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Dancing East Asia | Abstracts

Dance in Imperial China: The Mobile Entertainer

Beverly Bossler

Abstract: This essay explores the varied meanings of “dance” in imperial China and looks especially at the intersection of dance, gender, and transnationalism through the figure of the mobile entertainer. It argues that entertainers in imperial China transgressed boundaries of all kinds, including those between dance and other performing arts; between categories of professional and amateur; between masculine and feminine social spaces; between social roles and statuses. It also traces some of the historical flows of dance styles and entertainment institutions, between Central Asia and China and between China, Korea, and Japan. In the process, it challenges contemporary understandings of “traditional Chinese dance” and those who performed it.

Negotiating Chinese Identity through a Double-Minority Voice and Women’s Dancing Body on the Global Stage: Yang Liping’s "Spirit of the Peacock" and Beyond

Ting-Ting Chang


Ten years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, an ethnic minority Bai 白 dancer Yang Liping 楊麗萍 (1958- ) explored and transformed traditional ethnic minority Dai 傣 dance elements to create her version of the peacock dance.  Her dance also marked the transformation of ethnic Dai dance, embarking on a new journey as an on-stage performing art.  Spirit of the Peacock (Que zhi ling 雀之靈) has since been promoted by the Chinese government as Yang performed throughout the world.  This paper discusses how peacock dance is propagated through different time, space, and bodies.  Looking at Yang’s work, from Spirit of the Peacock to Dynamic Yunnan (Yunnan yinxiang 雲南印象), and to her recent production The Peacock (Kongque 孔雀). I examine how and why Yang uses various ethnic minority cultures in her new production, which supports the idea of China’s unified national identity.  When Yang’s Dai peacock dance circulated from international stages back to the local community, I discuss how Yunnan province seized the opportunity to jumpstart its tourism and economy by promoting its diverse ethnic cultures with Yang’s fame and charm.  I also examine how ethnic minority dances make the nation more visible by building an imagined Chinese community through this specific dance practice in the era of globalization.

Exorcism and Reclamation: "Jiao" and the Corporeal History of the Taiwanese

Ya-Ping Chen

Abstract: When Taiwanese choreographer Lin Lee-chen’s Chiao 醮 (Mirror de Vie) premiered in Taipei in 1995, it was acclaimed by some critics as a phenomenal achievement for the intensive physicality of the dancers’ bodies while being criticized by others as too “raw” and not choreographically formulated enough to be a work of dance art. This paper aims at examining the dancing bodies in Chiao, which refers to religious rituals where the living encounters the dead, within the context of the corporeal history of the post-1949 Taiwan. One the one hand, the animalistic energy released in the spasmodic excitement of the flesh, inspired by the spiritual mediums in trance in Taiwanese folk religion, awakened the long suppressed corporeal consciousness of the Taiwanese after four decades of police state control (1949-1991). On the other hand, the extremely slow and sustained movements of the dancers in quiet episodes resensitize the mental-physical sensibility of the Taiwanese, who had been estranged from their own bodies and their surrounding world due to the military governance imposed by the martial law. Drawing upon the studies on the history of the bodies by Taiwanese sociologist Huang Ching-lin, the findings of neuroscience and cognitive psychology about corporal resonance and the evolution of subjectivity, as well as the researches on the encountering healing of shamanism in Taiwan, where the memories of the dead are redeemed through corporeal reenactment of encountering, the paper argues that the dancing bodies in Chiao not only exorcised the phantom of corporeal inertia and insensibility of the martial law bodies but also reclaimed the lost memories of people, events and believes in the Taiwan society after many decades of coercive suppression.

