Though in the U.S., we would hesitate to classify a ballet company as modern, “The company is always trying new things, including new forms of Chinese-influenced ballet and more contemporary ballet,” says Fei Bo. He attributes the contemporary explorations to artistic director Zhao Ruheng. Last summer in England the company performed both Swan Lake and the contemporary Raise the Red Lantern. The ballet, based on the 1991 movie of the same name, was directed by Zhang Yimou and then staged by him on National Ballet of China in 2002.


In China, works like Raise the Red Lantern are referred to as modern. The term “contemporary” refers to the army- style dance troupes, because contemporary indicates socialist China versus traditional China. The emphasis on this kind of dance is on the technical ability. Cao Shuci, principal in NBC, says she feels closer to the contemporary work that the company has done, including a ballet by Roland Petit set to Pink Floyd music and William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. “The expressions and exaggerated movements are more suited to our generation. It allows more freedom.” The company also recently collaborated with Akram Khan and his company in Bahok (“East and West Meet in the Body of Akram Khan,” Nov. 2008).


Newcomers are emerging, like Tao Ye, who studied Chinese folk dance, classical dance, and ballet and began his performing career with an army dance troupe. “The army dance troupe serves the government through the arts, by promoting ideas of strength, power, and collectivism,” says  Tao. “The companies perform all kinds of dance, even tap dance. The content of the pieces is about the wonderful relationship between the army and the people of China.”


He joined Jin Xing’s dance company, and later BMDC. After a few years he formed his own company. Tao Studio is only a year old, but Tao hopes to shake up the modern dance community. “Everyone is still looking for his or her voice. The Chinese modern dance environment isn’t mature; it’s still a baby.” He feels there is a lack of leadership. “There’s no needle poking through to lead the thread of dancers,” he says.


Gao says it will take time for audiences to get used to the work. “They don’t yet accept a different art form that is about individual expression. With 5,000 years of Chinese history, we’re dealing with a lot of baggage. It can’t become the mainstream that quickly.”

How Chinese Is Chinese Modern Dance?
“Your mother tongue will never leave you,” says Tsao. “But I consider modern dance a free form of art. It is about the individual.” Tsao says studying in the U.S. helped him formulate his ideas. “In America nobody asked me to be Chinese; they asked me to be myself.” Taking cues from the Chinese government is something he stays away from. “There’s a lot of propaganda.”


Dancer Wang Hao, who performs with Tao Studio and BMDC, says of Tao Ye’s piece, Double, which she performed during the Booking Festival, “The clothing has a very obvious traditional Chinese feel to it, but the movements themselves weren’t Chinese. The influence of Chinese dance on modern dance is from the environment that we’ve grown up in. Like a seed, with the soil around us having all these traditional elements, we’re absorbing from the environment. These elements will influence us. It’s a natural fusion.”


So where does modern dance in China go from here? Wang Hao is cautious. “I’m worried that modern dance will enter into this cage of limiting environment where people will say, ‘Your arms have to be here.’ But the purpose of modern dance is to say No.” However, she feels that as long as there is room to grow, “This interesting interaction between modern dance and China will create something new. Something great will come out of that set of contradictions.”


Emily Macel, an associate editor at
Dance Magazine, was a guest of Booking Dance Festival Beijing.


Photo: Simon Lim, Courtesy Booking Dance