The turbulent half-century that Chinese dance has undergone is something that contemporary dance choreographer Wen Hui knows all too well.
Growing up amid the violent iconoclasm of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ’70s, Wen experienced firsthand the absolute power that the state wielded over the arts. For dancers like Wen, who was born in 1960, the exertion of that power meant they could only study and perform the dances belonging to the revolutionary operas known in Chinese as yangbanxi — literally “model works.” The body of work served as a celebration of class struggle and a reminder for anyone in doubt of the benevolence of the Party.
The prescriptive yangbanxi put the development of all other forms of dance on hold, but Wen cannot help feeling a twinge of nostalgia when she is reminded of that period — a mindset shared by many who lived through the Cultural Revolution. “Rationally, I know that yangbanxi were used for propaganda, and that they provoked social class hatred,” Wen tells Sixth Tone during a recent interview at a hotel café in Shanghai. “But on the other hand, whenever I hear music from the yangbanxi, I get goosebumps and my body gets excited.”
With the passing of the Cultural Revolution and the opening-up of what Wen calls a “box,” China saw an influx of foreign culture in the 1980s, leading to something of a revelation for the dancer. As her peers read Sartre, she exposed herself to contemporary dance forms from abroad, shocked by the variety of ways dance could be choreographed.
In 1994, Wen, who is originally from China’s southwestern Yunnan province, co-founded Living Dance Studio in Beijing. With a mission to incorporate daily life and the people who live it into the medium of dance, Wen and her fellow artists at the studio conduct interviews, collect historical materials, and use untrained dancers in their performances, working with doctors, mothers, and migrant workers, to name a few.
The dancer spoke to Sixth Tone about growing out of propaganda-fueled performance and into avant-garde dance, how she uses dance to present pressing social and historical issues, and her ambivalence about whether her art has the power to effect any real change for the people it represents. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Wen Hui during a dance rehearsal in Beijing, May 3, 2004. Courtesy of Wen Hui
Sixth Tone: What was it like for you as a young dancer surrounded by the propaganda works of the yangbanxi?
Wen Hui: At that time, being chosen to dance in a yangbanxi was every girl’s dream. If you were chosen, people looked at you differently.
The whole country was dancing yangbanxi. Back then, there was no computer or TV, but everyone knew how to dance yangbanxi. One way to learn was through national campaigns. The best choreographers in every province were selected to go to workshops held by the central ballet group and learn yangbanxi, and then they would go back and teach other choreographers in their province. They taught it through this top-down hierarchy.
We grew in a box. But as we had been disciplined since childhood, we didn’t notice it at all.
Sixth Tone: When did you start to take notice of and question this form of training?
Wen Hui: I went to the Beijing Dance Academy in 1985. That was when China started to open up again after the Cultural Revolution, letting in a lot of Western culture and philosophy. Sartre was popular, and many girls had Simone de Beauvoir’s book beside their beds.
Our minds were open, but it was difficult to take real action. I recall that in my sophomore year, I created a dance using lots of buckets — it was a little like contemporary dance. But my teacher forbade me from doing that again, otherwise I’d be expelled from the university.
A trip I took to New York in 1994 was a turning point for me. All of a sudden, I found that performance could happen anywhere: on the street, on a bridge, in a train. We used to think that a performance needed a theater, and it was hard for us to stage a show because we had no money or venue. But my experience in New York made me realize that I didn’t need any of that. If I wanted to stage a performance, I could do it.
Sixth Tone: Today, the performances you stage take their cue from the experiences of ordinary people. What is the value of that approach?
Wen Hui: The most important rule of our studio is that the performer should be themselves rather than acting out someone else’s character. They tell their own story through their bodies, because everyone’s body records their experience and memories. Most of the dancers in our first project were not professional dancers, but I saw how powerful it could be when they expressed themselves. Their performances showed you real feelings rather than trained and programmed choreography.
Sixth Tone: Previously, you have talked about the body as an “archive,” a notion that is particularly apparent in “Red,” your latest work about dance during the Cultural Revolution. How do you explore the body through dance?
Wen Hui: In “Red,” different bodies show a different society and history. I hope to discuss how memories of bodies affect our current self and society.
A stage photo of ‘Red’ at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai, Dec. 25, 2015. Richy Wong for Sixth Tone
For example, one of the dancers, Liu Zhuying, was born in the 1950s. She was my teacher, and she had been selected to dance yangbanxi. Her body is like an archive of that era. She had a natural passion for that era, and her movements onstage were very strong and accurate.
In [the 2001 work] “Dance With Farm Workers,” we asked migrant workers as well as dancers to participate, and their relationship changed during the rehearsal. On the first day, the dancers were distant toward the migrant workers, and some were reluctant to practice intimate dance steps with the workers.
But on the next day, we asked them to do warm-up exercises together, and after that, we asked them to sit knee to knee, look each other in the eyes, and ask questions. We had planned to do this for 15 minutes, but in the end, they had not stopped talking to each other after 45 minutes. They became close after that day.
Sixth Tone: What state is Chinese independent choreography in today?
Wen Hui: The biggest obstacle is funding. Many independent dancers need commercial performances to support themselves, and many have full schedules. Sometimes the first thing they ask before they start rehearsing is how long the rehearsal will take. Many enjoy participating in the creative arts, but they need to be able to survive, too.
That said, their living conditions are already better than ours, as governments have more projects to fund young artists. But honestly speaking, you cannot get that funding without censorship.
Nothing much has changed over the past two decades. Government-owned dance groups are still the mainstream. They get a large amount of government funding every year. They used to get hundreds of millions a year. Though the funding has been cut in recent years, it is still much more than what independent dancers and their studios receive.
A stage photo of ‘Memories and Snatches’ at the Lyon Dance Biennale in France, September 2008. Ling Youjuan for Sixth Tone
Sixth Tone: Your independent choreography is grounded in the real experiences of real people. But does it have the power to change that reality?
Wen Hui: I used to think so when I first established the Living Dance Studio. But “Dance With Farm Workers” struck me. I intended to put the farmers under the spotlight to direct people’s attention to their lives. But I found that few people continued to take an interest in them after the performance. For us, we had created a work of art. But for the migrant workers, nothing much had changed. It was then that I started to realize that maybe art can’t change society.
I guess all I can do is continue my work of creating art that’s connected to society, regardless of whether it is useful. Even if just one in ten people who see it is inspired, my work will have been worth it.
Editor: Owen Churchill.
(Header image: A stage photo from ‘Report on Body,’ Nov. 30, 2002. Richy Wong for Sixth Tone)