Hesitations: Fumbling Through the Haze of a Society in Transformation

Photo by Li Huimin

From October 19-22, BAM will be presenting Beijing Dance Theater‘s Haze as part of the 2011 Next Wave Festival (tickets $30). Perhaps the most prominent contemporary dance company in China, BDT is helmed by choreographer Wang Yuanyuan, perhaps best known to broad American audiences for choreographing the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In Haze, Wang explores the complex and challenging nature of life in contemporary China, touching on the uncertainty affecting the global economy as well as the trauma following the devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008. We interviewed Ms. Wang via email.

I’m curious about the role of contemporary dance in today’s China. Who are your audiences and what is their attraction to the form? What are their expectations?

Contemporary dance is still not a mainstream art form in China currently: both the number of artists and audiences are very small. Most general Chinese audiences are still accustomed to seeing the result immediately or expect the artist to give answers somehow, yet this goes counter to the feature and essence of contemporary dance which requires the imaginations of the audience. Thus it is not easy in China.

The current audience of contemporary dance in China is mainly young or middle-aged people who have received higher education or with Western education background. Like all the other contemporary dance audiences in the world, they do expect the emotional shocks coming from the performance and the sympathetic response to the social reality and people’s spiritual outlook. But the number of this kind of audience is really small.

In the past, I know you’ve done a fair bit of state sponsored work, most notably the amazing opening ceremonies to the Olympic games. What kind of state support do the arts get? Are the arts seen as an important part of the larger economic and social development?

Firstly, I don’t think my creation for the Olympics opening ceremony is comparative with that I’m doing with our company. It’s no doubt that arts are playing more and more important roles in presenting the national image of China, but mostly they prefer large event and it’s different from the development of contemporary dance. There are many kinds of way for the government to support arts, but most resource are occupied by national-owned companies. Beijing Dance Theater is an independent company, normally we can apply for subsidy for new creation and some important international tour. Yes, as the government are paying more and more attentions on the cultural industry, arts should demonstrate larger and larger capacity in vitalizing the economy and social development.

Choreographer Wang Yuanyuan (photo by Han Jiang)

I understand your background is in classical ballet, which you pursued from an early age. What led you to expand into contemporary forms?

No, actually firstly my background is Chinese classical dance instead of ballet, then I turned to study choreography of contemporary dance. This was sometimes misunderstood by people because I had been working as contemporary choreographer at National Ballet of China since 1995. Of course, both the Chinese classical dance education of my early age and the contemporary dance education later have given me rich resources of body language, as well as great curious to experience the magic of body movement. Chinese dance pays attention on the dancers’ upper-body movement and inner emotion, while classical ballet focus more on the feet. Contemporary dance as a totally new mentality is the way that I’m thinking, and I express with the language that I grasped from Chinese dance and ballet.

In the past, you’ve worked with Chinese classics as base texts for your work–I’m thinking of something like Golden Lotus, for instance. Does Haze have similar influences, or is it a more direct and immediate response to the past few years?

I don’t think there is any influence of Chinese classics in Haze, which was created in 2009, inspired from the living reality in China and the mental uncertainty about future.  People are trying to find an exit in nowhere, to find the direction of heart.

If I understand correctly, Haze explores the human experience of the environmental and economic turmoil in China over the past couple years, as the nation struggles with the legacy of development and the effects of the global economic crisis. What kind of sense do people have of their ability to make positive changes to improve such conditions in China? What’s the social vibe?

Perhaps everybody will have quite different reaction, I have heard many kinds of understandings. It’s fine and, I feel, very interesting. It’s exciting that one piece will bring so many imaginations and understandings to the audience. Let’s explain a little about my inspirations.

The idea of Haze comes from the hesitation mentality of many contemporary Chinese.

It was started in May 12, 2009 when the large earthquake attached Sichuan province, China. The first part of the piece is “Light”. At that time, I watched a lot of videos and listened to a lot of descriptions, no matter hope or life, the first impression for the survivors is always light. Thus light is the first feeling of life and the hope of life. In dark we need light, we need the direction.

If “Light” is just a point, then the second part “City” is a network. Living in this world, in the city, you have to interact with all kinds of people and things. The network is your relations with them, and is also the surface you are daily walking on. To leave or to stay, to go forward or backward, you are always walking on this network. In Chinese, the pronunciation of “network” is the same with that of “maze”. In this complicated network, maze is always. That’s our portrait in the urban city, true to life.

And the third part is “Shore”. The city is sometimes like a lake, or as large as an ocean. Everybody is struggling and floating in it. Where is the real shore? The shore is the metaphor of the choices in our life, the numerous choices. Every choice occupies your time and space in your life, you cannot predict whether it is correct or not. In the fast changing world, before we give ourselves a conclusion, everything changes again.

I watched some video of the piece and was struck by how aggressively physical the movement is, with the dancers throwing themselves and falling hard on the padded floors. Where did that particular concept come from and what challenges did it present in terms of choreographing it?

On the stage, the whole dance floor is replaced by a large sponge with hard ground framed as the shore. This sponge enabled me a lot of unprecedented possibility.  During the creation, firstly I just wanted to use a smaller piece as a part of the stage. But when I stood on it, the unprecedented feeling of out of balance attracted me a lot. As the dancers are ever trained to find the balance in dance, they made great efforts to get familiar with it, during which I found many interesting movements. When we enlarge the area of the sponge, the fear disappeared stepwise. Thus, the mental and physical feelings are enabled to be identical at the same time. The physical condition becomes totally same with the mental condition that I want to express–this was a great discovery.

Actually, our pains mostly come from the fear–fear to fall down, fear to be hurt, fear to give the price, etc. But when our body get used to the sponge, when we get used to this feeling, we can find the balance and gain our confident and the sense of safety again. Further, we may even enjoy the feeling of falling down. We embraced the pain, accepted the fear, and to live with them together. In this moment, we win the true peace in our hearts.

You trained in the United States, where you went tp college. What impact did that have on your work and your approach? I often find that artists who train in two different cultural atmospheres find themselves navigating the two, with each background informing the artist’s understanding of the other. Has that been the case?

I think so. Sometimes when you jump out of the environment that you were familiar with and retrospect, you understand it better. When the two cultures infiltrate into each other, they combine and generate a new support.

In the past ten years, I’ve been always think and create with the combined support of the two cultures, or maybe, to me, they are not two cultures but a totally new way of expression. The Oriental culture may be my blood, and the Western culture is my body. In Golden Lotus, I am interpreting a Chinese classical novel in my personal way and with my personal experience.

What are your next projects going to be? What’s next for you as an artist?

The next project is also something about the personal response to the social reality. Currently my inspirations on the next project originated from the well-known Chinese writer Mr. Lu Xun‘s articles. The economy developed very fast in the contemporary China, yet there is great deficiency in people’s mind. This is quite similar with the China that Lu Xun described 100 years ago. Now I would like to shout with my dance on the stage as Mr Lu Xun was shouted with his words.

As a Chinese artist, as the artistic director of Beijing Dance Theater, I hope I could continue creating my piece freely, and I hope our company is able to survive. We hope more audience will come to the stage and understanding what we are thinking and presenting.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: