About 50 performers will take the stage when the Beijing Dance Company brings a program of classical Chinese dance fused with vibrant, cutting-edge new works to four U.S. cities during an 11-performance tour this November.
Tour dates include November 12 and 13 at John Hancock Hall in Boston, November 15 at Byham Theater in Pittsburgh, November 17 to 19 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, and November 23, 25, and 26 at Lincoln Center in New York City.
The show features the choreography of Zhang Jianmin (House of the Flying Daggers, The Butterfly Lovers), as well as Chen Weiya’s classic Emperor Qin’s Soldiers. Founded in 1954, the Beijing Dance Academy, home to the Beijing Dance Company, has trained generations of professional dancers in traditional Chinese classical dance and contemporary works.
For details, visit http://www.beijingdance.com/.
The Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company will present director Chen’s Dragons on the Wall (Tianji), which unites dance, poetry, calligraphy, and music, on May 13 to 15 at Dance Theater Workshop, 219 West 19th Street, New York City.
A native of Taiwan, Chen was inspired by the exquisite art of Chinese calligraphy. Collaborating artists include poet Bei Dao and Joan La Barbara, who wrote an original score for the piece.
Chen named the dance after the mythical Dragon, which symbolizes power and tremendous energy. Dao added the Chinese name Tianji, referring to the mysterious force which controls the outcome of human events.
Tickets are $25 ($15 for students and seniors) and can be reserved at 212.924.0077 or at www.dancetheaterworkshop.org.
University at Buffalo students overcome cultural obstacles to learn Chinese dance
By Jeanne Fornarola and Laura Neese
Imagine taking a dance class from a Chinese teacher who speaks no English. No problem, right? Dancers communicate nonverbally through movement and verbally through the unique language of dance. They speak a bit of French—tendu, degagé, relevé—and respond with the appropriate movement when cued with universal terms like pirouette en dehors. But what happens when you move beyond the classroom to choreography, where the movement might move beyond the standard dance vocabulary, and when the language is truly foreign and the music is unfamiliar in tone, pitch, and instrumentation?
Nine college dance majors from the University at Buffalo (UB) can testify to the challenges and joys of overcoming these obstacles when they were invited to collaborate with the Department of Asian Studies to perform at the grand opening of the new campus Confucius Center. They would study and rehearse with guest artist in residence Xingqiong He of the Chengdu Musical Theater Troupe.
Pre-production began by casting dancers not only for their technical proficiency but also for their ability to be generous in spirit, friendly, creative, and adapt quickly to new ideas and situations. Detailed information about the dancers, including body measurements and personal information such as coloring, handedness, and shoe size, was sent to costume designers in China. Ten weeks later the curtain rose to reveal the ensemble dressed in elaborate traditional Chinese costumes and dancers who performed flawlessly.
The journey to perfection was preceded by hours in the studio sprinkled with trial and error, frustration and laughter as “Ms. He” and the dancers forged their way through the rehearsal process. Quickly, the verbal language barrier morphed into the secret code of nonverbal communication known as dance.
In the following paragraphs, senior dance major Laura Neese shares her thoughts on the process and product of this unique experience.
Laura Neese shares her experience
Before we met Xingqiong He and as the first rehearsal drew closer, the cast members shared glances and words of excitement. We couldn’t wait to meet this international choreographer whose resume we had studied on our computer screens and whose full name we couldn’t pronounce.
Our first impression of Ms. He was that she was a tiny lady who could speak a mile a minute in a tongue we couldn’t understand and twist her body in ways we didn’t think possible. During our first meeting, we watched videos of the dances we would be learning, with a mixture of excitement and intimidation. The dancers moved precisely and clearly, and in one of the pieces, extremely fast. How were we American-trained dancers, with very different technical and cultural backgrounds, going to be able to embrace and perform the foreign vernacular movements convincingly?
And so we began with basics and learned to walk in “Chinese.” We practiced walking heel to toe, one foot in front of the other like tightrope walkers, and soon learned that every dance contained this basic walk.
“Ms. He had very high expectations for us and challenged us in every rehearsal,” says senior dance major Angela Todaro. “The choreography was intricate, with detailed attention to shoulder, hand, and finger placement and pointed and flexed feet.”
The first few rehearsals were frustratingly inefficient for both choreographer and cast due to consistent misunderstanding and dependence on translators. Although Ms. He did not speak much English, she could certainly say “no” and “wrong.” She would indicate a movement such as “lift your leg next to your ear, no hands, and hold it” and laugh (good-naturedly, of course) at our attempts. We weren’t exactly Chinese acrobats.
“It was amazing how much we bonded with and [came to] understand someone we could not understand at all using words.” —Tiffini DeNinis
At times Ms. He would become upset when we did not understand or execute a movement correctly. Helping us communicate during rehearsals were Sakura Lin, a freshman theater student who is semi-fluent in Mandarin, and Lan Zhang, a local Chinese-American dancer. But as we became more familiar with one another, the dancers began to understand what Ms. He was asking, despite comprehending almost nothing of what she said.
