CCDC dancers perform 365 Ways of Doing and Undoing Orientalism Photo: Courtesy of CCDC
Will Tsao Photo: Courtesy of Beijing Dance LDTX
Having paid witness to the development of modern dance in both Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland since the 1970s, Hong Kong choreographer Will Tsao is one of the art form's most influential figures in China.
"Modern dancers number among the pioneers of the times who have the acutest minds," Tsao told the Global Times on April 6 in his studio Beijing Dance LDTX. Founded by Tsao in 2005, it is the first registered private modern dance group in the mainland.
The 62-year-old is also the founder of Hong Kong's first modern dance group, the City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC). Boasting about the art form's spirit of diversity and individualism and how it functions as a mirror reflecting the changes of an era, Tsao likes to refer to modern dance as "China's Renaissance Movement."
In Tsao's opinion, while traditional dance forms such as ballet or folk abide by certain rules, modern dance is bound by no limits.
"Each modern dance routine is about an individual. As such it's only natural for each routine to be different, diverse and full of vitality," Tsao said, noting that this is where the charm of the art form lies.
Start of a career
Recalling the first modern dance performance he saw in 1971 when he was still in high school, Tsao said he fell in love with it at first sight.
"The show was performed by US' Louis Falco Dance Company. The moves, the rhythm and the energy… all made me want to be part of them even though I had no idea what it all meant," said Tsao, laughing.
After four years of training in the US, he returned to Hong Kong in 1977 and began his modern dance career. Two years later, he established the CCDC. Later in 1992, Tsao was named artistic director of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company (GMDC), the first modern dance group in the mainland approved by a provincial government. After working with the company for six years, he moved north in 1999 to work as artistic director of the Beijing Modern Dance Company until 2005.
"I never planned any of this," Tsao said.
When he started the CCDC in Hong Kong in the late 1970s, the city was ready to embrace something new.
"Everybody was waiting for something to happen," he said. "Modern dance was new at the time, even in Hong Kong."
It didn't take long for other places to catch up. Thanks to China's reform and opening-up, the end of the 1980s saw mainland cities such as Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province, start to embrace this novel art form.
"When the soil is ready, the seed starts to grow," Tsao said.
When asked if running a modern dance group in the mainland means having to deal with certain limitations, Tsao said that there has not been any "strict censorship" placed on his troupe.
"Politically sensitive issues such as 'Hong Kong independence' and things like nudity, these are the must-nots," Tsao replied. "This is quite understandable. Besides these, we have few limits."
Art of individualism
Despite growing acceptance over the years, modern dance is still regarded as a niche art and is definitely no rival to popular culture such as pop music and movies when it comes to audience numbers. Tsao explained that this is not only true for China, but also for a large part of the world.
One of the reasons is that the majority of audiences have a hard time "understanding" the type of dance routines that falls under the category of modern art since they are deeply influenced by abstruse concepts such as abstract expression and surrealism.
Before the interview, the Global Times reporter had watched the Beijing Dance LDTX's Behind the Cracks on March 31. The two-hour show filled with metaphorical stage designs and sometimes seemingly impromptu moves looked somewhat like a combination of dance performance and a stage play.
"It's not true," Tsao said, smiling at the suggestion that modern dance is merely a combination of these two mediums. "That was just one show. It's important to realize that modern dance has no fixed pattern."
Unlike classical ballet which has a storyline that informs every move, modern dance "does not necessarily contain dramatic elements," Tsao said. He went on to explain that, be it an abstract performance or a more easy to understand one full of dramatic elements, modern dance performances can depict anything from a recreation of a real-life scene or just a number of movements expressing the joy of being alive.
According to Tsao, some dancers and choreographers, especially younger ones, have a difficult time continually trying to push for new ways to express themselves. The huge commercial successes of shows put on by some modern dance troupes, such as the Cloud Gate Dance Theater troupe in Taiwan, sometimes make these young artists wonder if they should just turn to works that are more recognized by the market.
"These types of performances are pure business, not art," Tsao said. "Modern dance is about breaking through. I always ask young dancers to try and create works that are original and focused on their own experiences."
CCDC and Beijing Dance LDTX's annual dance seasons have always welcomed young talent. For this year's dance season, among the six new shows that the CCDC is putting on in local theaters in Beijing, two are from novice choreographers, according to CCDC associate art director Dominic Wong.
Among them, there is also an anniversary special Amidst the Wind, a retrospective show that includes excerpts of some of the troupe's best programs over the past two decades. The show is scheduled to debut in Beijing in July, as this year also marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China.
Aside from Amidst, Tsao remarked that "we did not deliberately pick performances to fit with the theme of the anniversary" since he doesn't want to see the season become a clichéd festival full of hollow slogans or featuring fluffy descriptions about the anniversary.