CHINA DANCE JOURNAL
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by Grant Strate


Ancient, clouded in mystery and misunderstood, China maintains a unique place in the mind. What becomes clear in Grant Strate's China Dance Journal is that the Chinese are searching for a contemporary life.

Ballet is an import to China courtesy of the Russians. But Strate finds the Chinese hungry for new dance forms and ideas. He baits the question - will they simply adopt western dance ideology or will they find their own contemporary dance voice?

This is not the diary of a tourist, but the first-hand impressions of a working dance teacher written at the end of long arduous days. Mixed with the daily routine, Strate records his personal thoughts and feelings on dance in China - complicated by the frustration of language barriers, the fixed attitudes of the institutional dance academies, strange food and Chinese medicine - all the while maintaining his innate humour and sense of irony.

We see, as did Strate, the inside workings of the theatrical dance scene in China.


My fascination with China began during my first visit to Beijing in 1986 and the opportunity to teach several classes at the Beijing Dance Academy, a school I had already heard much about from Vancouver teacher Choo Chiat Goh and from others who had been connected in some way with that fine training institution. The Beijing Dance Academy had been founded in 1954 as a central training ground for all of China with the close involvement of Russian teachers. At that time the Russian ballet syllabus prevailed and Chinese indigenous dance artists codified their own style and movements into what is now called Chinese Classical Dance, very much influenced by the format set by the Russians. When Russia and China acrimoniously split on ideological political grounds at the end of the 1950's, the Academy was left to the Chinese who then took on the task of training their own teachers, a process set back by the Cultural Revolution when the classical ballet code and the story content of ballets produced during that long period suffered under the censorious scrutiny of Jiang Qing, the wife of the all powerful Mao Ze Dong.

While the evolution of dance as an art form may have been restricted by the Cultural Revolution it is often forgotten that the Beijing Dance Academy, The Central Ballet of China and the Shanghai Ballet benefited considerably by the financial support they gained from a regime that regarded dance as a vehicle for strengthening the party line. By 1977, the end of the Cultural Revolution, the heads of the Beijing Dance Academy realized there was some catching up to do. It was interesting to me that one of the first guests invited to help them in their task was Celia Franca, founding artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, who went to teach in Beijing and Shanghai in 1978 and in 1980 set the ballet Coppélia for the Beijing Academy. Li Yaming, who now teaches ballet in Vancouver, danced Franz in that production. He had spoken to me about that period in the Academy's history as had Celia Franca.

It was through Li Yaming that I was invited back to the Beijing Dance Academy for the month of March, 1990 to teach eleven classes a week and to choreograph a major work for the students as well as a pas de deux and male solo. This was an extremely heavy schedule for me but it had the advantage of convincing the Chinese teachers and students I was more than a sightseeing guest (although I did plenty of that too). Consequently I was invited into homes and talked to openly about sensitive political issues such as the Tiananmen Square incident which had happened only a few months before my visit. There were few cultural barriers to contend with. Those four weeks enhanced my growing appreciation of the Chinese people and particularly the standard and style of ballet training which was a modification of the Russian base to the physical attributes of the people, particularly in the North, and the aesthetic refinements deeply entrenched in Chinese culture. I very much liked the way they danced. Lyricism, poetry and delicacy made up for the absence of the extrovert athleticism which has always been the hallmark of the Russians.

ChinaDanceJournalI also found it was very easy to relate to Chinese people, at least those I worked with and got to know in more than a superficial way. I believe my attraction and interest in making a continuing professional connection in China is as much motivated by the ease with which thought processes connect as my admiration for Chinese dancing. I have never found the Chinese to be "inscrutable", the word applied to the Oriental mind by westerners. Unlike the Japanese in their own country, many of whom I met during three visits to Japan, who were pleasant enough without revealing the other side, the private side of their lives, I have always found the Chinese to be direct in the same way I am. Their many political jokes resonate in the same way as mine. Their humour is not cloaked in cultural subtleties. If they like you, you know it immediately. If they are unhappy about something you can see it in their faces even though they may be too polite to speak about it. This is probably too simple an observation, there being strong roots in China that are not my roots. Even so, I have always felt comfortable with the Chinese, if not always with their way of life.

During my 1990 trip to Beijing I got to know Xu Ding Zhong, then a senior director of the Ballet Division. I also invited a dancer who was with the People's Liberation Army dance troupe, Wang Wen Wei, to attend the Dance Program of the Summer Institute of the Centre for the Arts at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver to study modern dance technique with Peggy Baker. He was quickly invited to join the Judith Marcuse Dance Company and later to be a member of Ballet British Columbia. Xu Ding Zhong visited Vancouver in 1993 and at that time my third trip to China was planned with his generous assistance. So in 1994 I spent six weeks teaching in Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an, Chengdu and Guangzhou. To my surprise, the Beijing Dance Academy had introduced a modern dance division. This was inevitable but I thought it would not happen so quickly. It pleased me that the Academy had wisely chosen to explore contemporary movement values from its own cultural traditions and did not simply import American modern dance as had happened earlier in Guangzhou.

The Shanghai Dance Academy was technically very strong but also more stuck on a rigid classical road. Xi'an, the first capital city of China (circa 200 BC), was more interesting for its history than for its dance, but I taught classes to very eager students preparing to be Chinese Song and Dance professionals. It was good to meet Wang Wen Wei's family who were warm and kind hosts. But Xi'an was the site of my most unexpected and strange Chinese experience. I was invited, coerced really, to speak at China's first International Conference on Chinese culture and advertising, so I spoke about the economics of art making and the danger of adopting American models of promotion. I was extremely relieved to walk away from that one with my life still intact but it proved to be a big hit with the delegates, all of whom were Chinese. Next, I spent a week teaching and lecturing at the Sichuan Dance Academy in Chengdu. There I was considered to be highly contemporary and radical enough to create a great deal of dialogue about choreography and teaching methods, so much so that I was immediately invited to return to work with students of choreography. Following Beijing's model, Sichuan planned to set up a choreographic division, though not a modern dance stream, for the immediate future. My last week in China was spent in Guangzhou at the Guangdong Dance Academy where it took all of two days to break through suspicions about my intentions there. Once they concluded I was a threat to no one, all went well.

Until I reached Guangzhou on the 1994 trip, I had concluded China was considerably more open and liberal than during the Tiananmen Square aftermath. People seemed to be more relaxed about political matters. It came as a shock then to tune my hotel TV set in on a Hong Kong news broadcast (Hong Kong being only forty miles away) to hear of 400 criminals who had that very day been summarily tried and shot in Guangzhou. A sobering moment.

As I had agreed to return to Chengdu I arranged my life so I could do this in September, 1996.

Two weeks were confirmed for Chengdu with reasonable financial arrangements concluded. From there I expected to go directly to Hong Kong for one week where plans were in progress with Delina Law, a former student and close colleague recently returned to Hong Kong from Vancouver, to teach a number of classes to professional groups there.

This plan changed when staff and faculty of the Beijing Dance Academy heard I would be in China and extended an invitation to teach its choreographic division. As I was already committed to spend a week teaching in Taipei by arrangement with Norman Fung, another former student now working in Taipei, and could not extend the trip beyond five weeks because of previous obligations in Vancouver, I was only able to go to Beijing for one week.

The whole venture was invigorating and exhausting as expected, but on this trip I believe I was able to assess the China situation more clearly, perhaps because my previous experiences provided meaningful reference points but also because I knew more people who seemed to trust my presence in China. I no longer felt I was a stranger, however they felt about me. Although physically over-stressed, I was mentally and emotionally more at ease.

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