Rehearsal notes with Zu You

We began with learning an excerpt from a Chinese classical dance solo: 逼上梁山 performed by 孙科.

This was for the purpose of experiencing the method of male character portrayal within the canon of Chinese classical dance, to become more familiar with the performance quality of, in this case, 林冲 (a wronged general-turned-rebel), through Chinese classical dance ways of performing.

Then we got a bit stuck deciding whom to portray. I wanted the participants to feel a need to portray the person they chose. That is, the chosen person performs their Chineseness in ways that are representative of a certain group of contemporary Chinese people.

Some very raw ideas I had for my chosen person is a Taiwanese singer, because Chinese pop ballads often wax lyrical about the broken heart, and this tendency to melancholy (evident not only in their music, but also in their music videos) is something that is reflected in the day-to-day practices. It is difficult to prove without extensive data collection, but taking karaoke singing as an example, many sing Chinese ballads as a way to express or release certain emotions or memories of the sadder moments in their lives. Thus by performing a Chinese ballad singer, I seek to perform a kind of enjoyment in submerging oneself in and re-experiencing sad emotions, which I see as a significant part of contemporary Chinese culture.

However, how am I to dance this out?

I tried to improvise some movement according to that sense of vulnerability and sadness, but the sequence of movements soon began to feel quite mechanical and meaningless, especially since I was trying to use Chinese classical dance movement vocabulary.

There was no narrative, just a guiding feeling, which did not develop into something more or something different, so the improvisation began to feel quite pointless and boring.

I began to think if I had made the wrong decision by keeping the element of Chinese classical dance movement vocabulary in this experiment.

If Chinese classical dance was representative of traditional Chinese aesthetic values, and if the contemporary Chinese don’t necessarily subscribe to that set of values, then by attempting to create a Chinese classical dance based on a contemporary person would already contain a fundamental contradiction!

Are traditional Chinese aesthetic properties a static, fixed set of ideals?

Of course, individuals have subjective aesthetic beliefs. Some subscribe to the traditional Chinese aesthetic values more readily than others, and this is even before personal identity issues come into play.

The insistence of Chinese classical dance vocabulary might be something to reconsider in future rehearsals though.

Another issue that came up during the process was the use of the mirror during the choreographic process.

This was only brought to my attention when another participant asked me why I was ‘not allowing’ Zu You to look at the mirror while thinking of his choreography.

My initial intention was for him to pay more attention to the embodied experience of performing Chinese ‘body language’ or Chinese dance, but he felt more comfortable using the mirror (and I will assume the same for the participant who questioned my removal of the mirror).

My questions regarding the use of the mirror were then:
(1) What is the process that happens between looking into the mirror while creating and then not looking into the mirror when performing?
(2) Why is there a need to self-check while moving and creating?

Zu You’s answers were that he:
– can check the positioning and the dynamics of his dancing (whether or not they are ‘ideal’),
– can ensure that he is projecting further out (linked to above point)
– can ensure accuracy when performing traditional dance forms

At the end of the week, after quite a disorganised and confusing process, Zu You created a short dance sequence based on Amos Yee.

His main intention was to perform the experience of facing public persecution and rejection. This experience resulted in a specific and strong emotion, which created the need to create/express, and thus provided him with an impetus to create movement.

In the short solo + improvisation sequence, he made use of a Chinese folding fan as both pen and paper, ‘writing’ and dropping it to represent the power of the pen and subsequently the loss of that power with a more dramatic effect.

He also articulated the need to perform technical dance movements within the canon of Chinese classical dance.

During our discussion after watching his movement sequence, he felt that his creation process was very different from the ‘typical’ Chinese dance choreographic process, which tends to be more straightforward, with a clear structure and a climax. There is comparatively more entertainment value in Chinese classical dances as well, due to the emphasis on advanced technical skills and dramatic performance.

In conclusion he felt that it is possible to use Chinese classical dance to portray a contemporary Chinese person, because there is some allowance for a wider variety of physical performance, but it is difficult, because there are still many aesthetic and canonical rules in place.