Scalar Shifts: From Kunqu Bodies to Hong Kong’s “One Country, Two Systems”

Ellen Gerdes

This paper investigates how long-time Hong Kong artist, Danny Yung, collaborates with traditional kunqu performers from Nanjing to negotiate Hong Kong’s post-1997 political structure of “one country, two systems.”  In 2001, UNESCO named the Chinese indigenous theater form kunqu one of the Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage.  Rather than stressing preservation only, Yung curates a festival that brings together artists of traditional dance-theater forms with young Nanjing kunqu artists to experiment with traditional conventions.  He has also worked over several years to create non-narrative, avant-garde performances with Nanjing kunqu artists in Hong Kong. Yung challenges the performers to try out one another’s kunqu gestural choreography, even across gender proscriptions, from their respective character roles.  Full-bodied movement and voice directly excerpted from traditional kunqu repertoire are paired with pedestrian acts, such as sitting in chairs or practicing vocal warm-ups.  Speech in Mandarin implies politics, such as, “How was the nation originally?” The end result is a visual-kinesthetic-aural collage that interrogates the power of the state and the theater, supported by the strong kinesthetic intelligence cultivated by the performers’ kunqu training.  Yung views this work as cross-cultural, encouraged by the experiment of Hong Kong’s “two systems.”  After Hong Kong shifted geo-political scales from British colony to part of the Chinese state, and as some residents hope to see Hong Kong shift to the scale of an independent city-state, Yung’s performances of The Trial (2013 and 2014) represent a cross-cultural collaboration between China and Hong Kong rather than the fetishized East-West collaboration.

Disruptive Gestures: Radical Choreographic and Political Practice in 1960s Japan

Sara Jansen

This essay looks at the radical political potential of what I call the choreographic gesture in the context of the postwar Japanese avant-garde. I use this term to underscore the centrality of choreography, both as a specific artistic practice and as a tool or dispositif, to the provocative disruptions staged by artists across disciplines in Japan in the 1960s, a time when art and politics often merged. Hijikata Tatsumi’s experiments in dance, starting with Kinjiki (Forbidden Colors) in the late 1950s, warrant a re-evaluation as the beginning of contemporary choreographic practice in Japan. At the same time, the impact of his dance and ideas on artistic movements in different fields is generally underestimated. This essay explores Hijikata’s unique movement vocabulary in relation to the clear gestures of the postwar protest movements and the radical actions and events staged in the streets of Tokyo by visual artists part of the so-called anti-art and non-art movements, including Neo Dada Organizers and High Red Center. It will argue that choreography operates as the artistic strategy par excellence in postwar Japan for the way in which it works on, through and against the instability, discontinuity, and fragmentation that characterize the postwar socio-political situation, as well as the potential for revolution and new alliances this new situation promises. I think of the choreographic gesture as embodying both history and the sense of ‘actuality’ sought after by artists across disciplines at this historical conjuncture. Gesture in this context offers a link between past, present and future, and between everyday life and dance, corporeality and performativity. Consequently, it offers a productive lens to study the obvious as well as more intricate ways in which art and life, aesthetics and politics are intertwined in 1960s Japan, when the body and action took center stage, in both artistic and political practice.

The Dilemma of Chinese Classical Dance: Traditional or Contemporary?

Dong Jiang

Chinese dance, as an active and serious artistic form, has developed in close connection with China’s political and social lives over the past several decades. This new dance form was created through international exchange from the early 20th century and has been greatly promoted since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. After 1949, Chinese classical dance, along with other new dance styles, became a mainstream of artistic life in China. Since it was regarded as something new and very different from dances performed in the ancient times, experiments were welcomed in all directions. The guiding principles were twofold: 1) to blend the old tradition with a contemporary methodology; and 2) to serve a new era. Because of this approach, changes in Chinese classical dance followed shifts in the nation’s destiny, becoming a barometer of Chinese society.

Since the start of the twenty-first century, China’s dance arena has experienced new changes in the transmission of styles and attitudes toward dance making, as well as in the structure of the dance-making system. Among the many genres of dance practiced in China today, Chinese classical dance has experience the most dynamic changes. From the beginning, the changing of the aesthetics in Chinese classical dance have been apparent throughout its orbit of development. In the 1950s as today, the expansion and promotion of this style tells us a story about growth. Though there have been constant divergence and debates throughout the years, this newly constructed dance form made great achievements, ultimately becoming the dominant representative of Chinese dance. This paper will discuss the role of Chinese classical dance within China’s twenty-first-century dance scene, viewed within the context of contemporary Chinese dance history. I argue that today’s boom of Chinese classical dance indeed represents yet another new horizon.

