Modern Dance Comes to China

For most of the beginning of the 20th century, China focused on promoting ballet, folk dance, and traditional opera, but with the growing popularity of different dance styles, such as salsa and hip-hop, modern dance has also begun to emerge. Although modern dance in China previously lacked funding, media coverage, and audiences, lately audiences have been growing, and there have been efforts to recruit younger dancers. Many modern dance troupes also claim to be self-supporting and independent. The New York Times reports:

 American Dance Festival started a modern dance training program in Guangzhou in 1986 and the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, China’s first, was formed in 1992. Others soon followed and, according to Ms. Gaoyan, the period from 2000 to 2005 was a time of rapid development and increasing confidence.

The language of these dance companies is often influenced by traditional Chinese culture. Wang Yuanyuan, for instance, frequently seeks inspiration in Chinese literature — “The Book of Mountains and Sea” is based on the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gao Xingjian’s recreation of ancient Chinese mythology — while Ms. Gaoyan cites Chan, or Zen, as a source of her choreography. Both Jin Xing Dance Theater and Beijing Dance Theater have done interpretations of the Ming Dynasty opera “The Peony Pavilion.” Indeed, most modern dance is still representational, since Chinese audiences expect stories; for “Mountains and Sea,” Beijing Dance Theater performers even had to memorize lengthy speaking parts.

But even as China’s modern dance companies have developed their own distinct voices and been welcomed abroad, they have struggled to broaden the audience base at home. Although the situation is improving, overseas tours and participation in international festivals remain the bread and butter of most dance companies, who use the fees from these to subsidize performances at home.

Ms. Friedman cited some of the major issues facing modern dance: the dearth of resident dance companies; the prohibitive cost of renting performance space; the low rate of corporate donations to the arts; the inability of unregistered dance companies to apply for any government support; the emphasis on technique and rote learning in dance education; the influence of televised dance extravaganzas, to which much choreography is geared; the lack of celebrity dancers (the exception being Jin Xing); and the absence of financing for dramaturgs and workshops.