In the backstage basement of the Wortham Center, a group of 14 Chinese dancers in warm-ups, Snoopy T-shirts, and baggy sweatpants stand hunched over with their palms cupped. Through the CD player, a horn from one of China's mountainous regions calls them toward the mirror, like a slowly rolling wave. Nobody is off by even a fraction of a second.
BeijingDance - known in China as Lei Dong Tian Xia, which translates as "Thunder Rumbles Under Heaven" - is rehearsing for Dance Salad. It will be the company's third time performing for the Houston festival.
Artistic Director Willy Tsao sits on the floor at the side of the room, watching the company he founded rehearse. BeijingDance is a unique company not only to him, but to his entire nation as well; when it started in 2005, it became China's first professional dance company founded independently from the government.
Tsao told Art Attack that when China changed its laws in 2005 and allowed the private sector to operate performing arts companies, he was the first one in line. This freedom, he said, is crucial for dance to progress in China. "Now we are presenting works that's very important in China," he said. "Choreographers are speaking on their own terms, how they see it...they voice their opinion through the arts, not propaganda."
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Tsao moved to the United States for college. Unsure of what to study, he was flipping through a course catalog when he came across modern dance. "I said, 'Ok, maybe I should try.' So I took a class and then I was hooked," he said. Tsao went back to China and started two dance companies (for which he's still the artistic director) under the auspices of the government. He founded BeijingDance in 2005, but modern dance didn't gain wide acceptance until the Olympics happened in 2008. That's when China really joined the international community, Tsao says. "They decided, well, it's about time to speak to each other on equal terms, like with discussing things about corruption, about pollution, about weather changing, about economics," he said. "Modern dance is perfect for dealing with these kind of things."
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Tsao describes this newly free modern dance as a phenomenon in China. Every performance of BeijingDance is consistently packed with at least 1,000 young Chinese. "Coming to the States, when I look at the scene here, the modern dance is appealing to an older generation," he said. "Young people go to the games, or the Internet -- they have so much choices rather than going to the theater to watch a modern dance performance. But in China, we do have quite a lot of young people coming in to seek a different experience in the theater, probably because before they don't have that choice." Just a few years ago, Tsao said the only option was to see a Broadway-like extravaganza of traditional Chinese dance onstage. "Suddenly, there were these young people and they were suffering (onstage)," he said. "I think it touches people."
BeijingDance will perform three pieces for Dance Salad: "All River Red", "Pilgrimage", and "Standing Before Darkness." The themes range from political to purely spiritual, but Tsao wants the audience to decide the meaning for itself. "Sometimes when an American sees a British choreographer or a French choreographer, they say 'Oh, great! Great work.' But if it's a Chinese...." Tsao jerked forward dramatically, grabbed the table, and looked around shiftily. "They say, 'OK. That must be political. This must be this.' They wear a different pair of glasses to see things."
"In China, yes, we do have a different political system, but, you know, we're still human beings. We still speak the same languages. I mean," Tsao laughed, "we still feel the same. We both have two arms, two legs, a brain to think things, a heart to feel. I hope they can see it more with a casual relaxing mind, rather than trying to find a secret here, a secret there."
Catch BeijingDance this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Wortham Center's Cullen Theater.