Nationalist in Form, Socialist in Content: Choe Seung-hui, the Oriental Ballet, and Folk Dance in North Korea

Suzy Kim

Abstract: Most well-known as the dancer of the Orient during Korea’s colonial period (1910-1945), Choe Seung-hui (1911-1969) ostensibly brought together the old and new, combining elements of tradition and the modern as well as the East and West, to become the most iconic pan-Asian dancer in the Japanese Empire. Less well known is her life after her move to North Korea shortly after the Korean partition in 1945 into two separate occupation zones with the Soviet Union in the North and the United States in the South. This chapter examines her pivotal role in the cultural history of North Korea as the founder of the National Dance Institute, systematizing Korean dance in the form of dance-drama, which she called the Oriental Ballet that emphasized narrative over expressive dance performed in groups rather than solo. Instead of replicating analyses of North Korean culture as a top-down process, this chapter emphasizes the bottom-up process ultimately appropriated by the state. The chapter explores North Korean aesthetic practices by locating Choe’s contributions not simply to North Korean dance but to the modernist appropriation of folk culture in the name of “nationalist in form and socialist in content.”

Digital Performance in Twenty-first Century Taiwan: Huang Yi & KUKA, a new form of Sino-corporeality

Yatin Lin

Abstract: This article looks into the rise of digital art in Taiwan through the lens of Huang Yi. As a child of the dotcom generation, Huang often incorporates elements from videography, digital arts, and even mechanics in his choreography. In Huang Yi & KUKA, his duet with an industrial robot named KUKA, he not only coded it but also performed with it, receiving the top prize from the 2012 Third Annual Taipei Digital Arts Awards.

Huang’s approach initiated from the range of possibilities of the stationary, crane-like robot. He choreographed movements based on his own minimalist and fluid corporeal aesthetics, before setting it on KUKA and learning the combination himself, as the two perform the dance sequence in a somewhat unison-like manner.

Later grants from the Ministry of Culture and Quanta Foundation of Taiwan further enabled him to expand the prototype duet into a full-length program of the same title in 2015, including two additional dancers from his Huang Yi Studio+.

Other than analyzing Huang's duet with his anthropomorphic digital double, I unravel the ecology of digital performance in twenty-first century Taiwan within the Sinophone performing arts context, as an alternate model for multi-talented young culturpreneurs across East Asia innovating with technology.

Balance of Modernity: The Transnational Adaptation of "Si fan" in Japan’s and China’s New Dance Movements in the Early Twentieth Century

Nan Ma

Abstract: The strained relationship between sensuality and spirituality is a contested ground for defining “modernity” in the Chinese and Japanese “New Dance” movements in the early twentieth century. This paper focuses on the transnational and transgenre migration and adaptation of Si fan between China and Japan under the East Asian colonial order. The centuries-old Si fan, a famous play of traditional Chinese theater, tells a story of a defiant teenage Buddhist nun running away from the covenant and pursuing secular and sexual happiness. This one-sided story of rebellion against oppression was refashioned by both Japanese and Chinese choreographers as one of the internalized conflict between “faith” and “desire” that characterizes “modernity.” In the 1920s, Fujikage Shizue, pioneer of Japan’s New Dance, choreographed a Kabuki dance Shi han, based on the Chinese drama, which is regarded as a “much-awaited” work of the movement. Wu Xiaobang, “Father of China’s New Dance,” who studied modern dance in Japan during the 1920s and 30s, also composed a dance Si fan, which has been celebrated as an exemplary work of China’s New Dance. However, while in Fujikage’s Shi han “desire” triumphs over “faith,” in Wu’s Si fan “faith” emerges as the final “winner.” The opposite strategies of defining “modernity” in the two versions, and their respective problematics, may be explained by the different relationships between New Dance and traditional theaters (kunqu in China and Kabuki in Japan) within the larger cultural and artistic fields of Japan and China.