Ms. He’s ability to contextualize other traditional Eastern movements in familiar ballet terms was very helpful for our Western brains and bodies. She would raise rounded arms above her head in fifth position and say, “Ballet.” Then she would flip her palms upward, bend her elbows, and say, “Chinese.” Her pointed, turned-out foot would shift into a flexed, parallel position, and so on.
One of the biggest movement challenges was learning how to use a Chinese fan. The dance To Study involved opening and closing fans that sported specific characters on either side, which had to be shown at precise times. Early in the rehearsal process, Ms. He whipped open a fan with the correct character facing out, spun it, and closed it with one hand. We were struggling to pry our fans open with two. She gave each dancer a fan to practice with at home to the point of mastery. Ms. He would accept no less.
Soon we could communicate through key English phrases, gestures, and facial expressions. We joked that we were beginning to speak Mandarin very well! Ms. He began to know us individually and we developed a friendly relationship. Bouts of laughter were the norm during rehearsals. “[Communicating] was a challenge, but it forced all of us to work as a team to figure out how to respond to Ms. He,” says junior dance major Tiffini DeNinis. “It was amazing how much we bonded with and [came to] understand someone we could not understand at all using words. This was a very important and positive experience that I was lucky to be a part of.”
Ms. He’s vivid, theatrical explanations of the themes and characters of each dance helped us connect with each role to draw out the right performance quality. In the dance Come Catch Me Brother, we took on roles of flirting young men and women in the countryside. Ms. He dramatically demonstrated the roles: dainty, high-pitched girls and deep-voiced, grounded, mischievous boys. She eased us into character through laughter and then said, “Go.” The seemingly impossible phrasing and clarity of movement came with better understanding of characters and lots of practice.
Our technical advancement improved exponentially and surprisingly quickly as we developed a bond with our choreographer. Within only a few weeks, we could understand Ms. He’s pidgin mixture of Mandarin, broken English, and gesture even before our translators reiterated it.
On the day of the performance we were thrilled to don our beautiful custom-made costumes and share what we had worked so hard to learn with dignitaries from the University at Buffalo, the City of Buffalo, and Capital Normal University in Beijing. During tech rehearsals, guest artists and performing-arts students from Capital Normal joined us. As we warmed up together, they helped us refine our Mongolian port de bras.
After the performance, we were sad to see our collaboration end. Ms. He gave each of us a piece of paper with “Practice makes perfect” written on it in Mandarin and English. She encouraged us to contact her if we’re ever in China, and we hope to take her up on the offer someday. —LN
Breaking down barriers
The study of cultural dance promotes understanding of the world. With that broadened perspective, students view diversity through a wider lens and embrace differences through the commonalities of their art form. Because of this project at UB, Dr. Eric Yang, executive director of the University at Buffalo Confucius Center, invited students Sally Mementowski and John Kasten to perform in China, and Brittany Whitford and Laura Neese chose to study abroad at Chichester University in Chichester, England.
Intercultural communication through the arts can facilitate acceptance and understanding, one tendu at a time.
The Chinese grand dance-drama, Forbidden Fruit Under the Great Wall, will be performed by the China Shanxi Performing Arts Academy when the company opens its first U.S. tour at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington D.C., December 10 to 12.
Forbidden Fruit Under the Great Wall is directed by Zhang Jigang, a deputy director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. The dance-drama tells the story of the prosperous Yin family whose master dies, leaving behind an ailing widow and disabled son. The butler schemes to steal the family fortune by arranging a marriage between the Yin boy and a maidservant, his own daughter, Wild Jujube. The kind-hearted Jujube has already pledged her love to a young farmhand, but her father’s intervention turns their devotion into a love story with a tragic end.
Tickets are $30 to $75. For information or tickets, visit www.kennedycenter.org or call 800.444.1324.
Graduates and undergraduates at the University of California, Berkeley, are invited to meet with scholars who specialize in East Asian performance studies in a two-hour seminar starting at noon Friday, September 10, in Dwinelle Annex 126.
The invited experts are Naomi Inata, a Japanese dance scholar and critic; Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak, a Chinese dance theater scholar, director, and performer; Mariko Okada, a Japanese dance and geisha culture scholar; and Dongil Lee, a South Korean dance and theater scholar and director.
The scholars will discuss their approaches, methodologies, and tactics for both historical and contemporary performance research. They will also talk about their own directing, choreography, and adaptation projects. To register, visit firstname.lastname@example.org by Wednesday, September 8, though drop-ins are welcome.
