Beijing Dance Theatre brings a contemporary Chinese take on performance to town

A scene from Wild Grass by the Beijing Dance Theatre.

The Beijing Dance Theatre is a leading exponent of contemporary dance in China. The troupe is making its first visit to Ottawa this week as part of a cultural exchange between Canada and China. In advance of the performance on Sept. 29, questions submitted by email from ARTSFILE were answered on behalf of the company by Jennifer Jia of the Canada-China Cultural Development Association which has organized the troupe’s performance.

Q. Tell me about the Beijing Dance Theatre?

A. Collaboration and adaptation shape the way BDT approaches its projects. It has worked with renowned directors, composers, and visual artists to showcase contemporary Chinese performing arts on the world stage. In total it has 15 different works, which represent the creative team’s reflections on contemporary society.

The Beijing Dance Theater (BDT) was founded in 2008 by artistic director/choreographer Wang Yuanyuan with the hope of blending Chinese traditions with contemporary dance. The company is dedicated to inspiring creativity and breaking stereotypes to explore innovative choreographies.Q. Can you describe the kind of dance the company presents?

Haze and Wild Grass are its most widely toured productions. Some performances, such as Wild Grass, use modern movements to reinterpret the classics.

Q. Tell me about the company’s founder and artistic director Wang Yuanyuan?

A. Born and raised in Beijing, Wang Yuanyuan is one of China’s leading modern dance choreographers. She prides herself on being rooted in Chinese traditions, while at the same time producing innovative, authentic, and thought-provoking contemporary dance works for the world stage.

She began her dance journey at age 10 as a dancer in the Affiliated Middle School of the Beijing Dance Academy, where she later served as a teacher. In 1998 she was named the resident choreographer of the National Ballet of China and successively staged Butterfly Lovers, Rainbow of the Night, Attraction, Lost Emotion, Fate, and a Chinese version of Nutcracker. She also choreographed for the Hong Kong Handover celebrations in 1997 and was one of the main choreographers for the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.

She studied in California at the CalArts School of Dance graduating with a Master’s of Fine Arts in 2002. In 2015, she received an Honorary Fellowship from The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA).

In 2008, Wang founded the Beijing Dance Theater with veteran lighting designer Han Jiang and set designer Tan Shaoyuan. Their first creation — Diary of Empty Space — premiered the same year. Her works have been staged around the world and she has been a guest choreographer at New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute, the Royal Danish Ballet, the Shanghai Ballet, CalArts and the HKAPA.

Q. Please tell me about the piece Wild Grass. 

A. Wild Grass is adapted from a collection of poetry of the same name by Lu Xun. It was written in 1927. In the piece, the 15 dancers embody the internal landscapes and emotions of Lu Xun’s poetry. The performance draws on modern dance techniques to give the dancers the space to physically explore their inner selves, just as Lu Xun’s poetry does.

Q. What kind of music does it feature?

A. There are three movements in Wild Grass. The music for first movement or chapter was composed by Su Cong, who is best known for his Oscar-winning score for the movie The Last Emperor. Music in the second chapter is by Kangding Ray and Biosphere, while Wang Peng composed the music for the third chapter.The music evolves through the piece beginning with solo piano. It then moves into experimental electronic music and ends with a string orchestra.

Q. Tell me more about  Su Cong?

A. Su Cong is now living in Germany. His compositions have been performed at festivals and concerts by radio and orchestras as well as music for opera, TV and radio music. He won more than 30 awards, including the Oscar for Best Original Music and a second prize at the ISCM International Composition Competition.

Q. Who is the poet Lu Xun?

A. Lu Xun (or Lu Hsun, pronounced “Lu Shun”) is considered China’s greatest 20th century writer. Yecao (Wild Grass, aka Weeds), is a  collection of 23 prose poems first published serially in the journal Threads of Talk from 1924 to 1927. The poems are some of Lu Xun’s most complex and psychologically dense creative works; Lu Xun said that his entire philosophy is contained in Yecao.

Q. What is the history of dance in China?

A. Ballet became popular in China when Russian ballet troupes introduced the form in the 1950s. During the Cultural Revolution, ballet fell out of favour and people lost touch with the art form. Ballet came back into popularity in the 1980s. Modern dance began to gain prominence in the 1990s. A great deal of the Chinese interest in ballet is because of its story structure and technique. Contemporary dance taken longer to capture the imagination of the country. But contemporary dance has garnered a great deal of interest in the last decade. BDT has helped raise the profile of modern dance and along the way it has become one of the most famous companies in the country.

Q. Is it important for Chinese companies to do Chinese work? Is Wild Grass an example of that kind of spirit.

A. BDT seeks to inspire creativity and break the constraints of stereotypes through adaptation and collaboration. All artists have a social responsibility to uphold in the creation and presentation of their works of art. Art is not entertainment only, but also what is to show for the community. And dance is a tool. Dancers use their bodies to present the ideas. Wild Grass is not just about Chinese identity but the human spirit. Wild Grass uses dance to tell the story.

Q. Cultural exchanges are increasing between Canada and China. Where does this tour fit into this development.

A. BDT is touring two performances across Canada. Wild Grass and the contemporary ballet The Golden Lotus — or Jin Ping Mei which is adapted from a notorious erotic novel which has actually been forbidden in China for the past 700 years. Lu Xun, as I have said, is regarded as one of the foremost Chinese writers of the 20th century. So this tour will show Canadian audiences ancient classics and contemporary reflections.

Q. What is the Canada-China Cultural Development Association and what is its purpose.

The Canada-China Cultural Development Association (CCCDA) is a non-governmental and non-profit organization in Canada, dedicated to developing international cultural exchanges, and organizing and promoting artistic events around the world, with the focus on North America and China. Its philosophy is rooted in the pivotal role cultural art plays in positioning a new regional identity. It aims to ensure diffusion and promotion of North American and Chinese culture and arts, encourage cultural fusion to strengthen the people to people friendship, build strong links and relationship between artists, institutes, markets and countries. This summer, for example, CCCDA brought classical music students from China to study with Canadian students and teachers.

The Beijing Dance Theatre presents Wild Grass
Where: Algonquin Commons Theatre
When: Friday, Sept. 29 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.