An American in Guangzhou


Guangzhou, China is rarely a destination vacation-seekers have at the top of their list. Very few have the motivation to visit, let alone live there because, at first glance, it is seen as a massive import/export and manufacturing city with limited space, fresh air and western comforts. The challenges are exhausting when you have little to no language or cultural knowledge, and they only get worse before getting better once you move there. Doing something simple becomes the most daunting task. Add humidity and heat, and it feels like you’re preparing for battle every time you walk out of your air-conditioned apartment into the arms of your enemy: summer weather (that lasts nine months out of the year!). Armed with a city map, language dictionary, mosquito spray, toilet paper and water, I jumped into the unknown of one of China’s most dynamic cities and China’s first modern dance company, the Guangdong Modern Dance Company (GMDC).

I spent the first month or longer learning how to live in a new environment and culture. I ate a lot of “qie zi dou jiao,” or eggplant with green beans, because it was the only dish I knew how to say. I walked a lot because the bus signs are all in Chinese. And I swallowed my pride too often since I had to ask people over and over again how to do something simple or if they could translate for me. I had lost my independence, and language soon proved to be the biggest barrier between a comfortable versus a challenging life. Luckily, I’ve had one place of reprieve: the studio. Since moving to Guangzhou, it has been a place where people speak the same unspoken language and where I can always find the real me. If Guangzhou is a desert, GMDC is my oasis.

GMDC was founded in 1994 and has grown into a company that now works year round, creates new work or restages old pieces every three months, hosts an international dance festival every November, and tours both internationally and locally. The schedule is packed but the dancers never miss a beat. Most of the dancers have traditional or Chinese folk dance as their background, allowing their movements to be saturated with melodic, circular and powerful but soft energy. Most of them were sent away to study dance at age 11, knowing this would be their professional career in the future. Their high level of physical ability and command over their bodies was expected. What truly hooked me in and surprised me was the company dancer’s dynamic spirits. The more I learned the language, the more I learned about them and their dance; how they move from their “dan tian” (or core), how their history has influenced them in modern dance, and how open-minded, sensitive and intuitive they are even though they grew up living in a country with little insight into other parts of the world.

The company consists of 16 dancers; eight men and eight women who are all from different regions in China such as Sichuan, Hubei and Inner Mongolia to name a few. Each dancer has their own regional personality and dialect but rehearsals are all in Mandarin. In the beginning, this was as entertaining as it was exhausting because I had to guess what was going to happen next all the time. It was a constant improvisation in rehearsal with one participant, me, the only American and non-Chinese speaker. The others always knew what was happening until I guessed wrong and threw a curveball at them. We had to look and listen to each other’s bodies for seven hours a day, receiving cues and subtle hints. It didn’t take long to become familiar with each other but even now, after two years and several Chinese lessons, curiosity over ideas, movement and methods still exist. This keeps it interesting, challenging and sometimes frustrating. I know some of the dancers very well. However, this has come through dancing with them more than talking. As much as I miss the ease of getting to know someone back home who speaks the same language as me, I like the amount of time and careful process it takes to deeply know someone here, and it’s been helpful using this same process to get to know myself and my art more clearly.

For me, there’s no better time than now to witness this growing country and widening dance scene. The energy made from the newness, the excitement and the exploration of modern dance in China is potent and swift. More and more dancers are discovering it, and recently there has been a wave of freelance Chinese dancers creating quite excellent and clever work. I’ve become addicted to the vibrancy of the artists here, which is why I’ve endured two years of this upside down lifestyle. It sure is tiring but every bit rewarding.

Michele Wong