This event is the beginning of a weekend conference, “Corporeal Nationalisms: Dance and the State in East Asia,” with presentations, roundtables, film showings, and dance workshops in Kabuki dance, classical Chinese dance, butoh, and Korean dance forms. For the full program and schedule, visit
The Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company has a couple of New Jersey performances lined up in February. It will perform as part of a Chinese New Year celebration at 2:00 P.M. February 13 and 14 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Victoria Theater in Newark, and at 3:00 P.M. February 28 at the Millstone Township Performing Arts Center.
The company’s dances, according to its website, “fuse the dynamic freedom of American modern dance with the grace and splendor of Asian art.” Nai-Ni Chen, who founded the troupe in 1988, was born in Taiwan, where she studied traditional Chinese dance. She later studied choreography at New York University with Doris Rudko and worked with Mary Anthony and Bertram Ross.
For more information, visit www.nainichen.org
Chinese dance education links North America to Asian culture
By Nancy Wozny
Dance is uniquely empowered to carry the nuances of a culture. For the millions of Chinese people living in the United States and Canada today, dance can be a way to maintain ties to the homeland. Often parents want their children to embrace their culture, and dance can be a potent way to do just that. The landscape of cities with large Asian populations is dotted with studios that offer serious study in folk and classical forms of Chinese dance.
Running a Chinese dance program comes with a unique set of challenges. Typically, academic achievement ranks high on the list of Chinese parents’ priorities, which often limits time in the dance studio to once a week. But that achievement factor also spills over into dance. It’s not unusual to find that even once-a-week students (and their parents) take their commitments seriously, arriving on time, dressed appropriately, and ready to learn. Pride in cultural knowledge is equally high, and parents expect a lot to happen in a short amount of time. They also want the best quality and the best prices. However, teachers can also expect to experience respect for their authority.
Houston is home to several Chinese dance companies and schools. Mitsi Dancing School has an eye-catching sign that reads “Ballet, Tap, Jazz, and Chinese Dance” in both English and Chinese. (Street signs in this part of Houston are also written in both languages.) Inside, the walls are graced with photos of Chinese contemporary teachers and dancers, with bios in both languages. Competition trophies and plaques testify that the studio straddles two worlds, the ancient Chinese one and the everyday one of a typical dance studio.
Mitsi Shen started Mitsi Dancing School in 1984, three years after she arrived in Houston from Beijing. In between she earned the gold medal at the National Dance Fever Competition in 1983. As a former principal dancer and teacher in the Shanghai Dance Troupe, she was already a respected name in dance. The seeds for her migration from Beijing to Houston were planted when she met Ben Stevenson, then the artistic director of Houston Ballet, who was in China teaching. The experience put Houston on the dance map for her, so much so that she named her daughter (and assistant director of the studio), Janie Yao, after HB former principal dancer Janie Parker. Shen also knew that Houston was home to a large Chinese population, possibly in need of expert dance education. “For a long time China closed the doors on Western companies so we could not see anything,” she says. “We were trained only by Russians.” Watching the Houston Ballet dancers opened her eyes. “They were so graceful,” recalls Shen.
Shen realized that dance would be the perfect way for children of Chinese parents to learn about their culture. More and more of her friends said they wanted some form of cultural education for their children. “It was an opportunity for me to share my knowledge of Chinese dance and ballet,” says Shen. “They wanted to learn and I wanted to teach.”
Eventually the studio expanded to three locations, with students from Cambodia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Shen and her teachers speak both Chinese and English in class because the languages spoken in the students’ homes vary. “Parents tend to speak Chinese to their children,” says Shen. Some students attend once a week for Chinese dance while others stay for ballet and jazz. The annual recital is a combination of jazz, ballet, modern, and Chinese dance. Shen set up her program to be flexible. “We urge our students to study jazz and ballet,” she says, “but we understand when they cannot commit to the time.” The warm-ups for the Chinese dances are designed to introduce the themes and qualities of each dance, and the students learn to use fans, hats, and scarves as appropriate.
Most of the Chinese people in the United States are from the Han region, whose people make up the largest component (around 91 percent) of the 56 ethnic groups in China. Dances from the various regions differ widely and often dramatically, depending on the climate and the landscape. In the hot southern region the movements tend to be small and delicate; in Mongolia, where there are vast grasslands, broad movements are characteristic. “In Tibetan dance you see a lot of bouncing in the knees,” says Shen. “That’s because the people need to walk up and down mountains.”
Yao, well known in Houston’s Asian community as a cultural leader and director of high-quality performances, is a certified teacher of the Beijing Dance Academy Chinese Dance Syllabus, which the Mitsi faculty uses. She earned a BFA in dance performance from Southern Methodist University and founded the studio’s professional company, Dance of Asian America, whose members include the top students and guest artists from China. Yao and her mother travel to China to see the top choreographers and teachers, many of whom they bring back to perform with the studio company and teach master classes. “Dance is exploding in China right now,” says Yao, who is determined to educate audiences in the nuances of her art form. “Most people still think dragons and fans when it comes to Chinese dance. It’s so much richer than that, and most dancers in China today have extensive training in ballet.”
