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Seeing Red: A review of Sarah Kaufman’s review of Guangdong

December 12, 2009 by: Editor Education, Favorites, Performing Arts

Sarah Kaufman’s review of the performance “Other Suns” (‘Suns’ revolves around hopes for a changing China, Oct. 31 2009), a co-production between San Fransisco-based Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and China’s Guangdong Modern Dance Company, revealed a shallow understanding of Chinese culture. While her criticisms of the piece were valid, she made an inappropriate leap in her generalizations about how Chinese culture and society as a whole were responsible for those failures.

I agree with Kaufman’s assessment that the Guangdong Modern Dance Company’s (GMDC) section of the trilogy lacked emotional commitment and consisted mostly of pretty movement by nice technicians. However, Kaufman blames Chinese society for the dancers’ lack of expression, quipping “Expressiveness isn’t easy in a society where individual freedoms are still dodgy.”

The performers’ lack of depth resulted not from China’s Great Oppressive Society — a hackneyed cliché which articles like Kaufman’s only help to sustain — but from the same immaturity found in young dancers in any country. The six GMDC dancers on the Clarice Smith Center stage in October are some of the company’s youngest. The dancer bios in the program reflected that most of these performers had joined the company within the last two years. Due to the project’s limited budget, the full company was not able to participate in the US tour. Half of the company, in fact the more mature and experienced dancers, were performing other GMDC repertoire in Europe and Taiwan.

This past July I had the opportunity to enjoy the GMDC section of “Other Suns” performed with the full company in the annual Guangdong Modern Dance Festival in China. In contrast to the version we saw here, that performance of this same piece contained an admirably deep level of commitment and energy. If Kaufman’s goal was to write a more encompassing article about the larger topic of modern dance in China, she could have researched footage, easily available on YouTube, of other GMDC works like “Upon Calligraphy” or works by other modern dance companies in China like the Beijing Modern Dance Company. If she had, she would have found performances of profound expressiveness and emotional depth by performers like Ma Kang, Xing Liang, Tao Ye, and others.

os_10Kaufman asserts that the performance made her consider “the challenges of teasing capitalist narcissism out of a culture of collectivism,” and that this is somehow a prerequisite for better modern dance in China. Not only does this draw a fallacious connection between one dance performance and all of Chinese culture, it also reveals an inaccurate understanding of that culture. Since the establishment of the one-child policy and with rising affluence in larger cities, China in fact is now experiencing what some academics call the “Little Emperor” phenomenon. When asked their goal in life, most young Chinese professionals from this “spoiled” generation will tell you point blank: “To make money.” China today is a culture of capitalist narcissists. This is not what was lacking on stage. Capitalist narcissism does not make good modern dance; experience and maturity do.

The rigors of dance training often produce technical masters who are emotionally vacant, but this phenomenon is not unique to China. Young western dancers can be equally uninteresting to watch as they show off flashy technique before they have gained the depth of expression found in mature performers. Had GMDC’s “A-team” been on stage at the University of Maryland and not on tour in Germany or Taiwan, we would have seen more of these moments from the Chinese side of the co-production. Kaufman’s analysis does a disservice to American understanding of contemporary China, and Chinese contemporary dance.

To see Kaufman’s review, click here. To see Guangdong Founder Willy Tsao’s reply to Kaufman published in the Post, click here.

photographer Daniel Schwartz[1]Alison M. Friedman is the founder/director of Ping Pong Productions (www.pingpongarts.org) which brings together Chinese and international performing artists, scholars and audiences for creative collaboration and exchange. She was International Director of the Beijing Modern Dance Company from 2005 until 2008 when she was hired by Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun to be General Manager of his company Parnassus Productions, Inc. The leading expert on modern dance in China, Ms. Friedman came to Beijing in 2002 on a Fulbright Fellowship to research the development of modern dance in the Middle Kingdom. In addition to lecturing on the art form in both China and abroad, she has conducted research for the Royal Netherlands Embassy and the Asian Cultural Council, and her writing has appeared in Dance Magazine (USA). She has worked as consultant for the US Embassy in China, Columbia University, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, as well as other overseas dance and theater companies touring the Middle Kingdom. From 2003-2005 she hosted a live music program on China Radio International (CRI), China’s largest government-run radio station.

7 Comments

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Robert Bettmann, Alison M. Friedman. Alison M. Friedman said: My response to irresponsible art criticism of China + dance: http://bourgeononline.com/?p=1611 [...]

