The term “Made in China” often is associated with manufactured imports made of cheap materials. We think of factory-churned, mass produced items that show up everywhere from dollar store shelves to running shoes and toys. Regardless of what negative connotation the phrase has, there’s no denying that the country has made a huge impact in the global economy. But when I recently experienced Made in China it was absolutely beautiful, creative and highly emotional. The very opposite of cheap and churned out.
Contemporary performers from Wen Wei Dance made a recent stop in Toronto for their production “Made in China” and it was breathtaking. I honestly expected one of those “east meets west” type of performances that was created for general audience appeal. But what I had soon discovered was an evening that gave us a deeper understanding and point of view on our culture through the performers’ experiences.
The performance took place at the intimate theatre located at Harbourfront Centre. Off to the front, right side corner of the stage I noticed computers and tech based equipment that would be used by the youngest member of the ensemble Sammy Chien. Behind that were traditional instruments like the Chinese Pipa. At the centre of the stage stood a single circular prop.
Before the performance began, Wen Wei Wang told the audience the story of how he became a dancer. He told us that he was born at the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution. Wang also recalled seeing his first ballet at 6 years old. He saw White Hair Girl produced by Chairman Mao’s wife. After that show he went home and borrowed his mom’s white silk scarf and began to dance. He also recalled another memory as a child — that was that he was always hungry. The two stories are examples his works on stage. First showed the beauty of dance in a ghostly memory. Second was more uncomfortable and both highly emotional.
Gao Yanjinzi is an award-winning and well-disciplined dancer who is also artistic director of the Beijing Modern Dance Company. She is considered the first generation of modern dance in China. Wen Wei explained that the first generation in China actually started in the 1990s. However if you ask her when she started dancing she would tell you that she started in her mother’s womb. Both her parents were dancers of traditional forms. Growing up in China she was raised near several Indigenous Chinese groups near the mountains. Through an interpreter, she explained that dance was an important method of communication for the groups and that’s where she grew an appreciation of the art.
Classically trained in Chinese music, Qui Xia He was born at the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. She explained that during that time, students were sent to the country side when graduating so they could also learn from the farmers. Her mother encouraged her to also learn a skill like music. At 13 years old she became a professional musician. Today, she performs with Vancouver’s Silk Road Music.
Sammy Chien is the media artist in the collaboration who is responsible for the audio, video, and tech parts of the performance. He introduced himself and told the audience that when arrived in Canada as an immigrant he was 14 years old. His first stop was in Truro, Nova Scotia and he explains that the first leg of this Canadian tour began in Halifax so he felt a sense of emotions returning to the area. He mentioned that he began with an interest in film and creating his first production there. Since Made in China is about personal stories, Chien mentioned that his first discovery of film was using his father’s camera creating stop motion videos. Now he continues to experiment with film but beyond just playing back. “I wanted to be able to play live on stage and not just do play back on my videos,” said Chien. “I wanted to use the stage and show the projection of video and audio all in real time. I’m performing with everybody else on stage.”
Props including fans, chopsticks, and drums were used. Beautiful projections of chinese brush and calligraphy flowed as though Gao Yanjinzi’s movements guided each stroke precisely. I was also mesmerized by her interpretation of Chinese Shadow Play that reminded me of how stories were told through traditional puppetry arts with the use of light only she used her body.
Traditional and contemporary. Old world and new technology. Peace and personal conflict…all well balanced out. Made in China has many stories rich in history and culture that made me think more about the use of the words.
Wen Wei Dance’s Made in China presented by DanceWorks was a wonderful launch to this season’s Harbourfront Centre’s Next Steps Dance Series. Throughout the year there will be over 60 shows by over 20 companies.
What’s coming up? You may be interested in checking out the upcoming tiger princess dance projects presented by DanceWorkswith a double bill of In Search of the Holy Chop Suey and Zhong Xin (November 24-26, 2016).