Cracking History's Codes in Crocodile Time: The Sweat, Powder, and Glitter of Women Butoh Artists, Ashikawa Yoko and Furukawa Anzu

Katherine Mezur

Abstract: In this presentation, I examine the collective works of two major women butoh artists, Ashikawa Yoko (芦川 羊子) and Furukawa Anzu (古川 あんず ), both born in the 1950s post-war/occupation Japan, who were central to the evolution of the Japanese avant-garde performance form, butoh, from the 1970s to the 2000s. Official butoh histories have minoritized these major women performers by placing them within male butoh artists' genealogies of works. I argue that their extreme, collective physical labor created the forms and theories that were assimilated into the legacy of Hijikata Tatsumi's (土方 巽 ) Ankoku Butoh (暗黒舞踏) (Dance of Darkness). The crisis here, in this tiny corner of butoh, reflects the skewed-alignment of historiographic methods that fail to recognize the migrating power of physical art practices, especially those created by women performers in collective works.

I draw on examples from Ashikawa's solo and group work from Hijikata's Hôsôtan (疱瘡譚 ) (The Story of Small Pox) and her solo Nagareru Kubi  (流れる首)(Floating Visage), and group works such as Three Bellmers (3人ベルメール ) in A Summer Storm (夏の嵐 ) (Natsu no Arashi) and Renyo sho ("Far From the Lotus"), and Furukawa's solo The Crocodile Time, Three dances, and group works, A Diamond as Big as the Ritz and The Detective from China. Ashikawa and Furukawa press butoh's physical politics of revolt beyond notions of a single subjective identity towards a collective repertoire of posthuman corporeality, gesture, and design. This analysis reveals how these artists developed their radical kinaesthetic imaginaries through collective work. Further, their exposure to European, American, and other Asian art, dance, and theatre forms, transformed their visual and choreographic designs and their dancers' differences of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and political cultures collectively altered these forms.

Performing Nation: Geisha Dance Performance under Japanese Militarism in the 1930’s

Mariko Okada

Abstract: The dance performance of geisha was one of the leading popular entertainments in the first half of the 20th century. Among these geisha dances, the Miyako Odori (都をどり), an annual dance performance of geisha of Gion, Kyoto, was the most powerful stage performance, which could regularly draw almost five thousand spectators a day. In peacetime, the themes of Miyako Odori are not serious but happy, cheerful, beautiful, and visually gorgeous. However in the year 1933, sudden changes were made. In the previous year, Japan had established Manchukuo in Northeastern China. The themes of Miyako Odori turned heavily political after that incident. Military actions taken in China became materials for performance themes. A legalized inspection of playbooks was a necessary requirement for presenting on the public stage. The playwright for Miyako Odori was a noted historian and in order to obtain permission he seemed to have no alternative but to follow the implicit request. In 1938 Miyako Odori, there was an act celebrating the fall of Nanjing City. In the following year, an act to describe friendship between Chinese children and Japanese children was performed. The music was Ko-a Ondo (興亜音頭), a dance song for prospering Asian countries, which was created for the 1939’s Miyako Odori, and an SP (standard playing) record was released. This performance made use of Chinese tunes and also Chinese words. How did the choreography deal with these foreign elements? How did the Chinese-like music affect the spectators? Using this act as an example, I will explore how the corporeality and choreography brought about an upsurge of patriotism through powerful kinaesthetic hybridity.

Choreographing the Colonial Mass Pageant: Itō Michio in the Pacific War

Tara Rodman

Abstract: Itō Michio's (伊藤道郎) wartime notebook contains notes for a group dance. With performers characterized as steel workers, the dance is set to lyrics glorifying the "ten thousand [who] go to the factories for war." The simple, walking-based choreography climaxes in a call and response between the twenty men and women on stage: "Certain Death," "Certain Kill."

While Itō's pre- and post-war careers have been investigated by scholars, the war years remain a blank. On December 8th, 1941, the FBI raided Ito's California home, interning him until his repatriation in 1943. Before his internment—from his training at the Dalcroze Institute in Germany, to his London collaboration with W.B. Yeats on At the Hawk’s Well, to his 25 years in the United States performing and teaching modern dance—Ito’s career was infused with Dalcrozian ideals of internationalism and universality of the body. In Japan, with support from high-ranking imperial officials, Itō began a new endeavor: establishing the Greater East Asia Stage Arts Research Institute—an organization for mobilizing performing artists across the empire.

