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  Beijing Scene

Born of Modern Dance
Choreographer Wen Hui brings experimental dance to life

I am in search of an experimental dance performance in Beijing, and the experiment begins before I get to the theater. When I eventually find the small stage hidden behind the Capital Theater in Wangfujing, I realize that the uniformed women of the Beijing state-worker ticket-takers brigade are on a mission: do not allow anyone beyond the threshold without a ticket, do not provide any information about how to get tickets, and do not, under any condition, smile. I had heard that the performance was free, but the ticket-taker militia insist I go back to door number one and find a ticket. I am pushed toward a door marked "exit" and all seems lost.

Suddenly, beaming like a ray of light from the warmth of the stage beyond glides a fairy goddess. She is petite with a broad smile, waist-length hair and the poised gait of a dancer. Clearly a rank above the ticket-taker militia, she addresses the ticketless on-lookers: "Forget the tickets," she commands, "Let them in. All of them!"

The goddess is Wen Hui, 38, mother of modern dance in Mainland China. Guardian not only of the rights of experimental theater-goers against bureaucratic ticket-taking red tape, but of the freedom to dance, create, experiment, fly, film, and push the boundaries of tradition in the performing arts.

I am here to watch Wen Hui's most recent foray into experimental modern dance, Report on Giving Birth, a production involving video installations, dance, drama and music. Wen Hui has transformed the small stage of the Capital Theater into a unique artistic womb for the opening night of her performance. This is a space thriving on apparent chaos, but held together by the common thread of movement: movement of audience members trying to find a seat, videographers arranging cameras and monitors, and dancers stretching and turning as the performance begins.

Report on Giving Birth is the result of four years of research and collective brainstorming and is the latest project to come out of Wen Hui's company Living Dance Studio which was founded in 1994. Although Wen Hui has no children of her own, she interviewed factory workers, doctors, journalists, athletes, midwives and her own mother on the subject of childbirth in China. She then chose three female dancers (Feng Dehua, Wang Mei, and Wang Ya'nan) because of their ability to collaborate, their creativity, and their willingness to participate in the choreography.

"We wanted to capture the things women struggle with, whether it is having children or other social pressures. Women in China, women all over the world, are still not equal, we still struggle," says the choreographer. "And childbirth," she points out, "is that moment when you are open wide, everything is ripe."

Although Wen Hui declares that she is not a feminist, her piece captures a raw, disturbed feminine essence. Some in the audience cry and a few men went home afterwards looking paler than when they had arrived. It is no wonder, after watching two hours of the most gut-level, intimate acts transformed into dance: giving birth, sleeping, making love, and the repetitive domestic tasks that still define modern womanhood - folding clothes, washing hair, washing dishes and making beds. According to Wen Hui, men have very little to do with the childbirth process in China, and this is an opportunity for them to share the experience.

During the final few months of rehearsal, Wen Hui decided she wanted to represent male characteristics in the piece and so added a male dancer to the performance. He is born into the performance through the folds of raw cotton blankets, and throughout the two-hour dance display offers an alternative perspective on the birth process.

But the production involves another character who offers an entirely different kind of creative energy. The world of sound, light and images as projected by Wu Wenguang. He is the smiling four eyes following the dancers around the theater with a video camera until they are forced to climb onto the laps of a giggling audience. He is the invasive eye, projecting the dancers' every movement on a screen. He performs his own dance, imprecating shadows of movement over a distant picture, offering you a glimpse of the world as he sees it, through a lens.

Wu Wenguang, co-founder of the Living Dance Studio, is an established filmmaker, best known for his 1988 documentary Bumming in Beijing. The film focused on the lives of a group of artists living in Beijing without residence permits, and is considered China's first independent documentary film. He is also the longtime partner of Wen Hui, both personally and creatively. Their collaborative works include Toilet/Living Together and Skirt, performed both in China and at international festivals. The coupling of dance and video gives Report on Giving Birth an eclectic and sometimes disorienting structure. There is always something that demands your attention, on stage, on the large screen suspended at one end of the theater and on the floor where audience members are munching on sunflower seeds. The dancers seem to thrive on running just a little too close to the hands and feet of the onlookers, not to mention Wu Wenguang who randomly points his camera into the crowd and asks embarrassed members of the audience "How were you born?"

Projected periodically on the screen during the performance are the individual faces of four mothers, each discussing their experiences of giving birth. Wen Hui interviewed her own mother, Wu Wenguang's mother and several of the dancers' mothers.

Wen Hui recalls the interview with her own mother. "It was 5 a.m. and my mother's stomach started hurting. It was 1960 and there weren't any cars, I mean really impossible to find a cab, or public transportation at that hour. The doctor was asleep. But none of that mattered because she had to have the baby. So my father got out the gloves and the forceps. And that is how I was born."

Wen Hui was born in Yunnan province to artists and spent her teenage years separated from her parents who were sent to a "Cadre School" farm in the mountains during the height of the (1966-1976) Cultural Revolution. She also spent this time dancing and tested into the Yunnan Art Academy at age 14. She then began choreographing her own free-form pieces in private to avoid being labeled bourgeois in the hostile political environment of the time. Later Wen attended the Beijing Dance Academy and was recruited by Wang Kun of the Oriental Song and Dance Troupe which gave her the opportunity to develop her own ideas.

"To this day, no matter where you study dance in China you learn the exact same things: ballet, Chinese traditional dances and minority dances. Students become teachers and there is nothing new," she says. "But for me, modern dance has always been a very natural part of who I am. It is how I interpret my life."

It was only when she was invited to the United States in 1994 and attended a workshop with Meredith Munch at George Washington University that creative doors began to open. "That is when I realized that I can do anything. It was the first time I left China. I didn't know how to create modern dance, I just had this desire to be a modern dancer. She [Munch] gave me direction and a certain freedom. She said, anything goes. If I want to use water I can use water, if I want to use a bucket I can use a bucket. If I was in China I wouldn't allow myself to think that way. But really, I can do anything."

These days Wen Hui is bringing that creative freedom back to China, and it is not always easy. Issues of censorship and a lack of funding makes the PRC less than an ideal creative environment. Funding for Report on Giving Birth came from the Dutch Prince Claus Fund and the Yunnan Jumping Dragon Culture and Broadcasting Company Ltd. To avoid getting a permit for the project, which would involve censors scanning the content for inappropriate sexual or political content, the Living Dance Studio made it an unofficial production. Hence the 'two nights only' performance and 'free' tickets. Ironically, putting on such a production in defiance of Chinese regulations is more like pulling off an underground guerrilla action, but the very same work is publicly celebrated abroad. Wen Hui and Wu Wenguang are currently in Holland performing Report on Given Birth.

Wen Hui may be recognized internationally, but she is determined to remain a Mainland artist. "If I lived abroad I would be a failure," she says. "Of course I could work, but I would lose contact with my creative roots. China gives me such a rich backdrop, it is the passion and energy I need to dream."

Her future plans include an experimental dance in a Beijing hutong. She suspects that it may be difficult to accomplish considering that distractions will include passing cars and bicycles, but pushing boundaries to their limit is what she thrives on. Her work may not be understood by everyone, but Wen Hui knows how to get her message across and reach a place inside everyone who watches her performances.

"My dances may escape the average Chinese person's sense of beauty. It is not what they are used to," Wen observes. "They just want to know what is going on and where to sit, but in the end, people are moved and they understand something new about the human psyche."

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