China's Mod Squads
A festival gathers new-wave
dance companies from Taipei,
Beijing and Hong Kong

by Ellen Hobson

A cheer of recognition greets the crashing drums and cymbals. As the lights go up, they reveal not colorfully costumed Beijing opera singers, but PVC-clad dancers with their backs to the audience. A solitary figure steps out from the group. Bending and twisting his chiseled body, he punctuates the air with turns and lunges. For a moment, the audience sits in captivated silence. Then the applause starts.


When the China Modern Dance Festival began in Beijing a couple of weeks ago, theatergoers were eager to see the finest exponents in the land. They weren't disappointed. The originality and diversity displayed by the companies from Beijing, Hong Kong and Taiwan -- united for the first time in the mainland -- show that modern dance is a flourishing if relatively new art form in China.

The event springs from a potent partnership in the five-year-old Beijing Modern Dance Company. When founder Jin Xing quit the promising group a couple of years ago, its dancers found themselves adrift. Enter former music-industry executive and longtime art supporter Zhang Changcheng. As new company director, he was determined to build a troupe that was independent, adventurous as well commercially viable. (The cultural authorities provide only office and rehearsal space, so the group must rely on sponsors and ticket sales.) And pivotal to this goal was the choice of artistic director. For Zhang, there was only one person for the job: Willy Tsao. Besides creative flair, the Hong Kong choreographer has a knack for freeing dancers from the straitjacket of formal training. (Tsao founded the SAR's acclaimed City Contemporary Dance Company and went on to set up the mainland's first professional modern dance troupe in Guangzhou.) Recruiting young talent from around the mainland, often from folk-dance institutions, the two men have since transformed the BMDC into one of Asia's most exciting new troupes.

The festival, now in its second year, is a great way to raise the company's profile. But more than that, the event meets a growing demand. "Young people on the mainland are yearning for new forms of expression. You can literally hear the excitement run through the audience [when the dancers appear]," says Tsao. "Of course, that kind of thing happens all around the world. But to see this in China, performed by local people, that's something special." Certainly, the stylistic approaches presented this year are fascinating reflections of three very different Chinese societies.

The Beijing ensemble demonstrates a willful irreverence and verve that is rapidly drawing media attention. One Table, Two Chairs, its ambitious 14-segment presentation, is held together by a strong visual theme: tables and chairs of varying sizes. Ming-style furniture, worked in stainless steel, is heaped onto the set in each segment, providing the vehicle for movement as the dancers leap, twist and tumble. The piece draws inspiration from a variety of "Chinese" sounds. Interludes of Beijing opera, Cantonese ballads, the forlorn strains of an erhu, even the staccato exchange of comedic dialogue inform each movement.

"For Chinese people, especially, traditional music carries many connotations. As soon as they hear the first note, they expect to see certain movements and facial expressions," says Tsao. "This time we're trying to break away and express something new and different."

One Table shows surprising cohesion for a collective work by five dancer-choreographers. Take the segment titled "Mediation 2: Setting Forth." A performer stands Mao-like in the middle of a prostrate crowd, one hand directing forward. Rather than follow, the others weave a complex pattern of movement. Sporadically, they break free from the pack, genuflecting and stabbing the air in different directions. But neither the group nor individual is reconciled. "Mediation 3: Hands" creates a pastiche of modern-day Beijing from the daily interaction of strangers. As some dancers separate into pairs, others wander alone in erratic circles, mimicking the act of shaking hands. They march purposefully yet never get anywhere -- a vivid picture of the corporate rat race.

Such social commentary contrasts with the more introverted presentations from Movement Fiber, an offshoot of Hong Kong's CCDC. In Happening Continuous, which combines dance with multimedia work, images of human suffering are projected onto a gauze screen. Eventually, a spotlight illuminates the angled frame of dancer Sang Lijia caught in a web-like construction that hangs from the ceiling. Slowly and precisely, he twists his body to the changing pictures of anguish. The sound of gusting wind heralds fellow dancer, Xing Liang, who erupts from the wings, leaping and twirling.

Like the conflicting elements of wind and fire, the two men engage in an hour-long balletic duel, chasing each other across the stage. A whirlwind of installation art, athletic choreography, flashing television screens and short films, mirror this pursuit. In a city where multimedia art is rare, Happening Continuous clearly awed the crowd. Yet, it seems a deliberately remote work, creating barriers both physical and mental between audience and dancers. The performers barely acknowlege each other's presence, passing like a pair of silent ghosts.

Xing, a Beijing native who moved to the SAR a year ago to join Movement Fiber, notes that dancers in Hong Kong are more concerned with issues of personal identity. "The choreography tends to reflect the intimacy and need for self-preservation that living in such a small, crowded place inspires. Beijingers are more concerned with what's going on around them, exploring the nature of the society they live in," he says. "We may all be Chinese, but our lives are different."

Chinese identity, however, played a larger part than festival organizers had intended. Caught in the recent escalation in tensions between Taiwan and the mainland, a highly-anticipated performance by the Crossover Dance Company almost didn't take place. The Taipei group had to struggle through a tangle of red tape before being granted a one-night "invitation-only" performance.

Crossover brought a dramatic twist to the well-trodden eastern dance ethos. (The small ensemble was set up in 1994 by veterans of the pioneering Cloud Gate Theater.) White Snake Variations is part modern dance, part experimental drama. Reality intertwines with myth in a plot about four actors adapting an opera based on the Legend of the White Snake. The set is dominated by a long rack of costumes which dancers emerge from and disappear into -- an ingenious device that allows the story to morph from power struggles among opera divas into a fantasy about a snake spirit's battle for survival and back again. Performers switch too. They move from monologue to Chinese opera, jazz and experimental dance, portraying life as a constant struggle.

Dark Side of the Moon is a somber version of the classic Japanese tale about the nature of truth, Rashomon. Four participants in the murder of a samurai -- including the victim and his wife -- each recall very different versions of the incident. Accompanied by pounding drums, synthesizers and the imposing sounds of noh theater, the result is an almost epic ballet.

Crossover follows Cloud Gate's footsteps in constantly reinterpreting traditional themes. Dark Side displays a grace that carries strong echoes of taichi and operatic expression. Its choreographer Lo Man-fei concedes that Chinese idioms are very much emphasized in Taiwan modern dance. "But we do more than just reinvent tradition," she insists. "There is a definite magical element, the ability to tell a story, that is representative of our work."

Tradition, in any case, isn't immutable. "For so long, traditional teaching has dictated that there is only one way to do things, only one way to perform, only one way to dance," says Tsao. "The greatest obstacle for many Chinese is liberating their minds." But groups like the Beijing Modern Dance Company are helping break down this barrier.