Celebrating the Year of the Rooster
Dance, music by the Chinese Folk Dance Company
By Vicki Chan
Birds chirping softly audible, the peacock stands with her head down, its plumes twittering lightly. The chirping grows melodic, and the peacock arches back gracefully. Her wings spread on either side of her body as her leg lifts towards her back, exhibiting tremendous balance. Suddenly, the chirping clicks off, and Xiaoling Yang walks across the studio to the student dancer and adjusts the positions of her arms. Yang stands next to the student, instructs her to watch the mirror before them, and assumes the same position, indicating the height of her arms.
They are rehearsing one of Yangs newest choreographed pieces, influenced by the Dai ethnic group in China, which worships the peacock. The peacock is a symbol of luck, happiness, and beauty, and the choreography of this dance imitates its movements. Yang is in the process of teaching the dance to the members of the Chinese Folk Dance Company in New York City.
At the age of 10, Yang was enrolled into the Chinese army. Government scouts examined her height, weight, body proportions, and flexibility and accepted her along with only two others from her city. Then she underwent training, not for combat, but for dance, for she was recruited as a wenyibing, or artistic soldier.
That was in 1970, in the middle of Chinas Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Yang has been dancing for over 30 years now. In that time Chinese dance has been evolving to continually reflect changes in Chinese society. The Cultural Revolution politicized the arts, and dances adopted nationalistic themes. Nowadays, Yang, as a member of the Chinese Folk Dance Company and Artistic Director at the New York Chinese Cultural Center, likes to choreograph dances that tell a universal story, crossing cultural boundaries.
During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese dance told patriotic stories. Before army and government officials, the primary spectators, this was meant to promote unity and loyalty within the ranks. The performances were intended to invoke strong national pride. Dance was also useful in conveying the central governments revolutionary message to audiences of civilians.
These dances featured fast and energetic movements, often portraying battle scenes. Though Yang was one of the best dancers in terms of physical capabilities, she never earned a top role. Her delicate personality translated into softer movements, which did not fit the upbeat dances of that time. Yang recalls writing in her diary, reminding herself to keep her eyes open wide, because if she could do that, then she would be the best.
Following the Cultural Revolution, Yang suddenly became the principle dancer.
Society changed a lot, so the art changed a lot. [People] grew bored of that revolutionary artwork, Yang relates. Dance became gentler and calmer, because that is what people were seeking. During this time, Yang rose to the top of the Chinese dance world.
As Western society today influences Chinese culture, Chinese dance has progressed to reflect this. While maintaining a Chinese context, Yang incorporates universal themes into her dances to gain wider appeal. The piece she is currently preparing for her dance companys Chinese New Years performance on February 12-13 at the Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NYU is entitled, Lullaby. It is about the adoption of children from China by people in the US. The mother, who may or may not be Chinese, uses a Chinese fan to represent Chinese culture, which she teaches to the child who left that culture behind. The dance is distinctly Chinese, but the story is an undeniably contemporary one. The theme of love is one that crosses cultural boundaries.
Not everyone approves of this progression. Some think current dance is too modern and want to bring it back to its traditional form. Likewise, some people seek to preserve the purity of the culture. However, Samantha Chan, another dancer in the Chinese Folk Dance Company, says, Now is Chinas time to explore new things, and maybe theyll come back and reinvent themselves and find a healthy balance between [traditional and contemporary] elements.
Through dance, people become interested in the culture. Chan relates an experience traveling with the company in which she encountered a 7-year-old boy who, upon seeing her, gasped, A Chinese girl!
Chan says, [Chinese culture] is a part of this culture, part of this world, but so little people know anything about it. You want to do whatever you can to try to influence them in a good way so that they know more, not just about Chinese culture, but about other cultures, too.
Today, students coming to the New York Chinese Cultural Center to learn dance range in age from 2 to 70, and the Chinese Folk Dance Company stages performances across the US, spreading the art and the culture. For Yang, dance is her life. Simply, dance is beautiful, so why not show it?