Chinese Contemporary Dance: Borrowed, Not Duplicated

Chinese Contemporary Dance: Borrowed, Not Duplicated

.:Dance that defies cultural boundaries:.

ASIAN280: Performance Culture in Contemporary China

Lisa Chippi

December 16, 2013

To define something as contemporary is to assign to it no true definition at all. The term itself implies ambiguity and change with almost unpredictable and seemingly constant shifts that help to retain and, ironically, define a culture for a short period of time. Contemporary provides us with an image of the present as well as a lens through which to view a particular event, decision, or trend we see existing in our own cultures. An amorphous term such as contemporary not only allows for constant reevaluation but promotes a sense of subjectivity and freedom for those who wish to use it to define themselves or their work. Contemporary also presents an opportunity to seek out a variety of cultural influences expanding beyond our own, helping to fuel the creation of unique and transformative art. The results of such borrowing and blending of ideas amongst cultures is what, in fact, fuels the so-called contemporary. If it weren’t for these outside influences, the art realm, or for that matter any realm, would appear stagnate. In the most fundamental sense, we watch and learn from others and, through this exposure, we are inspired to discover ways to further ourselves; to better our art.

Inextricably attached to the idea of contemporary is the expression of identity; another piece of culture that is constantly shifting and simultaneously elemental in defining the present. Performance art, in particular, contemporary dance allows its participants to take part in helping to define the path of contemporary art. By analyzing a work by associate choreographer Xing Ziang of the City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC) in Hong Kong titled Nijinsky (2006) and a work by choreographer Shen Wei of Shen Wei Dance Arts in New York City titled Folding (2000), I hope to reveal the urgency and benefit of this type of cultural borrowing or transculturation for both the evolution of Chinese contemporary dance throughout China and the Sinosphere as well as the multi-cultural audiences who view it. Both of these artists are similar in that their dance career stemmed from involvement with the Guangdong Modern Dance Company which, established in 1992 (with its school being founded in the mid to late 1980s), is said to be mainland China’s first modern dance company. Xing Ziang is originally from Beijing, receiving classical dance training at the Beijing Dance Academywhile Shen Wei lived and danced in the Hunan province before receiving the recognition that led him to move to New York City in 1995. Shen Wei was also trained in the traditional forms of Chinese opera, Chinese ink painting and calligraphy. Both choreographers hold important and developmental ties to the West, and more specifically the United States.

In order to better understand these relations, it’s important to look back at the development and history of Chinese modern dance. An interview with Yang Mei-qi gives good insight into China’s transition into the modern dance scene. She was appointed to be the principal of the Guangdong Dance Academy in 1985, a high school that taught classical Chinese dance which was separate from the company that later formed.Later, the Guangdong School would form, readying its students for the Guangdong Dance Company. She realized that much of the effort during that time was focused around establishing only Chinese classical dance vocabulary. This language was extremely limited and was mostly controlled by Russian dancers who were sent in to teach local dancers. There was a narrow focus on establishing this technique, which was composed of ballet principles and movement from Peking opera, as it emphasized technical skill and detail over any emotional connection to the movement. Yang Mei-qi felt that this was a poor way of instructing dance, as it stifled creative growth and opposed cultivation of the dancer as an individual artist.After traveling to New York City and viewing the modern dance, she became inspired and wanted to share this aesthetic with the Chinese people by implementing technique and improvisation classes for her students.“Especially in dance education it is important to realize that modern training does not emphasize only one source of energy, or the preeminence of one part of the body. It involves a holistic concept of the body in time and space. I found that a modern dance class requires more brain power than physical energy, and that was very rewarding for me” (Solomon 39). She also found that Western modern dance attempted to explore something new with its movement, which manifested an element of unpredictability in its performance.

With the help of the American Dance Festival (ADF), a summer program which brings in dancers and choreographers from around the world, a cross-cultural approach to dance education then began to develop using Western influence and teachers. Previous traditional Chinese dance seemed to alienate the audience, as it was used for a political purpose or to present folk dances of ethnic minorities to promote the variety in Chinese culture. “Because there were only those two ways of doing things on stage, dance had little to do with human thoughts or emotions,” (Solomon 40). Yang Mei-qi proposed a new curriculum, which after a few obstacles, became accepted. The importation of teachers from the West was primary in developing a training program and dance company revolving around modern dance, but this absorption of Western influence didn’t overshadow or do away with Chinese culture. Yang Mei-qi claims it was integrated with Chinese “ways of thinking and concepts of Art.” (Solomon 44) For instance, American teacher Lynda Davis incorporated the use of paintings by Chinese artists in her classes, asking the students to use the works as inspiration for their own movement phrases.Young dancers in China were very much aware of the social problems of that time and now they could use dance as means to express their thoughts and emotions about what surrounded them. For dance, it was as if a new layer of depth had been exposed, not only helping churn the evolution of Chinese modern dance, but also helping to establish the connection of dancer and movement to depict a sense of emotionality and the human spirit.

