The rise of China on the international contemporary dance scene

Yasen Vasilev looks back at last year’s 1st China Contemporary Dance Biennale in Shanghai and reflects on the opportunities and challenges facing contemporary dance and young dance artists in China.

At the end of August 2019, I attended the 1st China Contemporary Dance Biennale (中國當代舞蹈 雙年展) in Shanghai, invited by Shanghai International Dance Center Theater (SIDCT, 上海國際舞蹈中心劇場), as a representative of Aerowaves. It was an emotional moment to be back in the city in a professional capacity four years after I graduated from Shanghai Theatre Academy and I felt a lot of responsibility to write, indeed wanted to write, about what’s happening today in contemporary dance in China today.

Sponsored by the Chinese Dancers Association (中國舞蹈家協會) and SIDC Development Foundation (上海国际舞蹈中心发展基金会), and organised by the SIDCT and Young Artists Platform of Dance (青年藝術家平台), the Bienniale brought together the best of young Chinese contemporary dancers in a programme of performances, master classes, lectures and forums. The series of sleek, superbly produced performances bore many of the well-known characteristics of Chinese dance: a classical understanding of beauty, perfect synchronization and execution of movement, high level of skill and technique, and impressively trained dancer bodies. Playing with color and symbolism and mixing Chinese tradition with contemporary elements, often in the form of pop songs and electronic beats or new technology, these works often blurred the lines between art and entertainment.

XieXin Dance Theater in From INPhoto Shen Jianzhong
XieXin Dance Theater in From IN
Photo Shen Jianzhong

Probably most impressive and presenting work unlike anything made in Europe was XieXin Dance Theatre (謝欣舞蹈劇場), the face of a new generation of emerging independent Chinese makers. Her large-scale productions such as From IN (一撇一捺) danced at the Bienniale, integrate Chinese tradition into an almost post-human perfection and count heavily on flow and control.

In stark contrast to that, the closing show of the programme, the solo I didn’t say anything, (我什麼也沒說) choreographed by Lian Guodong (連國棟) and performed by Lei Yan (雷琰) and, was a minimal, raw work of strong visual symbolism. The striking image of Yan wearing boxing gloves on her feet was the poster for the event. The piece ends with her breaking a bottle in two and raising half of the broken glass like a torch evoking a range of possible references and interpretations, after having moved around the whole stage through convulsions, her body violently shaking and vibrating.

Lei Yan in I didn't say anything by Lian GuodongPhoto courtesy Yasen Vasilev
Lei Yan in I didn’t say anything by Lian Guodong
Photo Fan Cong

Maybe this is a professional thing, but I found rather more interesting the two days of showcases in which young and practically unknown and un-produced up-and-coming Chinese artists presented their ideas and unfinished works in the form of 15-20 minute excerpts. These stripped-down studio sessions presented in rehearsal rooms or museum settings allowed a closer and more intimate look into the upcoming generation of Chinese artists and their artistic process. Brave and uncompromising ideas that sometimes get toned down on big stages were fully present. The artists felt at the same time vulnerable and strong, and their mistakes were human, revealing and somehow even desired.

Delegates gather at the 1st China Contemporary Dance BiennialePhoto courtesy Yasen Vasilev
Delegates gather at the 1st China Contemporary Dance Bienniale
Photo SIDCT, courtesy Yasen Vasilev

Among the threads connecting all these young artists are of course their extraordinary dance abilities, but often combined with education abroad, experiments with form and an interdisciplinary approach. A lot of the choreographic work was informed by the body’s relation to different objects or materials such as a male duet around a truck tyre, a piece with seven dancers moving and dancing with ladders, a site-specific piece performed in a space filled with rice, and a solo for a body surrounded by helium balloons. And last but not least, there was an agency to challenge and rebel against tradition, without being disrespectful to it.

Yong by Tian TianPhoto courtesy Tian Tian
Yong by Tian Tian
Photo courtesy Tian Tian

The scope of this unfinished work was impressive. Yong (俑), a beautiful female duet by choreographer Tian Tian (田湉), was based on in-depth research of Han era female dancing, presented in the form of precise synchronised minimalist movement with a contemporary touch. Still life (百態) by brave London-educated Song Xinxin (宋欣欣), the only participatory piece, touched on some controversial issues as it unfolded as a sociometric performance that asks spectators willing to participate to answer uncomfortable personal and political questions through movement and positions in space.

