Written by Tabassum Mohibi
Asia is in its most cutting edge era for culture, and one important facet that is developing is modern dance. The imaginations of young dancers, choreographers, directors, and performers have been challenged and reach break-through innovations on stages across East Asia. Modern dance companies, specifically in China and Taiwan, have been using new visual effects and elements in their performances to create themes separate from traditional Chinese dance forms. The two dance companies that will be highlighted are Cloud Gate Dance Theatre and BeijingDance/ LDTX, while analyzing Cloud Gate’s “Cursive” performance and LDTX’s “White Night” performance.
BeijingDance/ LDTX is the first modern professional dance troupe in China that was established independent from the government in September of 2005. LDTX stands for Lei Dong Tian Xia, and is translated to “Thunder Rumbles Under Heaven.” The company is an important stepping-stone for modern dance development in China because it was created during the controversial time for cultural change (Clark). BeijingDance/ LDTX also created a foundation for increased dance appreciation across East Asia and introduced Chinese culture to the contemporary dance form. The themes that are created in their dance performances deviate from China’s past traditional dance because they are thought provoking, abstract, and open-ended. Instead of highlighting cultural and historic aspects of China, the dance company focuses on illustrating ideas and emotion on stage and leaving room for the audience’s own interpretations (Lin).
Another dance company that is an important part of the development of contemporary dance in East Asia is Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, established in Taiwan. Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, also has had to overcome the Chinese cultural battle and break the comforts of traditional performing arts (Donelan). Cloud Gate, like BeijingDance/ LDTX, is the first modern dance company in its country but the company presents contemporary dance in a different way (O’Hara). Instead of completely changing Taiwan’s cultural scene, the choreography and direction creates a contemporary twist on the already established Chinese cultural roots (Chao). Cloud Gate creates dances that blend meditation, martial arts, calligraphy, and other traditional aspects to Asian culture, with modern adaptations. As the company reconstructs historic culture on stage, the audience is given more abstract performances that still have the time-honored aesthetics East Asians are accustomed to.
These two dance companies and their performances are used as examples to portray the shift in the art form from traditional to contemporary because they have stark similarities and differences. It is also important to note that Cloud Gate Dance Theatre represents a company that is showcasing the hybrid nature of Taiwan and Taiwan nationalism, while BeijingDance was formed as fresh outlook away from government control (Chao). Modern dance development is a broad idea and process, but these forerunning troupes show both ends of the spectrum for how dance has developed. By analyzing “White Night” and “Cursive,” it can be argued that adding visual effects and other performing elements is the pivoting point between traditional and contemporary. Parts of the performances that were developed include lighting, background, props, costume, and music. These elements of performance are the most crucial aspect to the cultural revolution on stage because they shape the theme of the dance as well (Clark).
“White Night,” choreographed by Wang Yuanqing, and “Cursive,” choreographed by Lin Hwai-min, construct disparate themes in their performances. In “White Night,” Yuanqing uses the multiple performance elements to shape abstract themes of white vs. black, day to night, or opposite partnerships. “Cursive,” on the other hand, illustrates an underlying theme based on the art of calligraphy, but uses dance elements to modernize the performance. As the choreographers convey these ideas through dance with contemporary elements, the audience is challenged to interpret the themes. The development of modern dance is important because of this aspect, and audiences are forced to try thinking in different ways.
The performance elements are closely examined because they are the tools used by choreographers to express new themes; and without these new elements, East Asian dance would never move forward. The fresh elements that have developed Chinese dance are now darker, deeper, and provoke more intense emotions from the audience. Although Cloud Gate dances to a traditional aspect of Chinese culture, the way the dancers transmit this idea to the audience is bold and dynamic. The modern themes that BeijingDance and Cloud Gate dance to challenge the audience’s feelings while they are watching a performance, and challenge Asia to feel uncomfortable while the creative parts in their mind are being tapped. As the elements to the two performances are analyzed, it is clear that abstraction is now a frontier part of Chinese dance.