Shen Wei and Xing Liang were both involved with the Guangdong Dance Company during its birth and performing career. In fact, many working choreographers in China and abroad are graduates of the Guangdong school or have received training from the School.Its creation was extremely key in supporting modern dance in China and shaping its technique with influence of the American techniques of Graham, Limon and Cunningham and their creative processes. This is not to say China’s modern dance was a direct result of only American dance forms as it also had remnants of German and Russian dance ideologies. Nijinsky, created by Xing Ziang, is a work depicting and deconstructing in an abstract manner the life of Vaslav Nijinsky, the world renowned Russian ballet dancer and choreographer.

First premiering in September of 2006 at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Studio Theatre, Nijinsky traces Vaslav Nijinsky’s slow and at times distressing collapse into insanity. The famous dancer is said to have developed a form of schizophrenia later in his career and had spent the rest of his life being transferred in and our of psychiatric hospitals and asylums. “Nijinsky remained mentally unstable for the last 30 years of his life, never dancing again.” (Mu Qian) The work remarks on the emotional complexities associated with a career in the competitive and demanding dance industry and more specifically, it presents a critique on classical ballet. The stage set is relatively minimal, as it is divided in two parts: stage left depicts a dance studio with barres along the wall and stage right depicts a theatre stage with a red overture curtain and spherical floor lights. Combining the practice space with the performance space emphasizes the creation and development of dance piece before it can be presented on stage, giving the audience a sense of the hard work and dedication required of a performer. The music consists of abstract, seemingly industrial-like sounds as well as classical music that has been manipulated through reversal, distortion, and cutting and pasting, to create a sort of nonsensical score, revealing another way that Xing questions the tradition of ballet. With an all male cast including Xing himself, each dancer represents an image of Nijinsky at some point during his life.


Two portions of the work especially stuck out as means of defying tradition. First, a duet with two men that combined ballet movement with contemporary movement to Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to Dance Op. 65 and a scene in the studio representing the criticism and frustration dancer’s face in a ballet class. The duet’s movement was choreographed in a way that clearly divided the roles into male and female. Both men wore tulle (the material that tutus are composed of) either around their necks or their shoulders, but never as a traditional tutu around the waist. With this pas de deux, Xing makes a statement about the confines of gender roles dictated by classical ballet. Secondly, the studio scene depicts an extremely frustrated ballet teacher correcting his student who refuses to perform the classical ballet movement asked of him. The teacher shouts comments such as, “Stay! Stay!”, “Stretch the neck!”, “High extensions! Turn out!” and “Balance forever! More improvement! Travel!” As he becomes more and more infuriated, the student still continues on with his own contemporary movement, ignoring the overwhelming criticism and patronization.

These portions of Nijinsky in particular represent a transition away from tradition, allowing for the audience to question certain traditions such as classical ballet and the confines of gender roles and how they can stifle one’s artistry and self-expression. As a contemporary choreographer, Xing doesn’t follow a certain movement vocabulary, incorporate traditional Chinese dance aesthetic or utilize a propagandistic approach. He borrows a dance cultural icon from another country, abstractly deconstructs his story on an emotionally intriguing level while simultaneously combining his own life experiences, creating a unique and stimulating work that is relatable to all. “Based on The Diaries of Nijinsky, Xing reflects on his inner self, exploring the mind of a genius on the outer edge of reason.” (Mu Qian) Referring back to this idea of transculturation, a portion of the definition is based on the fusion of one’s own material and the foreign to create an original product, which is precisely what Xing has accomplished. In this way, Xing promotes the power of contemporary dance in expressing our deepest emotions while contributing to the evolution of the dance form itself, furthering the potential influence of Chinese contemporary art in general.

It’s also important to take into consideration the affect of Hong Kong’s political history, as CCDC is a Hong Kong based company. On June 30, 1997 Hong Kong was given back to mainland China after 99 years of British rule.Therefore, the city’s cultural identity is a mix of many influences that have entered and exited its confines. “Hong Kong is like an amoeba […], it seems to have no fixed center.” ( SanSan 71) It is described as a city of permanent rootlessness even after China began governing once again due to the long term ruling of Britain. Citizens often questioned their identity, but most felt ties to mainland China.The younger generation of 60s and 70s were key in creating and maintaining a culture unique to Hong Kong. The CCDC is a prime example of this as it was founded in 1979 by Willy Tsao. Nijinsky, although created almost 30 years later, carries on this tradition of seeking out the unique, undiscovered and possibly foreign inspiration to help define its own identity.