Wartime conditions prevented most of Itō's ideas from being realized. However, his notebooks, choreographic sketches, and one production reveal that Itō sought to assert continuity between his pre-war and wartime activities by embracing Pan-Asianism—an ideology of Asian unity against Western imperialism. For Itō, embracing this unity via shared performance activities—even if they were facilitated by warfare and colonialism—was an opportunity to construct an Asia-based internationalism from the Western cosmopolitanism of his pre-war career.

Korean Dance Beyond Koreanness: Park Yeong-in in the German Modern Dance Scene

Okju Son

Abstract: This paper explores Park Yeong-in’s choreographic strategies for Koreanized dance as well as the mechanism of his self-discovery as a Japanese dancer in Europe, by concentrating on his Berlin-era activities between 1936 and 1945. Although nowadays almost nobody makes mention of his name or his former dance activities, the Korean-Japanese dancer Park Yeong-in (1908-2007) was acknowledged as a representative Asian dancer and dance scholar from the late 1930s to the end of the World War II especially in Europe. This has to do with his biography which reflects intercultural and interdisciplinary characteristic of his dance and life: After aesthetic studies at the Tokyo Imperial University and professional dance training in the early 1930s in Japan, Park originally from Korea settled in Berlin in 1936 to learn the German Ausdruckstanz from Mary Wigman and afterwards to work as a freelancer dancer and dance scholar there. During his residence in Berlin, however, he identified with the Japanese and accordingly represented himself as Japanese dancer on the European stage, even though he was motivated and inspired not only by Japanese dance elements but also by various Asian movement vocabularies, especially by Korean dance. In the case of Park, therefore, it is meaningful to consider how he conceptualized the so-called Korean dance. And it relates to the fact that he discovered Korean dance as a traditionalized concept in correspondence with the modern European perspective of the Other and at the same time located it in opposition to a European dance principle. In this sense, this paper tries to answer such questions as: Under which cultural political circumstances was Park’s artistic experiment for a Koreanized, or even Asianized dance in general enabled? How did Park’s Koreanized dance represent his sense of ‘in-betweenness’: between Asia and Europe, between dance tradition and dance modernity, and between dance theory and dance practice?

Diasporic Modernities: Locating East Asia in Global Modern Dance History

Emily E. Wilcox

Abstract: In global modern dance history, the 1930s witnessed two significant developments: first, the widespread popularization of dances with overtly political themes; and, second, the emergence of diasporic dancers of color representing “their own” identities—the dances of their real or imagined homelands—through novel embodiments of modern dance. In this talk, I explore the second of these two phenomena, although ultimately I argue that the two are deeply interrelated. By rejecting racist and orientalist narratives and inserting their own non-white bodies into modern dance authorship, the actions of these diasporic dancers ultimately enacted political statements through their choice of aesthetic forms and the subject matter of their choreography.

Two examples of diasporic dancers who have already been incorporated into standard tellings of modern dance history are Uday Shankar and Katherine Dunham. Working in the United Kingdom and the United States, respectively, Shankar and Dunham pioneered new modern dance forms that took South Asian and Afro-Caribbean sources as their foundation. Ultimately, both also mobilized these new forms for political ends and left lasting legacies in the development of modern South Asian and Afrodiasporic dance, respectively.

In this talk, I identify three East Asian dancers who had similar careers to those of Shankar and Dunham—with similar levels of impact—though who have not received the same attention in past accounts of modern dance history by Anglophone scholars. They are Choi Seunghee, Kangba’erhan, and Dai Ailian. All three grew up as colonized or racialized others—Choi as a Korean in Japan and Japanese-colonized Korea, Kangba’erhan as a Uyghur in Soviet Central Asia and Soviet Russia, and Dai as a Chinese in the British Caribbean and England. I argue that their contributions to the development of modern Korean, Uyghur, and Chinese dance should be viewed alongside the histories of modern Indian and Afrodiasporic dance pioneered by Shankar and Dunham. By viewing these artists and their legacies in parallel, we can construct new “minor transnational” and “inter-colonial” histories of global modern dance, in which East Asian artists are seen not as belated recipients but as contemporary visionaries.

