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Intricate steps on China's leading edge

August 28, 2003|Victoria Looseleaf | Special to The Times

In today's global village, where it's commonplace for conductors to hold simultaneous posts with more than one orchestra, and opera artistic directors can be found doing double duty, it is still rare in the dance world for one artist to share his administrative abilities with two troupes separated by many miles. But not impossible. Consider Hong Kong-born Willy Tsao, whose many hats also include those of choreographer, teacher and dancer.

Several of Tsao's talents will be on view at California Plaza downtown as part of Grand Performances' summer season when the Beijing Modern Dance Company makes its American debut in three concerts beginning tonight. The troupe was founded in 1995 under the auspices of the Beijing Cultural Bureau (although it isn't government-funded), but it became the province of Tsao four years later.

You could say that the 13-member company was a logical extension for Tsao, who as a young man fell in love with modern dance -- a relatively young art form in Asia -- and then started the Hong Kong City Contemporary Dance Company in 1979. This career has involved a lot of footwork for a guy whose family business was garments and textiles. Born in 1955, Tsao left Hong Kong to attend Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., and study business. But while earning a bachelor's degree, he also began dance training in the Doris Humphrey tradition. Then, during summer breaks, he went to New York and soaked up other techniques, notably Martha Graham's. In 1979 he earned an MBA from Hong Kong University.

Speaking by phone recently from Brisbane, Australia, where he was on tour with his Hong Kong troupe, the impresario discussed the world according to Tsao. "City Contemporary's 25 years of existence provides me with artistic experience and technical know-how to start companies in China," he said. "My business background allows me to run the companies more efficiently."

Tsao's artistic life is also robust. In 1986, after City Contemporary was up and running, he was invited to guest-teach at the Beijing Dance Academy. Shortly after, he helped set up one of China's first modern troupes, the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, which he helmed from 1992 to 1998. And, since 1995, he has been conducting modern dance workshops in many cities in China.

Tsao, who says he's lost count of how many works he's choreographed, is excited about the country's current artistic climate. "It's opened up to the whole world," he said. "The dancers desperately need that sense of freedom. They've been told by a lot of people, including the government, what they should do.

"Companies are designed to embrace the new generation in China, to give them an opportunity to experiment. The freedom they're enjoying now, at least in movement vocabulary, I would call a Chinese renaissance."

Tsao says his dancers, whose average age is 24, have some ballet training, but most come from Chinese folk dance backgrounds. Tsao and Li Han-zhong, his assistant for the past 10 years, imprint their methods on their charges.

Explains Tsao: "I incorporate breathing and the use of the center of the body. The only way for our dancers to realize the potential of the body, the mind must be free as well. I think modern dance is particularly good at freeing the mind, which gives new awareness of the body."

Giving new awareness to Los Angeles audiences is what attracted Grand Performances' director, Michael Alexander, to the Beijing troupe.

"I wanted to break stereotypes of what people associate with certain countries," Alexander says. "You think Mexico -- it's folklorico and mariachis. We bring modern dance from Mexico, and we wanted to do the same thing with China."

The Beijing Modern Dance Company has performed in South Korea, Germany, Canada, France and Australia and is scheduled to play New York's Joyce Theater next year. At home, reviews have been good, with Beijing's People's Daily writing, "Not only was the dance movement rich and profound, the music and the artistic design also stood out as innovative and challenging."

Tsao opts for a broad musical palette, embracing an array of non-Asian scores. His works on the California Plaza bill include "I Came From," which employs Iraqi drum music, and "Prayer in the Dusk," a three-part suite set to Indian sitar music. The centerpiece of the performances will be "All River Red," choreographed in 2001 by Li and wife Ma Bo, a team who recently choreographed "Rear Light," set to Pink Floyd's rock classic "The Wall," for the troupe. "River," to Stravinsky's iconic "Rite of Spring," is not so much an East-West fusion as a confrontation between those adhering to tradition and those rebelling.

With its uniform body types, the Beijing troupe is homogeneous in appearance, and the dancers, including Ma, frequently move in unison. In "Rite," rippling cape work akin to matador moves and percussive-like bends and dips take cues from a decidedly Western sensibility.

Furthering his monopoly on modernism, Tsao created an annual modern dance festival four years ago in his homeland.

"Last year, we had 22 groups from all over China," he says. "Most are experimenting with their bodies -- creating and performing their own works. They don't really have formal modern dance training, but neither did Isadora Duncan."


Beijing Modern Dance Company

Were: California Plaza, 350 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: Tonight-Saturday, 8 p.m.

Price: Free

Info: (213) 687-2159

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