From the Inside Out: Dancing (Quietly) in China

By Emily Withenbury

The very first words I learned in Mandarin Chinese were “wu, liu, qi, ba.” This was December 2010 in a dance studio in Beijing, China. I learned these words so we could count our collaborating Chinese dancers in on the “5, 6, 7, 8.” Two weeks ago I took company class at this same studio complex with LDTX, one of the top three modern dance companies in China. It wasn’t until the very end of barre that I realized I’d been counting the combinations in my head in Mandarin the entire time.

I grew up in a town of 9,500 people in the heart of Illinois, between infinite cornfields and the Mississippi River. To the best of my recollection, there were no Asian students in my high school. However, accomplishments in my family were almost always marked with a celebratory dinner out at the local Chinese restaurant, a pseudo-authentic place that frequently changed owners but never the décor – or CD. Fast forward a few years and now I can tell you the difference between a customary dish in Shenzhen (an industrial city in the very south of China) and food from Jilin (one of the provinces in the Northeast). I can describe flavors typical to cooking in Beijing, in Shanghai, and in Hong Kong. And I can assure you none of it tastes like American Chinese food, and you never get a fortune cookie.

In August 2010 I started dancing with Philein/ZiRu Productions, a multi-media dance production company based in the Bay Area with a mission to build a cultural bridge between the United States and China through artistic collaborations. Since then I have toured to China four times, performing, teaching, and participating in workshops at a variety of venues. I have friends in China now – people I write to, share inside jokes with, and look forward to seeing “next time.” It’s an artistically- and culturally-eye opening opportunity I’m eternally thankful to have received.


On the streets of Beijing: December, 2010

Most recently, I returned from a tour two weeks ago where ZiRu Productions participated in the Beijing Modern Dance Festival, sharing the stage with a Canadian dance company. We were billed as the representatives for modern dance in North America. A bit sweeping? Yes. However, for a country with only three government-recognized (i.e. funded) modern dance companies, it was said with genuine intentions.

China’s artistic landscape for dance centers on classical ballet companies and movement troupes for traditional Peking Opera productions. If it weren’t for Willy Tsao, modern/contemporary dance would not have a foothold in China. This remarkable man founded and variously directed all three modern dance companies at the forefront of the Chinese modern dance scene: Beijing Dance / LDTX (Beijing, China), Guangdong Modern Dance Company (Guangzhou, China), and City Contemporary Dance Company (Hong Kong).

He radiates energy and compassionate enthusiasm, sitting as a kind beacon of artistic light at the helm of what he’s helped create. He was present at every single performance of the two-week Beijing Modern Dance Festival, articulately welcoming each night’s audience in Mandarin and English and leading each international panel of artistic directors through engaging question and answer sessions. And after every single performance? He took all involved artists out to a celebratory dinner at a local (Chinese) restaurant. Maybe it’s my upbringing, but I applaud his approach, his sincerity, and his dedication to this global vision.

LDTX dancer warming up in the early morning light: December, 2010

When we weren’t dining out with local Chinese dance celebrities, we spent a majority our time in the studio. We were working with Liu Yi Feng, an independent choreographer and dancer with LDTX in Beijing, on a new piece for our home season in San Francisco in October. We rehearsed at The East Rainbow, a small studio on the top floor of a blank, industrial building near a shopping plaza in Eastern Beijing.

Strange green Marley, peeling gaffers tape, a remarkably “hilly” dance floor, and the suffocating heat and smog that seeped in through the window panes did nothing to deter our focus. We were all eyes and all ears for Yi Feng. You could have heard a pin drop every time he spoke one of his five English words: “Begin,” “End,” “Water,” “Slow,” and “Yes.” I have never gone through a creative process with so little speaking and so much understanding.

The piece is nothing special in terms of structure. It uses a standard “solo versus group” dichotomy, exploring ways in which the group can speak one idea and the soloist can either underscore or deviate from this patterning. What was fascinating was the way in which he addressed the concepts of solo and group.

After watching one run of the piece, Yi Feng dismissed us with “Water” – our cue to take a break and get a drink. He sat quietly in the corner for a long time, thinking and looking down at the floor. In time, he called us back and showed us his mobile phone screen. He’d used a translation app to get a point across that he couldn’t convey in his five English words. The English translation said “From the inside out. Quiet. Like water.”

In successive runs of the piece, the concept of quiet kept coming up. We worked more and more quietly, like a shower of pins dropped in a room filled with cotton, and we still got the note “quiet.”

“What does it mean?” we asked each other at nights in the hotel room.

Emily Withenbury in “Zero Hour” at Lan Tian Theater in Beijing: December, 2011

I’ve been reading a book called China Wakes, a collection of articles by the husband and wife team Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. They won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing. After 11 years living in Beijing as American journalists, they have extensive first-hand knowledge of the struggles China faces to both modernize and pay homage to its vibrant (and violent) past. In an article titled “What Kind of Chinese Are You, Anyway?” WuDunn writes:

“Confucius never emphasized the individual but rather the individual’s obligation to fit into the larger scheme of things, and that has had a profound influence on the Chinese nation. When Western artists were producing masterpieces like the
Mona Lisa or The Night Watch, Chinese artists were painting magnificent scrolls in which the humans were just specks, like a tiny monk observing a huge waterfall. How will China accommodate the monk’s aspirations and ambitions today?”

In translating this example of the waterfall to the contemporary dance world, an American choreographer might choose to create a soundscape of a waterfall or collect images of water falling as a projected backdrop to the work itself. In the foreground, a dancer would move in response and in relationship to these supplementary materials.

On the other hand, a Chinese artist would dance within the waterfall itself, allowing the echoes and impressions of the water to dictate the dance. Whether metaphorically or literally, there would be no distinction between the waterfall and the dancer. In this example, the American choreographer remains concerned about the “I” in the scene. “Where am I in relationship to this waterfall?” The Chinese dancer simply loses himself in the water.

Which is better? What a great American question! Such is our attempt to place one above the other in an artistic value system. My Chinese answer? Both. Both are needed for balance.

A better question: “What does this mean?”, a la a Beijing hotel room and four tired American dancers. Perhaps Yi Feng’s repetitive request for “quiet” suggests that we were too loud as individuals. In our attempts to “get it right,” we weren’t able to hear each other and we couldn’t hear the true initiation of the impulse from within. We weren’t truly soloing, and we weren’t effectively dancing together.

In order to do both successfully, I think American dancers can benefit from a deeper understanding of unison movement. The San Francisco dance community does an incredibly profound and satisfying job of exploring the solo artist, the individual voice. But how can we find this same satisfaction and integrity in collective movement?

It boils down to how the choreographer approaches the concept of unison movement, choosing either to guide the dancer into the waterfall itself or just in front of / on top of the structure.

The choreographer and dancers’ commitment to explore ideas and movement from the inside out gives a certain weight to the structure that can’t be mimicked or faked. If all the dancers in a piece are able to study the movement in the same way and place the same sort of internalized value on the work, the resulting shapes will fill in remarkably similar shadows.

The collective voice can be as strong of a tool for delivery as the most gut-wrenching, soul-baring solo. For both to achieve success, they must initiate from the same place: from the inside out.

Dancing on the Great Wall: December, 2011

Photos courtesy Emily Withenbury

Referenced in article:
WuDunn, Sheryl. “What Kind of Chinese Are You, Anyway?” China Wakes. Ed. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. New York: Times Books, 1994. 56.

One Response to “From the Inside Out: Dancing (Quietly) in China”

  1. Anonymous

    Awesome post Em!!! So eloquently written, it was very moving and gave me the chills 🙂

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