Meet Yabin Wang, The Coolest Chinese Choreographer You've Never Heard Of

Yabin Wang's The Moon Opera mixes traditional Chinese and contemporary dance. Photo by Wang Ning, Courtesy Pittsburgh Cultural Trust

Yabin Wang converts movement into liquid that spills across the stage. A celebrity in her home country of China, this choreographer, dancer and actress has helped to pioneer modern dance there by blending Chinese classical and contemporary dance. Wang's international career was kick-started in 2010 at American Dance Festival, where she returned this summer to perform on a shared program with Michelle Dorrance, Aparna Ramaswamy, Rhapsody James and Camille A. Brown. She has also worked with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui on Genesis and was commissioned by English National Ballet to create a piece for its Olivier Award–winning She Said program. This month, she is back stateside for the U.S. premiere of her Moon Opera, Nov. 3 in Pittsburgh.

Tell us about The Moon Opera.

There are three different storylines: The first is a play within a play, showing the main character longing to perform a lead role in the Peking opera; the dance vocabulary is traditional Chinese dance. The second is the character's daily life, with all the contradictions and challenges she lives through—modern and contemporary dance is used and the movements you see reflect the emotions and feelings from inside of the heart of her life. (This style is what I do most of the time now in my other works.) The third storyline is surrealistic—a dreamlike world is created with lighting, multimedia theatrics and shadow play.

Photo by Shi Chun Yang, Courtesy Wang

It's been performed 70 times worldwide since premiering in 2015. Why do you think it has had such universal appeal?

I created Moon Opera because I really loved the story—the production was adapted from Bi Feiyu's novel, The Moon Opera. I grew up seeing similar experiences to the main character amongst people around me. The themes are universal. It has a real connection with the way we live today. You have your career and your family, and you have to learn to balance those roles. Audiences love the show because they can relate to the story.

"You have your career and your family, and you have to learn to balance those roles," says Yabin Wang. Photo by Zhang Luoping, Courtesy Wang

What are you working on now?

My newest work is called An Individual Soliloquy, and it's a story about Kumārajīva, a Buddhist master living in the 4th century A.D. It premiered with Yabin & Her Friends in September in Beijing. I collaborated with a Japanese choreographer, Shintaro Hirahara. He is a rising star in Japan, full of energy and power, and we work well together. This new work is full of Eastern temperament.

What do you think is different about performing for U.S. audiences versus in China or elsewhere?

When we go to Europe and the U.S., audiences love our shows. But modern dance only began in China 80 years ago, with Madame Dai Ailian, a doyenne of dance in China, who performed in the 1930s and 1940s in London and New York. (Her modern dance training was mainly of the German Expressionist persuasion.) Even though modern dance has been in China for a while, not many people accepted the style initially, and preferred traditional dance. But now it's gaining popularity; more and more people like modern and contemporary dance styles, and, along with fellow Chinese contemporary choreographers like Shen Wei, Tao Ye, Wang Yuanyuan, I think I have had a role in making that happen.

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