As “White Night,” performed by BeijingDance/ LDTX, opens, the dancers’ movements are heavily coordinated with aspirations or breathing patterns. In the first dance, the group is compact together following the same motions and sounds; however, one or two people make a large disturbance and the group pauses for a moment, only to continue the same mundane movements shortly after. The opening to their dance performance showed a great focus on the element of music, but the performance was also dramatized with large shadows on the blank, white backdrops due to spotlighting. The large white walls framing the stage changed shape throughout the performance and slowly opened the stage completely. The opening scene introduced the audience to an abstract dance, in which the theme is unclear and could be multiple ideas. One interpretation could be that the first dance used background sounds to show that groups do not wait or change because of one individual’s unique idea.
The second dance in the performance, however, is drastically different as there are two dancers moving in random patterns. Costume is the most prominent element in this scene because one dancer is wearing white and one wearing black. Unlike the group dance, in which all dancers wore different costumes ranging from white to grey to black colors, this piece used costumes to display a binary between the two dancers. With the opposite costume colors, the theme of day and night or white vs. black is also introduced.
The use of costume and sound is continued throughout the middle of the performance. The music transitions to a soft piano melody and the two dancers on the stage have complementary costumes—one dancer wears white pants and a dark shirt, while the other wears dark pants and a white shirt. The elements in this scene are set up in a more pleasant way than the other duet scene, which was more clashing and dramatic. In this scene, one dancer keeps falling down and the other continuously supporting and helping them back up. This introduced the idea of partnerships, but in the next scene when the supporter dancer starts to fall down, the other dancer does not help him back up. By this, the idea that the dancers express seems to shape harmful partnerships.
The idea of “harmful partnerships” continues in the next duet, and the company uses blaring sounds flashing lighting to create a disturbing setting. The duet of dancers are both wearing the same colored costume, but repel each other and distort each other as they move rapidly. This scene uses costumes to convey the theme of “opposites attract” in an abstract way.
As the dance moves to a close, more dancers are joining the stage and following each other’s dance moves in a cascade pattern and a playful way. The finale is a stark change from this because a blaring siren encompasses the background music. Also, the lighting dramatically, but slowly builds from pitch black to white light. As the lighting becomes whiter, the music also gradually changes to a somber tune using violins. The concluding scene has the whole stage open with three white walls, all the dancers, and full lighting.
Throughout the entire “White Night” performance, elements directly controlled the choreography. For example, aspirations, such as coughs and random laughing, were used through each dance as the dance moves contorted to each sound. Furthermore, the dance movements were correlated with the pace of the background music and spotlighting. These performance elements dramatized the performance, and created a visual experience for the audience to interpret the dance company’s themes. The entire performance was able to express abstract themes such as opposite partnering or day vs. night due to the development of these elements.
The second performance that was closely examined was “Cursive,” performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. This performance was different from BeijingDance’s methods because it developed a clear, single theme using the same method throughout the performance. As the dance opens, the stage has low lighting with a dim spotlight on the dancers and this lighting is present throughout the performance. The element of music begins very softly with deep sounds that slowly get louder as more dancers enter the stage with synchronized movements. However, as more instruments are added to the music, each dancer slowly deviates from the other and dances with different, more striking, movements. The dance style is still constant for all dancers and is very fluid and focuses on flowing arm movements.
While the music is changing, the dance movements also become more rapid and are controlled by the volume of the music. The performance elements are important for developing the theme of the dance and the name of the performance because the background music controls when the dancers make fast, liquid hand motions and when they abruptly stop movement and pause in their random poses. This movement encompasses the art of calligraphy because of the pattern of flowing liquidly and then abruptly pausing—like the end of a sentence.
