Transculturating Bodies: Politics of Identity of Contemporary Dance in China

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Transculturating Bodies:
Politics of Identity of Contemporary Dance in China
Helly Minarti

Borrowing the concept of ‘transculturation’ of Fernando Ortiz (via Taylor and Rogers), this report establishes an account on modern/contemporary dance[i] in postsocialist Chia society, positioning the transformative process of the art not on the base of ‘resistance’ or ‘opposition’ or the conflict between hegemony and counter-hegemony, but liberating it from the pitfall of locking cultures into binaries such as West/East, tradition/modernity, et cetera. Instead, Ortiz’s transculturation denominates the transformative process undergone by a society in the acquisition of foreign cultural material – the loss or displacement of a society’s culture due to the acquisition or imposition of foreign material, and the fusion of the indigenous and the foreign to create a new, original cultural product and identity. Focus is set on reading the dance corpus of Chinese choreographers whose works demonstrate and outline what I call ‘transculturating bodies’, an innovative process that transforms the amalgam of ‘global’ contents of the arts (dance) not into a cultural transplantation or imitation, but instead it leads into a new, original creation.

Contemporary Dance in China: Bodies, Transculturating
Modern/contemporary dance is by history an art of crossing-boundaries, a story woven by traveling ideas and geographic migrations, as shown by what occurred in the People’s Republic of China. In 1902, Yu Rong-ling, a Chinese diplomat’s daughter living in Paris, studied briefly with Isadora Duncan, one of the pioneers of American modern dance. She performed Duncan’s “Greek Dance” in the Royal Palace of Empress Ci Xi. Denishawn and Irma Duncan’s Russian students performed in China twice, in 1925 and 1928.

Shanghai in the 1920s-30s was indeed a cosmopolitan, transnational space, full of people from all over the world. The Russians introduced ballet, whilst the Western ballroom dance became the social dance in no time. Around the same time, some independent artists ventured to combine the oriental and occidental dancing notion in their new choreographic creation.[ii] Two exponents of this new artistic endeavour were Wu Xiao Bang (Zu-Pei) and Dai Ai Lian. Wu staged his first new dance in 1935 in Shanghai, with only an old lady from Poland in attendance. In Japan, he studied under an Isadora-influenced ballet teacher and Shijingmo, a follower of German dance theoretician Rudolf von Laban. Wu drew his movement from daily life and martial arts. He also took the cue from Laban’s quality of feeling, strength, and direction as well as Shijingmo’s idea of visual aspect of dance. His repertoire, such as The Fire in Hunger, reflects on the outrage and tragic life of ordinary Chinese after the Japan war, resulting in a series of politically-themed dance concerts. Eventually, Wu opened the Heavenly Horse Dance Studio, where he tried to apply German modern dance concepts to Chinese themes and music.

Dai – trained in the Royal School of Ballet, Ballet Rambert in the United Kingdom and stints with Mary Wigman and Jooss-Leeder schools – returned home to pursue her passion. She discovered other forms in China’s hinterland, creating her signature ‘drum dance’ – a theatrical transformation of Yao’s ethnic group original. But these first seeds of Chinese ‘new’modern dance were soon deeply buried in the nation’s political upheaval that lasted for almost four decades.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) – as happened to many – Dai was sent to a remote village to do menial jobs. Dance was politically deconstructed under Jiang Qing, then Mao Ze Dong’s wife, the honorary artistic director of Beijing Dance Academy. Madam Mao constructed ‘propaganda ballet’ – a ballet repertoire with a proletarian message. She created eight dances/operas in the same manner and that was all people were allowed to see. A protagonist in Red Detachment of...
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