Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in the printed Dance/USA Journal, spring 2010 and has been updated to reflect ongoing developments in dance touring and presenting in China. To read part 2 of this report in From the Green Room click here.
Author’s note: Both “Hundred Flowers” and “Long March” are metaphoric uses of two famous movements of the Chinese Communist Party. “Hundred Flowers” was a brief interlude in China from 1956 to 1957 when the party encouraged a variety of views and solutions to national policy issues. “Long March” was a massive military retreat undertaken by the party’s Red Army between 1934 and 1936.
By Ling Tang
As the daughter of a Chinese foreign minister in the Qing Dynasty, Yu Rongling traveled with her father to Paris in 1899. For three years she studied with Isadora Duncan, who was performing and teaching there. When Yu returned home, she introduced Western modern dance to audiences in China. Likewise, in 1925 and 1926, the Denishawn Dance Company toured China twice for a cumulative duration of 40 days. Led by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, the group included Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Ann Douglas, who later became major forces of American modern dance. “The tour progressed artistically, personally, and even spiritually,” according to Dance Chronicle. “It was a great education for the Denishawn dancers, and it nurtured thoughts that determined the future course of many lives.”
I have been asking myself what was the core and meaning of the spiritual life of China and what embodiment did its highest aesthetic feeling take, and by effortless logic I have arrived at White Jade and Kuan Yin …
— Ruth St. Denis
While 2009 marked the 30th anniversary of Sino-U.S. diplomacy, dance exchanges between China and the U.S. continue to be a renewable theme. For both countries, cross-cultural dialogues in the arts offer significant potential for strengthening ties between people. Although in recent years, more U.S. dance companies have appeared onstage in China, due to many circumstances, the road to China is indeed long and full of obstacles. Admittedly, this has as much to do with infiltrating distinct bureaucratic systems as it does with dance excellence. The arts and cultural sector has been one of China’s most protected industries — highly regulated, dominated by state ownership, and sheltered from international competition. Since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, the system experienced a period of rapid change to be better suited to a higher level of market-driven economy and to be more open to international performing artists.
The unforgettable grand Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics with its huge crowd of performers dressed in fine costumes executing sophisticated, choreographed spectacles in mass unison unabashedly emphasized the nation’s strong collectivistic culture. The symbolism of this event made clear that Western performing artists still have some hurdles to overcome before solidifying their place in China’s artistic landscape.
Of all the Western performing arts, the Chinese perhaps feel the greatest affinity for Western classical forms, including ballet, because the audiences are comfortable with dramatic structure — interpreting stories and characters without words or dialogue. Also, the emphasis on beauty and virtue in movement closely aligns with traditional Chinese ideologies. Moreover, the historical impact of its “Communist brother,” the Soviet Union, made ballet dominant on Chinese stages for generations. Back in the 1950s, Russian émigré ballet experts brought Vaganova technique to China and directed full-length classical productions of Le Corsaire, Swan Lake, Giselle, Esmeralda, Fountains of Bakhchisarai, and a new ballet, The Maid of the Sea, based on traditional Chinese dance forms. The unique Chinese ballet themes later evolved, reaching their zenith — or nadir, depending on one’s aesthetics and politics — during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. The Red Detachment of Women and The White-Haired Girl became the two most legendary of the revolutionary ballets. The essence — “arabesque in peasant’s pants with rifle in hands” — influenced Chinese artists and audiences for generations.
The official collaboration between American and Chinese modern dance companies was launched in 1986 when Chinese dance educator Yang Meiqi and Charles Reinhart, American Dance Festival (ADF)’s co-director at the time, established a training program in China. In the succeeding four years, ADF sent faculty to teach modern dance classes to students and teachers in Guangzhou and brought Chinese dancers and choreographers to the U.S. in an effort to expand Sino-American dance exchanges. The Chinese graduating class went on to form China’s first modern dance company, Guangdong Modern Dance Company (GMDC), in 1992. Today, GMDC has been hailed by The New York Times as “one of the big success stories of international dance.” The company’s former members, such as Shen Wei and Sang Jijia, have become internationally recognized.
San Francesco-based choreographer Margaret Jenkins is among many who taught workshops at GMDC. Over the past few years, she initiated a dance exchange between GMDC and her Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. Both companies spent time together in China and the U.S. creating, rehearsing, and performing the collaborative work, Other Sun. The trilogy had its world premiere in 2009 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, followed by a U.S. tour, and completed its final performances in Guangdong, China in January 2011.
It is in the conversation — both through movement investigation and the more quotidian daily interactions — that the most profound impact of cultural exchange takes place. We strive to stay ready for the surprises, to be able to surrender to what a new place, culture and people can offer us and how we might strengthen the dialogue among each other and, by extension, our countries.
— Margaret Jenkins
Established companies like GMDC and Beijing Modern Dance Company have spurred contemporary dance community growth. Jin Xing Dance Theatre was established in 1999 under the artistic direction of Jin Xing, a maverick dancer and choreographer. In early 2012, the company will have its first full-scale U.S. tour with its signature repertoire Shanghai Tango. In 2005, a law change allowed individuals to officially establish private organizations. Willy Tsao, one of the foremost figures in modern dance in China, was the first to take advantage of it by founding a private modern dance company and thus, BeijingDance/LDTX was born. LDTX presents an annual dance festival that inspires local dance companies and international cultural exchanges. Battery Dance Company of New York participated in the festival in 2008. Wang Yuanyuan, a native of Beijing who received her MFA in dance from California Institute of the Arts, founded Beijing Dance Theater in 2008. The company made its U.S. debut in October 2011 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Haze, which also toured to Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center. In addition, TAO Dance Theater has become an emerging force among the Chinese modern dance scene. Since its founding in 2008, the company has performed throughout China and been featured in festivals worldwide, including the Durham, N.C.-based American Dance Festival and New York’s 2011 Fall for Dance Festival.
Photos: White Jade, Ruth St. Denis, photo from An Unfinished Life
Other Suns, Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and Guangdong Modern Dance Company, photo by Bonnie Kamin
Resources To Connect with China:
China Arts and Entertainment Group Theaters: www.cpaa-t.com
Guangdong Modern Dance Festival: (website inactive – October 2021)
Guangzhou Opera House: www.gzdjy.org
Meet in Beijing Arts Festival: www.meetinbeijing.org.cn
National Centre for the Performing Arts: www.chncpa.org
U.S. Embassy in China: https://china.usembassy-china.org.cn/education/
Shanghai Grand Theater: www.shgtheatre.com
Shanghai International Arts Festival: www.artsbird.com
The Ministry of Culture: http://en.chinaculture.org/ministry.html
Time Out Beijing: www.timeoutbeijing.com
Time Out Shanghai: www.timeoutshanghai.com
 Wentink, A. M. (1977). “From the Orient… Oceans of Love, Doris”: the Denishawn Tour of the Orient as Seen through the Letters of Doris Humphrey. Dance Chronicle, p. 22.
 Denis, R. S. (1939). An Unfinished Life; An Autobiography. New York and London: Harper & Bros, p. 277.
Ling Tang trained as a traditional Chinese dancer in Wuhan, China, and came to the United States in 2002. She holds a B.A. in dance and intercultural performing arts from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is completing her M.A. in arts administration at Teachers College, Columbia University. She spent the summer of 2009 in China for her master’s thesis research, where much of this story was also explored.
Special thanks to Dr. Judith Lynne Hanna of the University of Maryland and Professor Joan Jeffri of Teachers College, Columbia University for advising on the content of this article.
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