The gift of dance

By Liao Danlin Source:Global Times Published: 2014-7-6 19:23:01

German choreographer takes things on the road

Thomas Lehmen (R) poses with a young boy in Kyrgyzstan. Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Lehmen

Dancers perform on stage in Chennai, India. Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Lehmen

Dance rehearsal in Bangladesh Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Lehmen

Life is a journey. No other statement could be more true for German choreographer and dancer Thomas Lehmen, who has been traveling on his motorcycle around Europe and Asia since April 2013, than this one. Starting off from his hometown of Oberhausen, the dancer traveled to Tallinn, Warsaw, Bologna, Giessen, Sofia, Chennai, Dhaka and even India and Japan, before arriving in China in June. 

On Saturday, an open rehearsal was held free to the public at Penghao Theatre in Beijing. After only about a week of practice, Lehmen's intention was to help a group of Chinese dancers present a very personal gift to someone close to them.

Worldwide project

Born in Oberhausen, Germany in 1963, Thomas Lehman studied at the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam from 1986 to 1990, later becoming a free lance choreographer and performing artist, as well as a teacher at universities.

As time went by he became more interested in connecting with people, and soon the seeds of his current project started to take root.

"I was thinking about a worldwide project, with which I could travel around the world with my motorcycle," Lehmen told the Global Times, sharing how he started this project which has taken him across half the globe. Looking for an idea that would let him connect with strangers and audiences in different countries he finally came up with the idea of giving people the gift of dance.

"The first decision I made was 'which way around the globe do I go?'" he explained. Thus his journey began with him heading from Germany to Poland.

While on the road Lehmen began making plans on where he would stop along the way by contacting different organizations that might offer support. Each time he found a suitable location he would hold a workshop for about one or two weeks, cooperating with local dancers to help them design performances they could present as a gift to someone close to them.

Although the longer he worked with dancers the better they performed, he discovered that a single week of practice worked quite well, as the short time helped keep things from getting too stale for him and the dancers involved.

Lehmen used the time he spent with dancers in China as an example of how he usually works. The first two days of cooperation are spent mainly brainstorming, allowing dancers to think about the person they would want to present a gift to as well as discussing communication theory and possible creative themes.

This gift can be anything, a dance, a song or a theater performance, but most importantly it has to be specifically designed for the person who will receive it, keeping in mind that individuals taste in music, art and other things.

Once a basic idea has been chosen, Lehmen then works with the dancers on a more physical level helping them turn their plans into a real performance.

Honesty and caring

Initially, Lehmen intended to choreograph the performances himself, but this idea began to change after he started working with local dancers.

"I'm more of a mediator for the structure of an idea," he said. Never telling participants what they should do, he tries to help dancers be creative based on a foundation of mutual understanding.

"We always find artistic solutions for everything. It always works. This is also why each piece is different from any of the others," he said. 

Living life on the road for a year has not been easy, sometimes he would have to ride for an entire month, meeting people only when he stopped to eat or sleep along the way. "There was a big contrast between how cold I was on the road and at different stops," he laughed. 

Lehmen has kept a record of his entire journey so far on his website. There readers can find photos of his new Japanese friend who lost everything in the tsunami that hit the country three years back, as well as diary entries describing how the unstable political situation in Bangladesh prevented many of his dancers from coming to a rehearsal while he was in the country.

His focus on gift giving led to some very interesting encounters along his journey, and slowly he came to realize that giving one's time and attention is itself a kind of gift, and in return his dancers were also giving him a gift.

"People can understand each other on different levels even if they don't speak the same language," he said.

Art in life

So how does the inspiration Lehmen has picked up on the road and his discussions with dancers about creativity affect the final gift they end up giving?

He explained that while these final pieces are not always perfect pieces of art due to time constraints, but in his mind they are still very artistic. "Things are performed in a way that you can't comprehend too directly," he added, explaining that even without direct explanation of what each gesture of a particular performance means, the meaning of what the performer is trying to convey still comes through in most cases.

Regional differences also have their affect on the final performance. The choreographer was continually impressed by people who were particularly good at traditional dances and how they translated this into a code that audiences could understand.

"We have shows that are very strongly illustrated," Lehmen said, adding that he was impressed by how Kazakhstan dancers were strongly influenced by Russian tradition yet still able to add their own styles that added additional layers of meaning and content.

During the open rehearsal in China, Lehmen insisted on not letting anyone use the seats in the theater so that the audience would have to sit around the stage. He felt that people should be able to act freely during the performance. Afterwards an audience member surnamed He told the Global Times, "The 11 dancers all had different stories to tell. It was an altogether very unique performance."

In the coming weeks, the project will head to Wuhan, Hubei Province, and then on to other countries throughout the remains of 2014.

Posted in: Dance

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