A morning at Beijing Dance / LDTX Studios
It’s the first rainy day since my arrival in Beijing. I am met, somewhat sodden, at Dawanglu station by a young Chinese woman named Jade. Clutching our umbrellas, exchange our thoughts about London, the city we’ve both left recently, and Beijing, where we’re both newly living. Jade walks me to the Beijing Dance / LDTX Studio, where rehearsals are just beginning for the day.
Looking up briefly from leading the rehearsal, Willy Tsao smiles and welcomes me with a warm hello before returning his focus to the dozen or so dancers in the room. In Beijing for just a couple of days, Tsao has invited me (at this point, a complete stranger) to watch the group’s morning rehearsal before an early lunch at their studio complex.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Tsao is a major figure in contemporary dance across China. In addition to his directorial role at the helm of LDTX, he’s the founder and artistic director of Hong Kong’s City Contemporary Dance Company, managing director of Guangdong Modern Dance Company, and founder of the Guangdong Dance Festival (November) and Beijing Dance Festival (July). He splits his time between the three cities, leading rehearsals with each company whenever he visits, and joining each company on national and international tours. Tsao has just featured in TimeOut Beijing‘s 10th anniversary edition (October 2014) as one of the ten people who will define the next decade in this rapidly developing city. He’s made a huge impact on the Chinese dance scene already, and shows no sign of slowing down. I certainly agree with TimeOut – Tsao will continue to shape the performing arts scene of contemporary China, within and outside the country.
Seventeen dancers fill the space facing Tsao who sits at the front, one hand beating out a rhythm on a drum as he talks them through their movements. Under his instruction, they stretch lithely, moving with an acute awareness of their bodies. I watch without fully understanding; I understand on a physical level – it’s that Artaudian ‘evidence in the realm of pure flesh’ thing again – but less so on the level of reason. I don’t speak enough Chinese.
Jade, ever more welcoming, brings me a glass of water and sits close beside me to translate. Through her, I hear Tsao’s instructions to his dancers:
“The centre should be your focus, should lead all the movement…”
“…don’t think about poses, reaching to a point in space, but leading from the Tan T’ien.”
“Open up the space around you.”
“Always think about the next step, think about rhythm…”
Tsao’s constant return to the Tan T’ien – the sea of qi or energy centre, in Chinese medicine and martial arts like T’ai Chi – is a major indication of his unique approach to contemporary dance. Tsao’s dancers have trained at a range of different institutions in China and internationally, so have relatively varied backgrounds and levels of experience. Many have trained in contemporary or modern dance, some have a stronger knowledge of ballet. They are all strong, precise, graceful dancers, but he wants them to leave their training behind.
Training has conditioned their bodies, given them the strength and awareness necessary for their careers, but that’s just the base from which Tsao and his dancers work. Tsao trains his dancers to focus on moving from their Tan T’ien, and allow the extraneous details to fall away. He doesn’t expect their movements to be identical – he puts little emphasis on perfection and far more upon impetus. It’s all about movement quality that originates in the Tan T’ien.
However unfamiliar this may seem to a western-trained dancer, this focus on the centre, the body’s core of power and movement, seems to me the most logical step for contemporary dance. What’s important is the essence of the movement and the feeling it generates. The intricacies of movement are not imposed by the choreography but radiate from the individual dancer. Their movement is clean and pure. A breath of fresh air, which is a rarity in smoggy Beijing.
Unlike many other dance companies around the world, Tsao’s companies employ dancers full-time as paid professionals, which enables dancers to maintain full fitness and develop their skills rather than having to supplement their performances with other part-time or short-term jobs. This policy was the only clear option for Tsao – how else could one maintain a professional-level performance group, long term? He is devoted to his dancers, to their talent, to their development.
This devotion to his dancers shines through in the rehearsal. He and the group share a special, almost familial bond. There are several moments in which Tsao shares a joke with one or two of the long-standing company dancers, playfully making light of the mistakes they make or mimicking the faces they pull during exercises. Everyone is in on the joke, everyone is involved – even the one or two young dancers who are here for just a few weeks as trials. He is supportive of them, encouraging and praising their hard work.
Over lunch, Tsao engages me in deep and fascinating conversation. He seems so completely in tune with modern China I can’t help thinking that he’s poised to shape its future. He’s certainly shaping the outside view of contemporary China – touring shows to events and festivals worldwide, he’s giving the world a vivid glimpse of the vitality of contemporary Chinese arts.
After encouraging me to visit again soon, and the promise I’ll be welcome at any and all of the three companies’ future performances, Tsao returns to the centre of his influence – he’s only in Beijing for two days, so rehearsals take priority. The dancer’s unrelenting energy is eclipsed only by Tsao’s zeal for his creations.