Modern Dance, Peking Opera, Global Modernity: Mei Lanfang’s New Dance-Driven Operas of the 1910-1920s

Catherine Yeh

Abstract: The insertion of dance into Peking opera in the 1910s signals a fundamental shift in Peking opera aesthetic as practiced at the time. It involved a reconceptualization of Peking opera aesthetics and a re-crafting and realignment of all the other features of this art form. My paper will examine the transcultural process of this artistic transformation through the analysis of Mei Lanfang’s new operas that were created throughout the 1910s the 20s as forms of engagement with performances of Loïe Fuller, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the Denishawn dance group. It will argue that the insertion of dance initially was motivated by the desire to be part of the “civilized” world where dance had become one of the insignia of cultural advancement. However, in a process of re-inventing Chinese traditional dance and incorporating it into Peking opera, Mei Lanfang’s dance-driven operas joined and became part of the modernist dance movement with their confrontation with, rejection of, and eventual eengagement with traditional cultural norms and practices. 

The study tries to sketch the role played by dance as a transcultural concept and practice in Peking opera’s search for identity in the 20th century. It will also try to address the way in which diverse cultural confluences converged to shape the modernist dance movement, which began during the 1910s, into a global expression of body/image/space modernity. It will highlight the Chinese agency both in linking up with world trends in modern dance, and in making its own contributions.

Fans, Sashes, and Jesus: Evangelical Activism and Worship Dance in South Korea

Soo Ryon Yoon

Abstract: “Fans, Sashes, and Jesus: Evangelical Activism and Worship Dance in South Korea" recognizes the important of dance that functions as a fulcrum of evangelical activist expressions, especially in the face of growing public visibility of LGBTQ presence in South Korea. What is characteristic about the performances, as I explore in this article, is that they have emphases on “folk” and “traditional” elements that supposedly restore what the church group members deem proper Koreanness, but the composition of the performances is also transnational – buchaechum (fan dance) in particular is a modern amalgam of folk and Shamanistic Korean dance, ethnic Chinese dance, and modern dance choreography developed by Seung-hee Choi and Baek-bong Kim whose fan dance repertoire has been shaped through its touring in the US and other countries during the height of Cold War diplomacy. In that sense, fan dance, ballet, and drumming performed by the church groups are at once Korean and not-Korean. This seems, at first glance, to undermine the groups’ belief in the performance’s capacity to “exorcize” the “Western” and “unpatriotic” acts of queerness. In the long term, however, the simultaneous Korean/non-Korean nature of the performances is really about putting these right-wing church groups on the map, announcing their presence and increasing their visibility nationally and internationally.

Choreographing Race: Dancing Bodies on Musical Stages in Korea and Beyond

Ji Hyon (Kayla) Yuh

Abstract: In the history of musical theatre’s development in South Korea, choreography has been an element that received relatively limited attention both by the producers and creators. The storytelling of musicals depended and still depends much on the textual elements, while choreography, as well as other elements of musical theatre such as music, costume, and the set are often considered to be auxiliary and nonessential supplements that simply add to the textual core. Extending my current study on representations of (racialized) others within the particular political economy in which Korean musical theatre operates, I would like to examine how choreography and stylized acting in musical theatre, a genre that is often considered to be a-political, have served to embody, constitute, and/or challenge how Koreans understand themselves vis-à-vis racial and ethnic others both in domestic and East Asian contexts. Over the last decade, Korean musical theatre has expanded beyond Korea, and exported a few original works such as Ppallae (Laundry) for local language productions in Japan and China. The Korean government’s support for musicals’ transnational expansion within the political and historical contexts in East Asia makes Korean musicals an apt subject to examine the intersections of corporeality, theatre-making, and cultural politics of nationalism and regionalism within the neoliberal ideology of the contemporary world.