Western songbird

By Liao Danlin Source:Global Times Published: 2014-7-16 21:28:01

TV talent show’s Xinjiang surprise

Gulmire Muhammed's final performance on So You Think You Can Dance Photo: Courtesy of Gulmire Muhammed

In an eye-catching and gem-studded dress, Gulmire Muhammed spins on the stage to deafening applause and cheers. This was her  performance on final of the Chinese version of UK TV show So You Think You Can Dance - but could an ethnic Uyghur possibly succeed?

"We say that the first stage of presenting ethnic and folk dance is to show a style, the second is to show the culture," judge and professional dance artiste Huang Doudou commented after. "But you have given us the highest level: That is, to allow the audience to see the ethnic group's totem through your performance." With four out of five votes in total, Muhammed became the surprise winner of this year's So You Think You Can Dance.

What has proved a surprise for audiences is that, for an imported television show, the winner was neither a ballerina nor a "street" dancer but a multi-skilled folk performer who, despite being familiar with Western styles such as jazz and modern dance, nevertheless insisted in presenting different ethnic dances from her own hometown.

A piece of Uyghur dance, a piece of Uzbekistan ethnic dance and a piece of Tajikistan traditional dance:  All have made the millions of audience remember this Xinjiang dancer forever.

An ethnic responsibility

Muhammed, 28, first started learning dance when she was 12 years old. After graduating from Xinjiang Arts University as a professional dancer, her outstanding performances led her to a new career path teaching at the university.

Over the past few years, Muhammed has participated in many competitions internationally. In 2008, she won bronze in a South Korean dance contest. In 2009, she went to Italy with a modern dance performance and again brought back a prize.

During 2011 to 2013, Muhammed completed her master's degree at the Beijing Dance Academy. However, instead of searching for more opportunities in the capital, she chose to return to Xinjiang, the place where she began her career.

"My home is here and my family is here," she told the Global Times. "It is meaningful for me to teach what I learnt in Beijing and abroad to my students here." For Muhammed, Beijing and Shanghai might have more stages and opportunities as a dancer, but only in Xinjiang could she become a really "useful" person.

This year, with only one expectation - to gain the experience and learn something new from dance legend Jin Xing, one of China's most famous modern dancers, as well as the most famous "mentor" on China's top dance shows - Muhammed made her decision to go on the national TV show.

"The university supported me strongly," she said. Being a mother of a 4-year-old daughter, Muhammed had her own concerns at the beginning. "But the university and people around me all hoped that I could use the stage to present my modernized Xinjiang Uyghur dance."

Fulfilling her promise, Muhammed impressed all judges with her modernized version of a traditional ethnic dance in the audition, opening the door to the finals.

From local to International 

Xinjiang is known to many Chinese as a place where "people can dance as long as they can walk."

However, in the past, only a small number of Xinjiang dancers were able to win a place in dance competitions.

As a student, Muhammed won second prize at the 2006 Taoli Cup, the top competition in China. It was also the best result that a Xinjiang dancer had achieved so far.

"We have been continuously impressed by choreography works performed by dancers from top dance academies in competitions," she said, adding that, although Xinjiang has many talented dancers, in terms of choreography, stage design, costumes and other artistic aspects, local performances are generally not as mature as those from more developed cities. However, this is changing.

Now, more dancers from Xinjiang are participating in national dance shows. In fact, Muhammed was not the only Uyghur dancer to appeared in this year's So You Think You Can Dance; tap dancers and street dancers from Xinjiang also impressed audiences in the auditions and early competitions.

 "We sometimes lack self-confidence and forget about our own characteristics," Muhammed admitted. "Yes, those award-winning performances are not our specialty but what we are good at is neither something others can learn easily."

Regarding further training in the US and competing with American dancers, Muhammed said she has never worried about whether her ethnic dances might fail to be accepted by international audiences.  

"Ethnic dances are actually performances with very international elements, and are very suitable for the global stage," as Fang Jun, an art director for several famous TV shows said to the Beijing News.

To inherit and develop

Ethnic dancers have become a highlight of this season's programming, with many from Inner Mongolia and Tibet.

For Muhammed, while traditional ethnic dance should be preserved, further modernization with innovation is also necessary.

"The performances from other dancers this year are not traditional ethnic dances," she pointed out. "Each dancer has added their new creation and style into the performance." 

Nowadays, international opportunities require multiple skills, demanding performers to learn new styles in a short period, and to react quickly on stage to different situations.

Moreover, in an era where the market is filled with more  publicly selected idols, a strong personality and performance style is becoming increasingly important.

Muhammed added that, to be able to stand out on such a stage, every ethnic dancer needs to have "something that only you can offer and something that not everyone can learn from a dance school."

Posted in: Dance

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