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Modern look of China

Despite some growing pains, the art form is finding ways to experiment and grow. Still, it does better away than at home.

September 16, 2007|Cathy Yan | Special to The Times

BEIJING — In a bare room with no air conditioning, baby-faced dancers stand in the muggy heat with their eyes closed and palms up, as Tibetan chants play on a dusty stereo and bulky fans hum in a corner. Swaying to the music, they extend their arms across their torsos and over their heads, trying to shed years of technical education at the urging of their teacher.

"Your hands are holding candles. Feel the heat in your palm and the weight in your fingers," directs Gao Yanjinzi, founding member and creative director of the Beijing Modern Dance Company. "I have no interest in your dance moves. You have to do it with real heart. Don't lie to yourself."

Like these tyros, modern dance in China is searching for its heart, and its identity, as it emerges from a tradition of collectivism that viewed all artists as cheerleaders for the Communist Party. With the government loosening its grip, practitioners of the art form are finding opportunities to experiment and grow. But while its star rises abroad, Chinese modern dance also finds itself confronting commercial pressures and more subtle forms of government entanglement, as well as a struggle to build a quality audience at home.

Modern dance made its debut in China in 1987 as an experimental collaboration with American artists at the Guangdong Dance Academy in the southeastern city of Guangzhou (formerly Canton). Initially, the country had only two modern dance companies, both state-sponsored, making it easy for officials to inspect every performance and control every purse string. During the 1990s, in line with liberalization in the society and the economy, state-run arts groups gradually gained more freedom.

Then, in 2005, a watershed occurred when the Ministry of Culture granted state arts groups permission to become independent companies. Not only did this open the door for the formation of new companies, but it also allowed older ones to evolve -- led by Beijing Modern, which in 2006 became China's first nonprofit dance organization.

As with much else in China, however, the state never fully releases its grip. Overt censorship is less a concern these days, but artists still internalize certain "red lines" in keeping with the government's "Three No's": no nudity, no self-mutilation and no outright criticism of the political system.

Party cadres, for their part, view the arts as a useful tool in the emergence of China on the world stage. "They see contemporary arts as an important development in showing China as a modern power," says Willy Tsao, artistic director of three modern companies -- in Guangdong, Hong Kong and Beijing.

On the one hand, this state support gives China's modern dance world the sort of exposure and financial backing that many companies abroad can only dream of. Government-financed annual festivals showcase hundreds of modern companies, both local and foreign.

CCTV Channel 1's National Dance Competition exposes a billion Chinese at a time to their first taste of modern dance. "Just think of the power," says Aly Rose, a professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and the Beijing Dance Academy's first and only foreign graduate. Indeed, President Hu Jintao had Beijing Modern accompany him on a 2004 visit to Santiago, Chile, for a regional economic summit.

Government support, however, can be a double-edged sword. Although the exposure is great, the "American Idol"-like atmosphere of CCTV programs is not exactly what modern dance pioneers had in mind. "Modern dance and competitions are not compatible," Tsao says. "If you compete, dance will very quickly become codified."

That's not the only problem. "The president doesn't give a [toss] about modern dance," says Jin Xing, artistic director of the Jin Xing Dance Theater, who caused a media frenzy when she underwent a sex change operation in 1992. "Their support is just another color of propaganda."


China's modern dance companies don't want to sell out or sell themselves short as they consciously distance themselves from the death-defying acrobatics, propaganda ballets and backup entertainers that define dance for many average Chinese.

"I refuse to play that game," says Beijing Modern director Zhang Changcheng, who abandoned a successful business career to revamp the company a decade ago. Zhang says he rejects any government invitation requiring restrictions on the troupe's dances.

But as the various companies forge their identities, the small community is not without its ego battles, complete with legal disputes and accusations of corruption. Tsao, who worked with Zhang at Beijing Modern for six years, left in 2005 over what he terms a "power struggle." Ten of Beijing Modern's dancers also left with Tsao to form the Beijing LDTX Dance Company.

"Zhang tried to put me in jail," Tsao contends. "He called me a liar and said I stole money from the company."

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