Quite a few pieces approached male gender roles and stereotypes in dance and society through cross-dressing, exploration of non-binary queer identities and representation of same-sex relationships, albeit not in explicit way. There were at least two male solos in which dancers reappeared in female personas, somehow continuing a long tradition of Chinese opera. Cong (從), a duet about brotherhood by Hu Shen Yuan (胡沈員), based on Mongolian shoulder-to-shoulder dance, uses the tradition to subtly explore male bonding. Female dancers unapologetically addressed feminist issues and emancipated their bodies from classical Chinese dance stereotypes or from the social pressure related to the performance of gender roles as housewives, mothers and lovers, all through not-so-common irony and sarcasm. A solo from Fu Binjing (符彬靖) that playfully retells her Chinese classical and folk dance training as it presents its gendered movements with ironic comments was a massive success among European programmers and she has already received invitations to develop further the work in Europe.

The author, Yasen Vasilev, in a panel discussion about audience developmentPhoto courtesy Yasen Vasilev
The author, Yasen Vasilev, in a panel discussion about audience development
Photo SIDCT, courtesy Yasen Vasilev

The rise and emancipation of the individual from a nameless collective mass of people is an important element in all of the presented works. While in the West, self-expression might have become conformity (in the words of British filmmaker Adam Curtis), in Chinese context it is a form of personal and political defiance against a system that has for years put the emphasis on collectivism rather than individuality. Chinese society, including dance, still retains high level of harmony and collective action, but some of the young artists also adopt a critical stance and claim the ability to opt out of the collective and try other unpopular and previously unthinkable personal routes.

The experimental stages of several hundred seats that are found in China are huge by European standards, however. I am afraid that overproducing, which can easily then tone down the messages of these works, to please an audience might take away some of their strength and qualities. At the same time, I am aware that following one’s own artistic interests in uncompromising ways is a territory accessible for the very few.

The impressive Shanghai International Dance Center
The impressive Shanghai International Dance Center
Photo SIDC

In a market economy that sees the art of dance as yet another commodity and potential zone of growth, and artists as entrepreneurs that cater to audiences’ taste, the time and space for risk that comes with artistic research is limited. A national funding body established six years ago to support young choreographers and new contemporary dance works, still seems more focused on production rather than research but I believe internationalisation will make clear the need to secure resources to buy time and space away from the pressures of the market where artistic talents can be fully developed, both critically and beyond skill and technique which they have already mastered.

Apart from the economic, there’s also a political tension that young dance makers have to face. China is interested in exporting cultural products as a form of soft power that represents the country in favorable light. The West, meanwhile, is often more interested in presenting radical dissidents willing to criticize its former ideological adversaries and current trade partners. Both these strategies of instrumentalization can be reductive and over-simplifying.

Тhe 1st China Contemporary Dance Biennale, which welcomed more than forty programmers, curators and producers from some of the biggest institutions, venues and festivals in Europe (among them The Place, Dance Umbrella, Sadler’s Wells, La Chaillot, Theater Linz and Teatro Municipal do Porto), was a way to personally connect professionals from these two radically different regions and allow them to learn from each other, understand where they come from and what they want to achieve.

Looking ahead, it is crucial how artists navigate their work within opposing contexts: one highly ambitious and heavily regulated, the other so heavy in history and so free in ways of expression it can be numbing. Choreographers and dance artists need to learn to articulate, position and defend their practice in different ways in East and West and claim space for the realisation of their personal artistic visions beyond politics and ideology.

Programmers will also have to consider how they watch and what they look for. Do they replicate European models to China and do they expect Chinese dancers to adopt European aesthetics or do they allow the freedom of difference and the possibility of surprise? Young Chinese artists will have to make work that is relevant to audiences on both continents and that fits both curatorial and ideological frameworks. It’s a complex task and the future will show if they can live up to it, but they are in an interesting and radical position. Unlike their European peers, they can now access, learn from and nurture both contexts, but the stakes and demands in front of them are also doubled.

Note: All Chinese names and titles are shown in traditional characters as per SeeingDance house style.