Mitsi Shen realized that dance would be the perfect way for children of Chinese parents to learn about their culture. ‘It was an opportunity for me to share my knowledge of Chinese dance and ballet,’ she says.
In Canada, Lorita Leung of Vancouver trains students in Chinese dance and ballet. Lorita Leung Dance Academy was the first dance studio in North America to use the acclaimed Beijing syllabus, which covers classical dance forms plus national and folk dances—Han, Tibetan, Mongolian, Uyger, Korean, Tai, Miao, and Yi, to name a few. The dancing includes the use of props such as fans, ribbons, scarves, sleeves, swords, bows, handkerchiefs, and hats. Students must pass yearly examinations given by a visiting teacher in order to advance to the next level. Leung stresses how important it is for Chinese children to learn about their culture. “Each dance has its own story,” she says.
Leung danced professionally in China and Korea, then moved to Hong Kong during the 1960s, where she choreographed and taught in the movie industry. “I was gone during the entire Mao regime,” she says, noting the destruction wrought on her culture’s arts during that time. In 1970 she started a school in her home to serve Vancouver’s growing Asian population; some 36 years later it is one of Canada’s top schools.
The studio serves Canadian-born students of Chinese heritage, some of whom are second or third generation, as well as new immigrants who want to continue their training. Adhering to the syllabus makes it easy for them to start where they left off, and vice versa for students returning to China. All of her Chinese dance teachers are certified and stay current with updates on the training. Using the syllabus is often an economic hardship, since some years only a few students might be at a certain level. The class goes forward anyway, to meet the standards of the syllabus.
Many of Leung’s students speak several languages, including Mandarin and Chinese; those who aren’t fluent pick up some language skills in the multilingual classes. The studio also houses a semiprofessional dance company that performs throughout Vancouver. In addition, Leung runs a biennial Chinese dance competition, which draws dancers from Canada and the States. “We do things differently,” says Leung. “We bring in teachers from China, from the ministry of dance. The kids learn a lot. It’s a chance to exchange ideas, and that’s how we get better.”
Leung has turned over the day-to-day operation of the studio to her daughter, Jessica Jone, who currently serves as vice principal and also runs Moving Dragon, a company that fuses contemporary and Chinese dance. Jone, who is first-generation Chinese on her mother’s side and fourth generation on her father’s, is well versed in Chinese, ballet, and modern dance. “Dance provides a direct link to culture. Some of our students know more about Chinese culture than their third- and fourth-generation parents,” she says. Jone voices concerns about her students’ level of commitment, with all their extracurricular academic activities. “It makes it hard for us. We would love for them to come two and three times a week. The majority of parents are not prepared for that commitment,” she says.
Some teachers want to focus only on Chinese dance. Hwee-Eng Lee has found success by narrowing her offerings, although she is trained in jazz, ballet, and modern dance. A native of Singapore, Lee began her dance training in ballet, adding Chinese dance later. A graduate of Boston College, she taught ballet at State University of New York in Cortland. She houses her school at the Chinese Cultural Center in Chamblee, GA, an area near Atlanta where one can find all things Chinese. It’s a frequent destination for Asian Americans. “This is a great location for me. It makes it easy for the parents,” says Lee. “They can go grocery shopping or take another child to his Chinese language classes.
She started her school in 1986, offering classes for ages 5 to adult and teaching in English because some of her students do not speak Chinese. “I have to be careful not to discourage the children; the dance is the most important part,” says Lee. All of her children perform, especially during Chinese New Year. Lee especially enjoys teaching the Chinese-born students who have been adopted by non-Chinese parents. She is grateful for the opportunity to help these children fill in the missing pieces of their history. “These parents care so deeply that their children learn about their culture.” In 1991 Lee founded the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company, which performed in the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games.
Although Lee is well acquainted with the Beijing syllabus, she prefers to design her own program, which covers folk and classical forms from several regions. Given the changes in dance in China—better training in ballet and acrobatics; Western-influenced choreography; and flourishing dance competitions—Lee worries about how well traditional forms are being preserved. She does her best to provide a thorough education in that one hour per week she teaches the children. “I give an overall education,” says Lee. “I want it to be more about the techniques than the examinations. For my students it’s not just about learning about their culture; it’s also a time to socialize.” She adds, “I encourage my students to study ballet to strengthen their technique. My advanced students study ballet outside of my school.”
These three studios, along with many others across North America, are doing their part to pass along the beauty, history, and stunning variety of Chinese culture through dance. Take a look at the dance events in your community—a 5,000-year-old dance may be happening at a studio near you.