Shen Wei Dance Arts represents a Chinese born choreographer whom migrated to the United States to begin a cross-cultural company in the heart of New York City. Shen Wei was a founding member of the Guangdong Dance Company and on a fellowship in 1995, traveled to New York City to train and eventually founded Shen Wei Dance Arts in 2000. The majority of the company members are American with only a few from China. This unique blending of cultures presents an extremely exciting aesthetic, creates awareness and growth for both forms, and allows Chinese contemporary dance to have a voice outside of China. Folding, premiering in 2000, presents a clear example of what can be achieved when combining Chinese contemporary dance with traditional Chinese dance aesthetic and inspiration. The music, created by John Tavener, utilizes a drone-like background in combination with Tibetan Buddhist chants and at some points traditional Chinese instruments such as bells and plucked instruments. “The dancers perform in head-to-toe white body paint and are affixed with otherworldly bulbous heads. Clad in blood red skirts, they shuffle onto the stage and off, and then move in unison in simple figure eights.” (Castaneda) The scurrying about the stage, as well as the slow and simple gestural movement is very reminiscent of Chinese traditional dance, but certain moments stand out as very contemporary. There is an underlying ominous tone throughout the entire work that is accompanied by a minimal, rather bare stage set. At some moments, the women’s legs are wrapped around the men in a precarious and provocative position. Also, the use of the floor, such as crawling and rolling provides important transitional and traveling movement for the work. Folding brings vividness and enjoyment to traditional Chinese culture in a way that is appealing for a multicultural audience through its blending of the past and the present.

For a full list of all of Shen Wei’s works, check out:

In Unit 5 we discussed performance of the Sinosphere and in doing so, thinking about China as a global phenomenon that has the ability to influence, and be influenced by, its surrounding cultures. When thinking about all the areas Chinese people inhabit around the world as well as their reasons for migrating to these areas, its apparent that the retainment of their traditional cultures can be at risk. Contemporary dance, with its infinite levels of artistic freedom, has the power to identify, acknowledge and perform these cultural traditions in combination with the artist’s emotionality and self-expression that is often lacking in traditional Chinese dance and propagandistic dance. Shen Wei’s Folding and Xing Ziang’s Nijinsky are just two examples of such blending. Shen Wei took his knowledge of dance, which developed in the Hunan and Guangzhou province in China, to New York City to create a multicultural dance company that gained great support and appreciation. In Beijing, between the years of 2003 and 2004, less than 10 performances of contemporary dance occurred, none of which (besides the Guangdong Dance Company) were supported by China’s government.Ten years later, contemporary dance in China continues to be a work in progress; a growing entity that still needs time to develop and solidify as a true art form. Promoting the expansion of Chinese contemporary dance throughout the Sinosphere, as Shen Wei has done, helps to develop appreciation of Chinese art and identity throughout the world which contributes overall to China’s power as a nation.

In Unit 6 we discussed the idea of performing interculturalism, or the mixing of cultures, and in the case of performance, of various theatrical forms and genres. This concept can also be applied to the mixing of dance forms as well as the inspiration for dance itself. As previously mentioned, China’s use of Western dance forms during the creation stage of Chinese modern dance was useful in providing China with a foundation from which to design their own modern dance aesthetic. “Instead of blindly succumbing to the foreign influences, they contextualize[d] foreign influences into their own experience, environment, problems and expression[…]” (Minarti 12) Xing Ziang used the life story of a Russian dancer and applied these complicated emotional struggles to his own life, presenting this new cultural product on the stage. Through the depiction of human emotions such as confusion, defeat, and inner struggle, Nijinsky emerges as a work that can be appreciated by a multicultural audience, again helping to promote and strengthen Chinese contemporary dance and art as a whole.

Throughout the entirety of the course, a theme of Chinese identity has presented itself through the various outlets of performance. The question of how to represent Chinese identity as well as the influence and the preservation of traditional Chinese culture are concerns that persist in nearly every discussion. Contemporary dance presents a vehicle for transporting and sharing these pieces of Chinese identity, personal identity and cultural identity, throughout the Sinosphere and throughout the world. Due to China’s historical struggle with establishing national identity, there can’t and shouldn’t be one way of defining Chinese culture. By acknowledging this, the power of transculturation and the idea of ever shifting identities, it’s apparent of the support that contemporary Chinese dance can provide in the evolution of Chinese art and culture around the world.




Works Cited

 Kwan, SanSan. “Chapter 2: Jagged Presence in the Liquid City.” Kinesthetic City: Dance and Movement in Chinese Urban Spaces. Oxford: Oxford Univ., 2013. N. pag. Print.

Minarti, Helly. “Transculturating Bodies: Politics of Identity of Contemporary Dance in China.” Contemporary Dance in China: Bodies, Transculturating (n.d.): n. pag. Print.

Solomon, Ruth, and John Solomon. “Chapter 4: Bringing Modern Dance to China.” East Meets West in Dance: Voices in the Cross-cultural Dialogue. Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic, 1995. N. pag. Print.

Castaneda, Adam. “Shen Wei Dance Arts Brings Rite of Spring and Folding to Houston.” Houston Press. N.p., 20 May 2013. Web.

Mu, Qian. “New Spin on Ballet Star’s Grief.” China Daily. N.p., 7 May 2007. Web.


City Contemporary Dance Company official website:

Shen Wei Dance Arts official website:

Vaslav Nijinsky:


Folding performed by Shen Wei Dance Arts in 2000. DVD.

Nijinsky performed by City Contemporary Dance Company in 2006. DVD.