China's 'father of contemporary dance' nourished by culture and literature

Ma Yue
As a contemporary dance pioneer in the country, Willy Tsao has drawn inspiration from Chinese culture and literature.
Ma Yue

Veteran choreographer Willy Tsao has encouraged his young successors to express themselves honestly and wait to be inspired by the maturity that comes with experience.

Tsao is a contemporary dance pioneer in China and established the City Contemporary Dance Company, the country's first and only professional dance company, in Hong Kong in 1979. From 1987 to 1992, he served as a teacher and adviser for the Guangdong Dance School, which established the country's first modern dance education program.

His lectures and classes have been attended by a number of well-known Chinese contemporary dancers, such as Jin Xing and Shen Wei. Tsao consequently earned the moniker "father of China's contemporary dance."

China's 'father of contemporary dance' nourished by culture and literature
Ti Gong

A day before "Free Man from the South" was staged in Shanghai, Willy Tsao gave a lecture to explain his works and answer questions from the audience about contemporary dance.

Over the years, Tsao has been conducting classes for students in schools and promoting contemporary dance among the general public.

The 68-year-old man founded BeijingDance/LDTX, a professionally run dance company, in 2005 and is currently its artistic director.

Last weekend, the group performed Tsao's "Free Man from the South," a contemporary piece based on 26 poems by the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (AD 701-762).

The performers use tango, street dance and Chinese folk dance movements to describe Tsao's comprehension of the classical poems as well as the elegance and unrestrained personality of the great poet Li Bai.

"I've always been interested in history and Chinese culture since childhood," Tsao told Shanghai Daily.

"Contemporary dance had not yet gained widespread acceptance when I was learning dance in the US in the 1970s and began producing my own work in the 1980s. I shared Li Bai's state of frustration and hatred for the world and its ways."

China's 'father of contemporary dance' nourished by culture and literature
Ti Gong

Tsao's BeijingDance/LDTX's "Free Man from the South" was performed at the Shanghai International Dance Center over the weekend.

"Chinese paintings and poetry are abstract, leaving room for creativity. Li Bai's romantic ideals are hidden in his poems, inspiring me to create this 'free man's world' on stage."

Tsao, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, studied modern dance in the United States from 1973 to 1977. He returned to Hong Kong for further studies and continued to devote himself to contemporary dance before establishing his own dance company in 1979.

Since the 1980s, Tsao has produced more than 60 dance pieces. Chinese literature and culture served as an inspiration for a lot of them. The Chinese literary classic "Dream of the Red Chamber" serves as the inspiration for his newest production.

"When I first arrived in the United States, I was surrounded by numerous high-rises, and the oppressive feeling – both physical and cultural – reminded me of how Grannie Liu (a lower-class character in 'Dream of the Red Chamber') felt when she first visited the opulent Daguanyuan (the Grandview Garden where the higher-class people live).

"Only those with a diverse range of life experiences would grasp the metaphor for Daguanyuan," Tsao said.

China's 'father of contemporary dance' nourished by culture and literature
Ti Gong

"Free Man from The South" is Tsao's understanding of Li Bai's poems.

Indeed, understanding contemporary dance necessitates a sufficient amount of life experience on the part of the viewer. A choreographer's maturity and professional attainments are also required when creating quality contemporary dance.

While the COVID-19 pandemic halted international performances, domestic young dancers and choreographers have been given more stage time in the last three years. Some of their works seemed shallow because they focused a lot on their own feelings and emotions.

"It's true that some of the works seem simple or narrow-minded, but that's the growing path for all choreographers," said Tsao. "What matters is that one is truthful, both to oneself and to the audience. Don't pretend to understand a feeling or theme if you don't get it.

"A good creator should not be easily distracted by fame and wealth, nor should he or she create solely for practical purposes. If one continues to work on honest self-expression, his vision and maturity will grow naturally."

China's 'father of contemporary dance' nourished by culture and literature
Ti Gong

Tsao's dance creations are often inspired by Chinese culture and literature.

"A good dance critic can also help a choreographer develop," Tsao added.

"Like Pina Bausch (famous German choreographer), who is backed by the entire German dance critics. Experienced critics can identify a choreographer's flaws and assist him or her in finding new directions and improving. But we don't have that here yet."

Tsao said that in the early stages of his choreography, he focused heavily on his personal emotions and intimate relationships.

"They were direct and important feelings, but due to age, the vision was blurred. I'm now in my late 60s. My choreography's major themes are no longer love and emotion.

"As I grew older, I became more interested in what I could learn from Chinese culture and how to present it. In the 1980s, I began communicating frequently with the Chinese mainland. During that time, I incorporated a lot of my ideas about the relationship between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland into my work."

China's 'father of contemporary dance' nourished by culture and literature
Ti Gong

"Free Man from the South" incorporates elements of tango, Chinese folk dance, and street dance.

Tsao's "Free Man from the South" has distinct expression, rich contents and playful details – he has hidden Renaissance painters' masterpieces into the dance by making dancers imitate the postures of people in the paintings "The Creation of Adam," "The School of Athens" and "The Last Supper."

"The Tang Dynasty was a prosperous dynasty, similar to the Renaissance in Europe," Tsao said. "To establish this connection, I considered using Baroque music but found it unsuitable. As a result, I incorporated Renaissance painting elements into the dance. It's a bonus for those with keen eyes, but it's also my way of enjoying and experimenting with choreography."

Despite the lack of a dance critics' circle in China, Tsao is often impressed by audience members' accurate and intelligent comments.

"Experts are hidden in the general public," Tsao said. "Contemporary dance choreographers should not change themselves to cater to the audience or worry about whether or not the audience will understand a dance... There will always be people who like you and those who dislike you."

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