It’s come to the end of another intense week of making here in Guiyang, and things are shaping up nicely for the devising and rehearsal sessions next week ahead of Saturday’s performance.
On Monday, I met the two dancers who, along with the four musicians, will be my fellow performers for the show: gentle, smiling Xie Shun, and charismatic Wu Hong Zhi, whose dance company the two come from. I explained to them about the show, and they immediately seemed to grasp the idea- the unconventional presentation of the material, the non-traditional warehouse venue, the creation of an environment for the audience to enter into rather than a regular concert hall-style performance. It was an exciting meeting.
They also tried on their costumes. It was great finally to see them being worn rather than hung on coat hangers in the hall of my apartment- and a bit of leaping around showed the jangling bottle tops were going to work a treat!
Not being a dancer or choreographer myself, I knew I needed to work with strong and imaginative dancers to fully realise the show, and was relieved when I met and talked to Shun and Hong Zhi. Later in the week, during a workshop with the local university’s dance students held to build up a pool of ideas for next week, I saw their beautiful imaginations in action, as they responded to tasks and improvised. Any worries I’d had about whether things would come together in time for the show evaporated. They just seemed to get it.
Over lunch, we talked about how they’d come to be dancers and how they saw the dance world here in Guiyang and wider China. Both had come to dance quite late- in their mid-teens- but they saw something positive in this. They saw that, unlike the university students in the workshop who were much more formal and less creative in their approach, they had not been so defined by traditional Chinese dance teaching. They saw their practise as two-fold. First they perceived or interpreted, and then they expressed. In traditional dance, only the latter- expression- is taught, and what is expressed is pre-determined. Expressiveness is not related to personal agency or creativity but to a set of pre-existing traditions- specific movements and gestures. I had noticed during the sessions what Shun and Hong Zhi were describing too, particularly at the beginning. The students seemed always to wait for their teacher to direct them and to be quite bewildered when I asked them for ideas of their own. Shun and Hong Zhi were clearly more experienced than the students, and with that comes confidence, but even so, I saw the difference in culture too. It was quite striking.
Shun and Hong Zhi are contemporary dancers, and as we talked about our practice, I realised we had a great deal in common. They both work hard to bring creativity and play into their work and value process as much as product. Hong Zhi explained that in general dance companies in China are on the state payroll- dance companies that perform traditional Chinese dance, that is. Apart from Guangdong’s contemporary dance company, founded as part of an experiment to bring in cultural forms from the west through Hong Kong and where Hong Zhi had worked as a younger dancer, not a single contemporary dance company receives government support. At first, when Hong Zhi set up the company four and a half years ago, it was hard to connect with audiences who found the form too far from what people were used to. “We had to be brave in those days”, Hong Zhi said, “We believe it’s important to show your work, to communicate your ideas as part of your artistic practise, but it was hard to show stuff that wasn’t conventional”. I asked them how it felt to be a creative person, and therefore a little bit against the grain of prevailing Chinese culture. They said it took perseverance. For them, it had been certain teachers who’d opened up new horizons for them, performances they’d been a part of, opportunities they’d been given along the way that had helped them develop into the creative people they’d become. Originally, they’d been just like the university students too, following the rules. I felt inspired by them, and was not surprised to learn their company had won the highest prize for dance in China in two separate years. Next year, Hong Zhi plans to run a festival encouraging local young dancers to make and perform new works of their own. Lucky young dancers, I thought, and good on you for opening up that door to them, Hong Zhi!
Here is a little film I made of the workshop:
Another element of the performance we discussed was the triggering of sounds via the copper tape flooring- a part of the show we’ll explore and choreograph during devising sessions next week. Earlier this week, I’d been to the venue to unroll the large piece of purpose-bought clear PVC flooring, measuring three metres by three, and to design a draft layout for the copper tape. Connecting each piece of tape to my laptop via a small circuit board, and opening up the Max MSP patch I’d made for the show, I tested the samples with the help of Nancy from C-zone. Between us, we ‘completed the circuit’, touching each others’ skin to trigger the sampled sounds- lusheng, violin, cymbal, various industrial buzzes and clunks etc. I love the potential for music not only to be performed but to be ‘danced’ using this approach, and was excited to imagine how Shun and Hong Zhi might interact with the concept.
It was great to visit C-zone again that day- the first time since we’d visited and decided it would be the venue for the show. Everyone was again really friendly and I was happy I’d brought promo copies of my forthcoming record for Nancy, Chase and Andrew- a little token of thanks to them for so generously letting me use the space. I discussed with Nancy what would be the parameters of the performance area and we agreed what would be moved out of it (various boxes and cupboards) and what would be moved in (copper-coloured tables, easels, a table football game which may feature in the show etc…). It made me feel excited about just getting in there with the performers and exploring it for real. A few days later, Nancy sent me some photos of the clearing process, saying, “It was such a fun experience with all the team members doing some labor together, moving stuff around, putting things in place, laughing and talking. We haven’t done that in a long time”. It’s lovely when a project brings unexpected chances for people to connect and feel part of something.
As well as dance, this week has involved finishing off the musical scores, one of which- a more experimental score named High-Rise inspired by the formation of windows in the apartment block opposite my building- had to be translated into Chinese for the performers to understand it properly. The amazing Kerun of course did an immaculate job and I was really excited to see the beautiful script all over the translated scores.
Kerun and I also visited the musicians this week, to take them their parts and to have a try-on of the costumes. The weather had not been so great over the preceding few days, quite overcast, and I’d begun to feel a bit cooped up in my apartment, making the scores. But visiting the musicians was SO NICE! They really are very lovely people- and really up for an adventure! Because of rush-hour traffic Kerun and I were nearly an hour late, but the musicians were totally gracious when we arrived, getting drinks for us and looking excited about the scores and costumes. After they tried the costumes on, full of smiles, I asked Kerun whether they’d prefer to keep them or have me store them on their behalf. He revealed they’d excitedly asked whether they could keep them right at the start of the meeting. I feel very lucky to be working with such a great team!
Luckily for me, the weather turned yesterday afternoon and the sun came out, so I went for a walk. Guiyang’s Big Data Expo was opening and the streets were full of delegates, chatting and looking for places to eat in the soft evening light. There was a nice buzz and I headed to the tranquility of Guanshanhu park again for a lovely stroll.