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  • I think it’s not uncommon since the Tiananmen Square massacre, and still hearing about China shutting down twitter etc during the Olympics, to believe that China is very socially oppressive. I hear that you don’t think that it affects the expressiveness of their dance, and I’m inclined to think you’re right.

    It’s easy for us to see in World Dance, or dance of other cultures, whatever our assumptions about that culture are. I appreciate your perspective, but think that this is a more complex issue than simple ‘ignorance.’ I may be guilty of the same type of generalizing off one ballet… You can see that in the post I wrote about supporting freedom of expression: http://robbettmann.com/?p=1857.

  • I don’t think the issue is ‘ignorance’ so much as irresponsibility (and perhaps a bit of academic laziness). If the goal was a broader article about China’s social and cultural impact on its modern dance creation/development/expression, do more research about the subject. What about the incredibly expressive performers of traditional Chinese dance forms? They aren’t affected by the ‘oppressive society’? If the goal was a critique of one piece, delve deeper into that piece. Her recent review of the NY City Ballet struck me as a gorgeous example of criticism that delves deeply in to the works on stage, rather than extrapolating/digressing into other issues not necessarily related to what she is seeing on stage.

    Below is Willy Tsao’s longer response to her article which I think points out her fallacious logic quite humorously in the last paragraph:

    I am saddened by reading Sarah Kaufman’s review of the performance “Other Suns” (Suns’ revolves around hopes for a changing China, Oct. 31 2009) and wonder how could the reviewer read so much politics in one pure dance work.

    I saw that the dancers from Guangdong, China, explored a new sense of
    freedom with their bodies on stage; they glided, slided, whirled, twisted and examined every dimension in space. The reviewer might not like the ‘quiet detailed-oriented’ treatment offered by the Chinese dancers, but the association of the dancers with the ‘culture of collectivism’ was way too far-fetched.

    The reviewer seems to be still living in the age of the cold war when
    Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov left Soviet Union. The reviewer
    mistakenly thinks that all performing arts companies from China nowadays are state supported and controlled. Not quite so! The Guangdong Modern Dance Company, although inaugurated by the Guangdong government in 1992, turned into a privately run company in 2006. It receives partial grants from the government but has to work hard to meet the budget through social engagements and work projects like the one collaboration with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company.

    The reviewer was out to see ‘blood, metaphorically speaking’ on stage, and am interested in seeing the reviewer’s reviews on some of the contemporary American choreographers works, like those of Balanchine’s and Cunningham’s. If the lack of emotion demonstrated by the Chinese dancers was a result of the ‘culture of collectivism’, then the purity of the Balanchine and the classicism of the Cunningham, since ‘not a drop (of blood) was spilled’, must suggest that Balanchine and Cunningham are indeed communist as well.

    Willy Tsao
    Director, Guangdong Modern Dance Company

  • Though I didn’t see the performance in question, it is great to read Alison’s nuanced understanding of how modern dance is developing in China and what reductive preconceptions of China colour some Westerner’s views of Chinese art. In my own collaboration with Chinese dance artists, I am interested in seeing how the contemporary dance strand evolves alongside or from that modern tradition.

  • [...] Broward Center for Performing Arts, New End Theatre (London), Leeds Jewish Performing Arts …Seeing Red: A review of Sarah Kaufman's review of Guangdong …The six GMDC dancers on the Clarice Smith Center stage in October are some of the company's [...]

  • So, I sorta did a mea cupla assuming you were correct about the chinese stereotype thing, but just saw this on Miller-McClune:

    “The findings suggest that Americans and Chinese are heavily influenced by their legacies of individualism and collectivism, respectively.

    American reviewers were much more likely to give extreme ratings for films (i.e. scoring it as a one or a 10) than Chinese reviewers…. Whereas reviewers in the U.S. expressed their dissenting opinions “vigorously and openly,” most Chinese reviewers gave more “reserved” ratings that were very close to average ratings of their countrymen.” Those conclusions are based on actual data. (You can see the article here: http://www.miller-mccune.com/culture/chinese-audiences-give-two-thumbs-up-16581/)

    I don’t believe that humans are inherently different by race, class, gender or culture. But human high art expression falls heavily within the “nurture” side of human nature/nurture development. Chinese history and present DO influence their cultural expression (albeit not necessarily causally in a given piece of artwork.)

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