Like a deft action hero in a martial arts film, Beijing Modern Dance Company artistic director Willy Tsao has had to fend off challenges from every side.
"Why doesn't your work have more of a Hong Kong identity?" people asked when the Hong Kong native founded a modern dance company there in 1979.
"Why are you interested in capitalist, pro-American art?" Chinese government officials asked when he brought modern dance to Guangzhou in 1987.
"Why aren't you more Chinese?" Western critics demand when his troupes -- the Beijing company and the City Contemporary Dance Company of Hong Kong -- tour Europe and the U.S.
"Western critics sound exactly like our government," Tsao said a few months ago on his last visit to Los Angeles, when the Hong Kong company performed as part of the downtown Grand Performances series. " 'You must always do something Chinese. You should not follow the Western style.' I say no. Do whatever you want. The essence of modern dance is freedom. When an artist has a total freedom to do whatever he wants, this is modern dance."
That sensibility will be on view when Tsao's Beijing troupe dances "Rear Light" to Pink Floyd's 1979 rock album "The Wall" on Friday and Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Choreographed by Li Han-Zhong, deputy director of the company, and his wife, Ma Bo, the work embodies the anti-establishment themes of alienation, individuality and anger that Tsao, 49, encourages in the troupe he took over in 1999. (It was formed in 1995.)
"I tell them they are totally free," he said. "I do not want to restrict them -- and they should not be restricted."
Tsao did not set out to pursue a dance career. He planned to take over the family textile business. But while studying business at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., he also took some modern dance classes, and he was hooked. During summer breaks, he flew to New York to broaden his dance technique, and while he did go on to earn an MBA from the University of Hong Kong in 1979, he promptly applied his business knowledge to starting City Contemporary Dance.
From the beginning, others forced him to face issues about identity. "We were criticized for not being totally 'Hong Kong,' " he said last year. " 'What is that?' I asked. 'Hong Kong is East meets West,' people said. 'OK. What is East meets West? Isn't New York like that? Isn't Los Angeles like that? Isn't any city in the world multiculturally influenced?' The bigger the city, the more it's like that."
To accommodate his critics, he mixed Western dance and long-sleeved Chinese costumes. "But after a while, we thought those works are not what we really want to do. It's like playing 'Chopsticks' and singing a few commercial songs to attract tourists. So we threw away all those concepts and did what we honestly felt."
His reputation began to grow, and in 1986 he was invited to guest teach at the Beijing Dance Academy. Soon after, he helped set up the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, one of the first in China. He led the company from 1992 to 1998.
It was a struggle, he recalled. "There was a lot of debate, a lot of questions. I had to write a lot of articles and endure a great deal of criticism. They still consider modern dance very subversive because it doesn't conform to the mainstream culture. But young people, especially in Beijing, find it fascinating. They find liberation in the body and a new way of expression and communication. Modern dance is also abstract, so it doesn't rely on words, which sometimes could be very direct and dangerous."
Indeed, abstraction has helped Tsao's work slip free of censorship. When authorities banned an early '90s piece about abortion that showed a woman thrashing about on a table, Tsao changed its title. The forbidden "Woman's Pain" became the acceptable "Sleepless Night."
In "Rear Light," the dancers behave brutally and vulnerably, mimicking executions and attempts to ward off blows. In those moments and the crime-scene body silhouettes painted on the floor, Western critics have seen echoes of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Tsao says that the event was pivotal in his thinking, but he insists the work has a wider meaning.
"Before, I always considered myself a Hong Kong person, which was under British rule," he said. "When it happened, I started to consider myself fully Chinese." However, "Rear Light" is meant "to reflect the young in China today, their fight to be free from tradition and their search for new challenges. This kind of struggle happens everywhere."
A necessary awareness
But there is a broad East-West difference, he said. "American modern dancers don't really think of themselves as 'American.' Here, they have complete freedom. But once you look at a Chinese modern dancer, then you automatically ask the question, 'What is your Chineseness?' I answer, because I am Chinese, whatever I do is Chinese. I cannot possibly choreograph an American modern dance.