the little company that could

Just before I left Guangzhou, the 广东实验现代舞团 Guangdong Modern Dance Company and Symphony Orchestra were rehearsing in preparation of their first ever performance together. Also present was writer Richard Baimbridge, who was interviewing some of the dancers and choreographers for a long piece on the company which appeared on the weekend in That’s China. Read the whole thing for a good history of the most kick-arse company in China and what they’re doing to contemporary dance.

Sitting in the third row, 33-year-old choreographer Yunna Long is tugging at her already frazzled hair in exasperation. The show – the first inter-arts performance ever for a symphony that’s hosted the likes of Itzhak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma – is an important one, introducing Modern Dance to a new local audience, and testing the limits of dance choreography by using the whole auditorium as a stage designed to bring classical music joltingly to life.

“Sometimes I worry more about a performance like this in our hometown than one in Europe,” says Long. “Foreign audiences are more open-minded. Even if they don’t understand what you’re doing, they’ll still watch. In China, if they don’t like you the first time, they’ll never come again.” Long had less than a week to choreograph the entire score, and the dancers only get two rehearsals. Yet if they share in her apprehension, it doesn’t show.


The Little Company that Could

A tiny, under-funded Guangzhou company is leading China into Modern Dance history

By Richard Baimbridge

It’s late afternoon at Xinghai Concert Hall, home of the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. Though the quiet darkness and soft spotlights are a familiar environment for the dancers, the massive stage and balcony seats are a far cry from their usual performance space – a small experimental theater scantly bigger than a studio apartment living room.

Sitting in the third row, 33-year-old choreographer Yunna Long is tugging at her already frazzled hair in exasperation. The show – the first inter-arts performance ever for a symphony that’s hosted the likes of Itzhak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma – is an important one, introducing Modern Dance to a new local audience, and testing the limits of dance choreography by using the whole auditorium as a stage designed to bring classical music joltingly to life.

“Sometimes I worry more about a performance like this in our hometown than one in Europe,” says Long. “Foreign audiences are more open-minded. Even if they don’t understand what you’re doing, they’ll still watch. In China, if they don’t like you the first time, they’ll never come again.” Long had less than a week to choreograph the entire score, and the dancers only get two rehearsals. Yet if they share in her apprehension, it doesn’t show.

Outside in the sunlit lobby, dancers are jumping around like grade school children on recess. They might easily be mistaken for a pop band goofing off during sound check. Particularly Ou Yang Wen Ling, with his short mohawk and mischievous smile, hanging upside down from a sofa.

Modern Dance has always been a rebellious art form; its origins are like a sort of early twentieth-century punk rock. About a hundred years ago, an American expat in Europe named Isadora Duncan drew inspiration from Greek drama and freed herself from the shackles of the dance establishment. In an age of rigid and pompous ballet, the “Mother of Modern Dance” ditched her tutu for a tunic and danced barefoot to experimental music, freaking out traditionalist audiences and forever changing the course of ballet.

But a century later, Modern Dance became part of the same establishment that it had been born in reaction to. Viewed as an esoteric and snobbish minion of a small, leftist cultural elite, it was an easy target for conservative governments looking to cut subsidies. Yet Modern Dance’s art snob reputation was often unwarranted – and in the case of the Guangdong Company, it couldn’t be more wrong.

At a recent local show, audiences were literally perched on the edges of their seats, mouths agape, as mohawked Ou Yang Wen Ling flawlessly pulled off a dance performance so daring it could have been in a Jackie Chan film.

The ten-minute sketch consisted of nothing but Ou, partner Liang Yu, and a table. At first the two men reach out to each other from opposite sides, cautiously extending a distrustful hand, sealing a deal in full business attire. The handshake goes awry, contorting into grips that suddenly blast into lightning fast choreography that draws as much from gong fu as it does existentialism, and climaxes with the most hellacious game of “rock-paper-scissors” ever seen. When it’s over, the audience bursts into cheers more appropriate to a rock concert than a dance performance. And that’s pretty much been the case wherever this company has performed, from New York to Berlin.

“People can’t imagine such a thing like this exists in China,” Ou says of the reaction from overseas audiences, who expect a Chinese Modern Dance company to be derivative of American and European troupes, at best. What they find, however, is a group of dancers who are redefining those standards, and taking them to new heights.

The Little Company

Of the company’s New York debut in 2001, New York Times Dance critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote, “It’s easy to be astonished by the sheer physical power of these absolutely brilliant dancers. They have a spring in their leap, a fluidity and suppleness that bring something new to movements that might otherwise look familiar.”

Australian choreographer Frances d’Ath did a residency with the company two years ago, and describes the eleven members as “among the best in the world.”

“Their freedom comes from the fact that they’re willing to try anything, unlike in America, where they have 60 years of Martha Graham to fight against,” says d’Ath, referencing the seminal American dancer, chorographer and teacher who was the single greatest influence on Modern Dance, but who also perhaps unwittingly drew its boundaries. “They’re making dance history at the moment – and not just Western dance with a Chinese feel, but really creating a whole new aesthetic.”

Yet the Guangdong Modern Dance Company has arguably done a much better job of winning the respect of the world than that of its own backyard. Though highly revered in Beijing and Shanghai, with a small but loyal following in Guangzhou, the average Chinese person still sees them as incomprehensible.

“Are you aliens?” laughs Zhou Fong, making a “deer-in-the-headlights” face to describe the reaction the company got while touring smaller cities and villages around Guangdong a few years ago. “Dance is very popular in China,” says Ou. “With one exception: Modern Dance. Most people think Modern Dance is what people do in pop song videos – something strictly for entertainment. But I see it as a totally pure art form.”

