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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."
When Rachel Hamrick was in the corps of Universal Ballet in Seoul, her determination to strengthen her flexibility turned into a side hobby that would eventually land her a new career. "I was in La Bayadere for the first time, and I was the first girl out for that arabesque sequence in The Kingdom of the Shades," she says. "I had the flexibility, but I was wobbly because I wasn't stretching in the right way. That's when I first started playing around with the idea of the Flexistretcher. It was tied together then, so it was definitely more makeshift," she says with a laugh, "But I trained with it to help me get the correct alignment so that I would have the strength to sustain the whole act."
Now, Hamrick is running her own business, complete with an ever-growing product line and her FLX training method—all because of her initial need to make it through 38 arabesques.
For the new Broadway season, Ellenore Scott has scored two associate choreographer gigs: For Head Over Heels, which starts previews June 23, Scott is working with choreographer Spencer Liff on an original musical mashing up The Go-Go's punk-rock hits with a narrative based on Sir Philip Sidney's 1590 book, Arcadia. Four days after that show opens, she'll head into rehearsals for this fall's King Kong, collaborating with director/choreographer Drew McOnie and a 20-foot gorilla.
Scott gave us the inside scoop about Head Over Heels, the craziness of her freelance hustle and the most surprising element of working on Broadway.
Dance in movies is a trend as old as time. Movies like The Red Shoes and Singin' in the Rain paved the way for Black Swan and La La Land; dancing stars like Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers led the way for Channing Tatum and Julianne Hough.
Lucky for us, some of Hollywood's most incredible dance scenes have been compiled into this amazing montage, featuring close to 300 films in only seven minutes. So grab the popcorn, cozy on up, and watch the moves that made the movies.
Broadway musicals have been on my mind for more than half a century. I discovered them in grade school, not in a theater but electronically. On the radio, every weeknight an otherwise boring local station would play a cast album in its entirety; on television, periodically Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show would feature an excerpt from the latest hit—numbers from Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Camelot, Flower Drum Song.
But theater lives in the here and now, and I was in middle school when I attended my first Broadway musical, Gypsy—based, of all things, on the early life of the famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. I didn't know who Jerome Robbins was, but I recognized genius when I saw it—kids morphing into adults as a dance number progresses, hilarious stripping routines, a pas de deux giving concrete shape to the romantic yearnings of an ugly duckling. It proved the birth of a lifelong habit, indulged for the last 18 years in the pages of this magazine. But all long runs eventually end, and it's time to say good-bye to the "On Broadway" column. It's not the last of our Broadway coverage—there's too much great work being created and performed, and you can count on hearing from me in print and online.
If you want to know how scary the AIDS epidemic was in the 1980s, come see Ishmael Houston-Jones' piece THEM from 1986. This piece reveals the subterranean fears that crept into gay relationships at the time. Houston-Jones is one of downtown's great improvisers, and his six dancers also improvise in response to his suggestions. With Chris Cochrane's edgy guitar riffs and Dennis Cooper's ominous text, there's an unpredictable, near-creepy but epic quality to THEM.
What is the right flooring system for us?
So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.
This time last year, Catherine Conley was already living a ballet dancer's dream. After an exchange between her home ballet school in Chicago and the Cuban National Ballet School in Havana, she'd been invited to train in Cuba full-time. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and one that was nearly unheard of for an American dancer. Now, though, Conley has even more exciting news: She's a full-fledged member of the National Ballet of Cuba's corps de ballet.
"In the school there were other foreigners, but in the company I'm the only foreigner—not just the only American, but the only non-Cuban," Conley says. But she doesn't feel like an outsider, or like a dancer embarking on a historic journey. "Nobody makes me feel different. They treat me as one of them," she says. Conley has become fluent in Spanish, and Cuba has come to feel like home. "The other day I was watching a movie that was dubbed in Spanish, and I understand absolutely everything now," she says.
Chantel Aguirre may call sunny Los Angeles home, but the Shaping Sound company member and NUVO faculty member spends more time in the air, on a tour bus or in a convention ballroom than she does in the City of Angels.
Aguirre, who is married to fellow Shaping Sound member Michael Keefe, generally only spends one week per month at home. "When I'm not working, I'm exploring," Aguirre says. "Michael and I are total travel junkies."
Akram Khan and Florence Welch (of Florence + The Machine) is not a pairing we ever would have dreamt up. But now that the music video for "Big God" has dropped, with choreography attributed to Khan and Welch, it seems that we just weren't dreaming big enough.
In the video, Welch leads a group of women standing in an eerily reflective pool of water. They seem untouchable, until they begin shedding their colorful veils, movements morphing to become animalistic and aggressive as the song progresses.
Savannah Lowery is about as well acquainted with the inner workings of a hospital as she is with the intricate footwork of Dewdrop.
As a child, the former New York City Ballet soloist would roam the hospital where her parents worked, pushing buttons and probably getting into too much trouble, she says. While other girls her age were clad in tutus playing ballerina, she was playing doctor.
"It just felt like home. I think it made me not scared of medicine, not scared of a hospital," she says. "I thought it was fascinating what they did."
It can be hard to focus when Alice Sheppard dances.
Her recent sold-out run of DESCENT at New York Live Arts, for instance, offered a constellation of stimulation. Onstage was a large architectural ramp with an assortment of peaks and planes. There was an intricate lighting and projection design. There was a musical score that unfolded like an epic poem. There was a live score too: the sounds of Sheppard and fellow dancer Laurel Lawson's bodies interacting with the surfaces beneath them.
And there were wheelchairs. But if you think the wheelchairs are the center of this work, you're missing something vital about what Sheppard creates.
A Jellicle Ball is coming to the big screen, with the unlikeliest of dancemakers on tap to choreograph.
We'll give you some hints: His choreography can aptly be described as "animalistic," though Jellicle cats have never come to mind specifically when watching his hyper-physical work. He's worked on movies before—even one about Beasts. And though contemporary ballet is his genre of choice, his choreography is certainly theatrical enough to lend itself to a musical.