The traditional aspects to the dance that create the calligraphic theme are the background with large Chinese characters, and the calligraphic-like dance moves. As Cloud Gate tries to embrace Taiwan nationalism, the performance is contemporary because of the dramatic and solemn facial expressions. With traditional dancing, facial expressions are commonly happy and use lip-syncing; however, the Cloud Gate illustrates a traditional theme in a darker, deeper manner.
The performance element that is mainly changed and used to enhance the dance visually is music, but lighting is also important because of the company’s use of projection screening. This technology is an important part of the background element because Chinese characters are projected on to the dancers bodies as they dance in the same flowing movements. This enhances the dramatization of the cultural theme, and appears as if the Chinese characters are on the costume itself. Finally, the closing of the performance contrasts with the rest of the dance because there is now a solo dancer that uses a long cloth, similar to a water sleeve, as a prop to create the idea of liquid motion and calligraphic writing.
Cloud Gate effectively conveys a clear theme on their performance stage; however, the audience is challenged because the cultural theme is expressed in dramatized way that the audience is not used to. BeijingDance, on the other hand, conveys multiple themes within one performance but leaves the audience to more of their own interpretation while viewing the dance. These themes have an impact on the East Asian population because the performance elements used to create them are innovative and making Chinese dance more abstract.
The course material studied over the semester facilitated a better understanding for the topic studied in this paper. Throughout the course, we were given the opportunity to learn about famous dancers and choreographers that shaped what defines “Chinese dance.” An important term used within the course, proposed by Professor Wilcox, was “Dynamic inheritance,” which defined the methods of Chinese dancers for recovering folk forms of dance in China. Although the studied topic is more related to elements in a performance, Wilcox states, “Dynamic inheritance…is a much more useful way of thinking about relationships between past and present and between individual innovations and shared cultural legacies…” which is connected to the development of modern dance (Wilcox).
Along with the term “Dynamic Inheritance,” multiple other forms of traditional Chinese dance forms were discussed in the class. The classical forms of Chinese dance were the main focus because these traditional arts of oriental and folk were the broad categories of dance throughout this art form’s development. The topic analyzed, however, branches off the course material as it is a newly discovered “broad category” that is now a part of Chinese dance history.
Dai Ailian and Yang Liping were two dancers studied within the course that are closely related to the modern Chinese dance movement and development. In the course, Dai Ailian was a key leader in bringing outside influence to begin the transition to contemporary dance forms in China. As she introduced ballet dance to China, she earned the name “Mother of Chinese Modern Dance.” After dance companies were formed such as BeijingDance and Cloud Gate, the key factors in modernizing the performances were the elements in each dance.
Studying Yang Liping and Dynamic Yunnan, assisted with the analysis of each dance company’s performance. While watching Liping’s work as a part of the course material, a focus on the elements of the performance was emphasized. Class discussion included analysis on the main features of each dance in the entire piece, and how these features shaped the ethnic minority theme. Dynamic Yunnan is an important example related to the topic of elements developing modern dance because the performance is similar to how modern dance companies perform; and the props, costumes, and lighting were imperative for creating the theme.
Furthermore, a great focus on the western influence on Chinese dance was also discussed in class. Although global influence was not closely studied, it is an important factor for how dance appreciation was formed. Global influence was also important for the development of visual effect or new elements to stage performances. As Stan Lai stated during a guest lecture, “many societies in Asia until recent decades only had traditional arts,” and now with developing techniques and ideas, the contemporary arts were also born.
Overall, the birth of contemporary dance illustrated in the performances of modern dance companies are accredited to the elements that the companies use to develop their theme. As the elements of dance have changed, the drastic change in past and present Chinese dance was shaped. The themes may stay close to the traditional arts or become more abstract; however, the dramatization of performances created through these new elements is the reason modern dance was born in China.
The modern dance companies examined in this research study continue to perform globally today. The performance schedule for BeijingDance/ LDTX can be accessed here, and the performances by Cloud Gate Dance can be viewed here.
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