Dancing on the Edge

After making my way through a labyrinth of identical corridors on the first floor of Beijing’s Olympic Sport Center, I finally come across the group of young dancers from the Beijing Dance Theater, founded by Wang Yuanyuan in late 2008, practicing and rehearsal there like they do every day.

The difficult route to finding this theater is a fitting testament to the current position of modern dance in China: “It is definitely a lonely art,” says Wang.

Compared to the bustling fourth ring road streets choked with traffic just outside the fence, the Olympic Sport Center, surrounded by parks and grass, seems much more peaceful and forgotten place to work.

Beijing Dance Theater (BDT) is the first dance troupe in China that combines ballet with modern dance. All of the dancers in the troupe are initially selected for their ballet abilities but also with an eye to their creative expression.

“I like how dancers’ feet move elegantly in ballet,” says Wang, who is also the artistic director of BDC, “but I am keen on the freedom of the modern dance. Modern dancing’s creating way, expressing way is more related to the social development and it is more familiar to young people.”

Wang was the first Chinese choreographer to win the top prize for choreography in international ballet competitions for four times. She won the prize in Moscow International Ballet in 1997, and subsequently won other prizes in France, America and Bulgaria. On the quiet Chinese modern dance stage, she has to struggle anew, with every process requiring persistence and dedication. In less than three years Wang has created seven works for the troupe, some of which have already been toured around Europe. Italian newspaper, l’Adige comments on their work, Stirred from a Dream, “many other chapters are cleanly influenced by western contemporary dance, but it is great mix of delicacy and balance.”

In one of the rehearsal rooms, a grapevine swing hangs from the roof, a large mattress lies in the middle and a traditional Chinese bed rocks on its specially-made swinging beam. A Chinese ancient song, spiced with elements of electronic, leads the dancers through their most recent work, Golden Lotus, which depicts an erotic, sensual love story featuring the Chinese version of “Don Giovanni”, Xi Menqing, and his several lovers.

Wang, in a tight black shirt, sits crossed-legged. Her ponytail casually lies on one side of her shoulder. Although in her late 30’s, her delicate features and taunt body easily conceals her real age.

Wang’s eyes follow the dancers’ movements. She sometimes frowns with frustration, sometimes smiles, and occasionally burst into laughter; her facial expressions completely dependent on the dancers’ performances. The occasional turn to her assistant to share note is the only interruption of her gaze and she usually waits until the chapter finishes before giving feedback.

Golden Lotus was selected to be performed during the 2011 Hong Kong Art Festival in April this year. Before the troupe even got to Hong Kong, the tickets were sold out.

After the performance, the Hong Kong media described the piece as a “living oil painting”. Instead of presenting explicit sexual aspects, instead, Wang’s choreography aimed to arouse audiences’ unlimited imaginations and awaken their inner desires. Unfortunately Golden Lotus has not been performed in Beijing due to its controversial contents.

Using her own point of view, Wang often focuses on depicting women’s delicate feelings, as well as psychology towards love and life. In Colors of Love, created in 2010, she explored women from age 20 to age 40 and their lives and struggles. Part of this work was originally choreographed by the Royal Danish Dance Theater but expanded upon for Colors of Love.

To enrich her dancers’ experience, Wang, through her personal relationships, invited three choreographers from Canada, Sweden and Denmark to come to work with the dancers. The Prism was collaboration work between her dancers and the three choreographers.

Haze, created during Sichuan earthquake, explores the sense of security, and the meaning of life in people’s mind. It just finished its European tour in May.

Wang started dancing when she was nine, although there were many critical moments that could have changed her career trajectory. Before she has made her mind to become a professional choreographer Wang was selected to become a member of the Beijing Synchronized Swimming Team. She was also a popular model for commercial advertisement. However, her strong desire to dance pulled her back onto the stage.

After 1994, when she won the first of her International Dance Competition awards in Paris, Wang decided to create her own style of body language. She was resident choreographer for the National Ballet of China but from 2000-2003 she went to study at the California Institute of Arts School of Dance to try to bring in fresh and new approaches to modern dance. Directly after her graduation in 2003 she was invited to serve as guest choreographer at the New York City Ballet.

The ballet version of the movie Raise the Red Lantern, which she collaborated on with director Zhang Yimou, made her a recognizable name internationally. She was also one of main choreographers for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

According to Wang everything happened in a very natural way, “I have experience working with many top ballet theatres from various countries. I knew what I wanted, what I can do and what I am short of. I have tried to establish a better, more precise system than the Chinese ballet theatre.” In 2008 she finally started her own dance troupe.

Ballet in China developed with a heavy influence from Russian ballet, and Chinese audiences naturally understand this style of ballet more because it tells the story using familiar, pre-designed movements. Chinese audiences generally seek to enjoy dance by following the plots and despite the long history of modern dance for most Chinese audience it is still quite an abstract concept. This means that for artists such as Wang they not only have to create exciting new dances but also develop the industry.

Between commercial interests and art, Wang choose to pursue the latter, which comes with added financial pressure. BDT gets some subsidy from the government; however, this is not enough to cover even basic costs. In addition, in China, to improve the relationship with related organization, many tickets are given out for free. She has previously declined financial support from larger companies as she refuses to let her dancers go to KTV with their leaders.

“I sometimes think maybe BDT can’t run for 50 years,” says Wang. “However, even if it only exists for five years, or ten years, I am still happy it has been here. We have the process; it is enough. Life is a process.”

In an adjoining rehearsal room, some of the company’s dancers are busy with French choreographer Anthony Egéaon, over here as part of the cooperation program. They are working on hip-hop infused ballet.

Performances by BDT have been scheduled up to 2013.

“I remember once I was chatting with my dancers,” says Wang. “I said, let’s carry on the dance, and the dancing tour forever. Perhaps we will have endless work to perform until we die on the stage—it would be the greatest happiness as a dancer.”

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