The night of the performance, the symphony hall is filled to capacity. As conductor Yang Yang cues the music, no one, including the dancers themselves knows exactly what to expect as they disperse into the theater, wearing elaborate costumes, dancing on raised platforms and in the aisles. The audience looks confused – not quite “deer-in-the-headlights” dumbfounded, yet clearly unsure of what’s happening. In one scene, they parade in long, elegant robes of aristocracy, agonizingly forcing a near-naked Ou back into his garments. One recurring theme in the company’s work is that of an individual fighting against an oppressive and accusatory society, shamed and humiliated as Adam and Eve realizing their own nudity for the first time. But just as often, their movements are soft as breath and graceful beyond words, the dancers’ bodies elegant, ghost-like conduits of the music.

When the lights go up, and the dancers come on stage for a bow, the applause is at first slow in forming – people seem to want to see if the person sitting next to them will clap. But by the end, half of the concert hall is standing in a rousing ovation. For the troupe, and its director Willie Tsao, who has invested his heart, soul and personal life savings into creating the company, the night is another in a long line of small but important victories.

Modern Dance was, for all practical purposes, non-existent in China until 1987. During a trip to the US in 1986, then principal of the Guangdong Dance Academy Yang Mei-qi discovered Modern Dance and decided it should be adopted into the academy curriculum. The government’s initial response was that Modern Dance was “subversive and unpatriotic.” Yang refused to relent, however, eventually convincing the government to invite Hong Kong Contemporary Dance choreographer Willie Tsao to be their first instructor.

“Guangzhou at that time was considered the most modern city in China,” says Tsao, who after spending his first sleepless night in a non-air-conditioned room, decided to volunteer his own salary to upgrade the living conditions of the dancers (Present salaries range from 1-3,000 yuan per month for a full time dancer). Tsao later spent 1 million yuan of his own money to purchase a small theater space for the company. Asked for a total estimate of the money he has sunk into the Guangdong Modern Dance Company thus far, Tsao sighs, “I’ve lost count.” With a smile, he adds that he’ll likely never see a penny returned. “But if you buy a Rolls-Royce, you don’t say how much money you lost, you say how much it costs. It’s the satisfaction that counts.”

Initially, however, not everyone shared in Tsao’s satisfaction. In the early days, Tsao spent much of his time writing editorials and responding to letters to the editors of Guangzhou newspapers from readers who condemned Modern Dance as “western imperialism.”

“Everyone kept saying, ‘What is this? Why can’t you do something Chinese?’ And I would answer back ‘This is Chinese. Does Chinese mean you have to put on old costumes and be traditional?’ This is what we are now, in the present day. Our worlds are getting closer. But even in the United States, people would say ‘You should do something Chinese!’ And I would say, ‘Why do you sound so much like our government officials?'”

Once the rave reviews started pouring in, however, the government quickly learned to appreciate – or at least tolerate – Modern Dance. Tsao says his final vindication came while taking the group on tour in Europe, which the government had been reluctant to allow, fearing the members would all flee at the first chance. To their surprise, everyone happily returned home to China. Meanwhile, the entire Chinese traditional dance troupe defected en masse during a trip to America.

“The government actually asked me to write a report explaining why it was that they all came home,” Tsao laughs. “I said that they had seen the outside world and realized that they are free. For them, freedom is in dance. In fact, their lives in China are often far less worrisome than dancers in Europe or America, who have to work outside jobs just to survive.”

(Eventually, some Chinese Modern Dance performers did move on to America or Europe, including China’s biggest Modern Dance celebrity, Jin Xing. Jin [a former colonel in the People’s Liberation Army], studied at the Guangzhou Dance Academy as a man, before moving to America, then later returning to Shanghai as a woman, after a sex change operation in Beijing. Now mother of an adopted child, she runs the Xing Dance Theater in Shanghai. Some of Jin Xing’s contemporaries at the Beijing Dance Academy also founded the Beijing Modern Dance Company [though only Guangzhou and Beijing now have full time dance companies] in 1995, which Willie Tsao became director of in 1998.)

Despite a perpetual lack of funds and decreasing government support, the Guangdong Modern Dance Company is thriving. Choreographer Yunna Long started her own private dance company in Guangzhou this year, which offers lessons in Modern Dance to anyone interested, and the troupe just finished a critically-acclaimed tour of Europe in October, with another planned for next year. Yet their biggest wish as a company, they say, is to win the elusive hearts of their Guangdong home audience. “Our dream,” says 23-year-old Lou Meng Han, “is that more people will come to understand Modern Dance and not just shake their heads and say, ‘What’s this about?'”

Richard Baimbridge learns how to be a Modern Dancer

“The first time I ever saw a Modern Dance performance, I thought it was so beautiful, but that I could never do it myself,” says 28-year-old Guangzhou fashion designer, Li Ying Tao. Four years later, she’s twisting on the floor and leaping gracefully through the air. Li is one of my classmates tonight at Yunna Studio, owned by Guangdong Dance Company choreographer Yunna Long. Composed entirely of amateurs (though some are more amateur than others), the twice-weekly class is open to anyone who wants to study Modern Dance. Presently, there are about a dozen students, mostly girls in their 20s.

Class begins with yoga stretches, and builds up to more complex dance moves. Though most of the time I’m comically out of step, there are a few incredibly exhilarating moments when I feel like a real dancer. “Ugliness is just another side of beauty,” Long says encouragingly. “The most important thing about Modern Dance is to free your body.” The highlight comes once a year when the students put on their own public performance. Though none of us will be touring Europe any time soon (least of all me), it still fulfills a dream. “I know I’ll never be a professional dancer,” says Li Ying Tao. “But it’s something I love.”

The Yunna Studio is located at 13 Shuiyin Road in Guangzhou. Rates for Modern Dance instruction range from 50 yuan per class to 2,400 yuan per year.

Tel: (020)8704-7657