Young dancer reveals core of China’s ethnic culture
Whip smart
Published: Jul 14, 2022 06:21 PM
Dong Jilan (left) performs on stage with her partner. Photo: Courtesy of Dong Jilan

Dong Jilan (left) performs on stage with her partner. Photo: Courtesy of Dong Jilan

Moving across the stage, a young dancer rhythmically taps a meter-long bamboo pole adorned with strings of copper coins against her body in time with the music. With each strike a jingling sound emanates from the coins, blending with the rhythm of her movements and the sounds of traditional instruments. 

Known as Bawangbian (lit: King's whip) or Rattle Stick Dance, this performance is a folk dance of the Bai ethnic group. Almost everyone in the group knows how to wield the bamboo pole as the dance is a major part of any important traditional Bai festivals.

Dong Jilan, a post-1990s Bai ethnic dancer from Southwest China's Yunnan Province, has combined her own understanding of this traditional dance with modern composition to create a unique dance that she has brought to UK audiences with the help of an international team.

With this dance performance, Dong became the first dancer from the Chinese mainland to be nominated for the Emerging Artist Award at the UK's National Dance Awards 2018. The National Dance Awards are widely regarded as the most prestigious award ceremony for dancers in the UK.

"Bai ethnic culture is like a steady flow of inspiration for my creations. Whenever I return to my hometown, I can find my roots," Dong told the Global Times. 

International composition

Dong was recruited by the dance troupe of Yang Liping, one of China's most famous folk dancers and also a member of the Bai ethnic group, at the age of 11. 

Dong said that when she first entered Yang's dance troupe, she knew nothing about the art form, but her willingness to work hard allowed her to become one of the personal students to this world-known choreographer, who gained her fame in 1980s for "Peacock Princess" dance.

Dong is used to loneliness when creating dance performances. She once spent two entire years doing nothing but concentrating all her time on creating a single dance show, Whip, which emerged from the womb of the traditional Bawangbian.

The dance begins with Dong taking a stick from another elder role who plays her mother sitting on a futon making a pair of insoles, and ends with Dong handing the stick back to her. The stick represents the traditional bamboo pole in the dance.

Through the body performance of modern dance, Dong shows the process of Bai women going from being obedient and hardworking to breaking free from tradition and seeking self-liberation. 

Giving the traditional dance a modern symbolic form, she braids the stick, representing tradition, into her hair and then tries her best to break free from it.

Combining the roots of tradition with modern expression, Dong brought Whip to venues around the world, stunning audiences from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Dong told the Global Times that when creating the 30-minute-long dance routine, she added some Western musical instruments such as piano and cello in the background music.

"Our production team for the performance consists of people from different places. Producer Farooq Chaudhry is from the UK-based Akram Khan Company, while costume designer Marie Cantenys comes from France. Our lighting designer Fabiana Piccioli is Italian," Dong introduced.  

Dong said this kind of international cooperation was very helpful in exploring the essence of the inheritance of Whip with modern language, and can better reflect the cultural connotations of human commonness.

Dong said that she could feel the fondness of overseas audiences toward Chinese ethnic dance and culture, and noted that they expressed interest in the historical background of the performance.

Ethnic soul

Dong has attended several TV shows, including Up Young and China's Got Talent, performing the ethnic dances and making a name for herself among Chinese netizens.

Besides Whip, Dong has joined in performing classic dances by Yang's dance troupe, which reflect the cultural essence of Yunnan's ethnic minorities, among which the Bai ethnic group is just one. 

Both Dong and Yang believe that ethnic culture is the soul and root of their dance performances.

The new dance drama Apeng and Jinhua (lit: Apeng looks for Jinhua) is based on the marriage customs of the Bai people. Dong plays the leading role Jinhua.

Traditionally Bai brides wear round glasses and beautifully embroidered wedding dresses over white coats when they get married. Dong was impressed by this pursuit of beauty.

Dong and other young Chinese dancers such as Wang Kunjiong and Hu Shenyuan have been recorded in a documentary China on Stage, co-produced by Chinese video sharing platform Blibili and BBC, which aims at showing the charm of  young artists in China.

With broader international vision, Dong said she is thinking about teaching Bai children how to dance after improving her own dancing skills to provide a larger platform to express themselves.