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A step to the East, a step to the West

I HAVE been called a Chinese-born American choreographer, which is a hybrid title when you think about it. At first I didn't think about it at all. I just did what came naturally, making up spinning, spiraling movements and intricate hand gestures. Later in China I saw essentially the same movements used to depict harvesting and horsemanship in folk ballets. Could it be I didn't invent those steps after all, and if not, where did I learn them? The first time I went back to China my aunts and uncles there simply could not believe I turned out a dancer when my father is a dentist. Their amazement encapsulates an upbringing overlaid with Chinese-American contradictions. Unawares, I grew up like a ``quick-change artist'' juggling an array of identities. At school I was the Good Chinese Student, a model of exemplary behavior and a humble overachiever; at home the Dutiful Daughter. But on my own time I was a Mouseketeer and Million Dollar Movie fan, captivated by American images of adventure and romance. Every artist hears the cultural resonance of his upbringing. As an artist, I hear harmony and dissonance.

In all fairness to my aunts and uncles, at that time in China modern dance was merely a vague rumor from the West. When I returned three years later in 1981, the arts were beginning to stabilize after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Emerging from a prolonged, enforced isolation, China's artists were permitted to look outward at last and were hungry for new input. So I was invited to visit the dance institutes in Shanghai, Chengtu, and Peking. Each institution has three departments: ballet, classical dance, and folk dance, and each department has its own faculty, student body, and performers.

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I was directed primarily to the folk dance departments, which specialize in collecting and preserving the indigenous music and dance of China's national minorities. Yearly, teams of musicians and dancers are sent into regions such as Mongolia. The songs and steps they record are frequently dramatized and staged as ballets.

Learning about dance in China became a special journey for me. Though at other times in my life I have stood uncomfortably at a cultural intersection, in this adventure being Chinese-American proved an asset. To the dancers there I was not a total stranger, and what we had in common gave us confidence to look at our differences. The Cultural Revolution left an entire generation lost to artistic growth and development. Chinese artists felt behind the rest of the world and were zealously anxious to catch up. Here, my own experiences provided a valuable bridge toward their understanding of American ideas.

At the Shanghai Institute, there grew between the artists and myself a warm friendship. Being dancers, we launched upon an enthusiastic orgy of ``Show and Tell'' or more accurately, ``Show, Copy, and Compare.'' Often after full days together at the studio, students and teachers would come to my hotel in the evenings and we would continue our interchange in the lobby and hallways.

Their ballets told stories. In one beautiful solo, a young girl plays the pi-pa (Chinese guitar) to cheer up her un-happy father. In a humorous duet, a mischievous boy tries to catch a goldfish, and still others told of lovers' quarrels, heroic horsemen, the sea.

I, in turn, showed them my solos. Their favorite was a dance set to rock-and-roll music with a shuffle beat and a female vocalist lamenting her lost love in typical American fashion. Eagerly they undertook to learn it and here we struck common ground. All curiosity and sincere industry, these dancers were quick to pick up and remember steps. They said my movements, though new and different, felt familiar to their bodies, and all kinds of bells rang in my head when I watched them instinctively interpret my choreographic ideas.

What were they like, the dancers in China? The young artists at the institutes were mostly in their late teens to early twenties. All were salaried performers who had come up through student ranks, many having been housed and raised at their schools since childhood. DURING earlier times of hardship, rural families, especially, would try to enroll their children at the dance academies, knowing that there they would be clothed and fed. Once accepted, a student dancer worked six days a week and was allowed a visit home once a month. When travel was too costly or difficult, some might be away for several years. They were considered generally well-off at the schools, living conditions being somewhat better in urban areas like Shanghai and Peking. There, they lived in dormitories, three or more to a room that was usually overhung with drying clothes, and in such close quarters each bed seemed to define a private domain.

Each dancer had a personal wash basin. These shallow metal basins, often brightly painted with big colorful flowers, were seen everywhere in China. The dancers liked to carry them around, using them like dance bags. Frequently during breaks they would be gathered around the communal spigot, washing out practice clothes. Seems like dancers worldwide are always doing laundry.

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Besides doing laundry, they spent long hours in training and practice. Their days were precisely scheduled, starting early, ending late, but with long midafternoon breaks for napping. They looked on dancing as work, more than as identity. Except for necessity, some might not have chosen a dance career, but their training had instilled in all of them a forthright and uncomplicated dedication.

What I liked best was the willing way they addressed any step without hesitation or fear of failure. In rehearsals their efforts were focused on mastering a step or how best to execute difficult movements. By and large they seemed unconcerned with the meaning of art -- that question they left to their elders.

Their elders were faced with reconstructing China's dance movement and carrying it forth -- no easy task. Some of them had been out of training for close to 10 years. More than once I saw classes where teachers were doing double duty, demonstrating and practicing steps at the same time, all the while referring to old scribbled notes. CHOREOGRAPHERS were concerned with questions of artistic content and new themes for dances. I recall one discussion with Mrs. Wong, master teacher of Mongolian dance at the Peking Institute. She was amazed by the notion that American choreographers were free to choose any theme for making a dance. Some, I informed her, dispense with thematic development altogether and explore form or space instead. She told me that during the Cultural Revolution, artists would guard against any nuance in their work that might be subject to political criticism. No wonder such caution was frustrating and limiting to their ideas. As Mrs. Wong said, ``How many dances can I make about Spring Is Here?''

Looking back, my exchange with the dance institutes in China seems especially propitious. From my dances they gained new input, fresh ideas, and I discovered in theirs a cultural source for my own instincts.

Some of their movements, unforgettably elegant, are still with me, and even the steps I've forgotten leave a vivid afterimage. With affection I remember the artists, how exciting it was to dance together, and the gracious regard we came to have for one another.

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