Four dancers from the Guangdong Modern Dance Company are framed in squares of light on the floor of a dark stage. In silence, they pivot on their tailbones and juxtapose frantic gesturing with molasses movements, writhing within the boxes that are at once cages and oases of illumination. For minutes on end the only sound is of the dancers’ breathing creating an intimate soundtrack within the theater.
Such is the nature of modern dance when innovative movement becomes art. But what makes this particular troupe stand out is that it is the pioneer modern dance company of China — a country where artistic innovation is rare. At just over 10 years old, Guangdong Modern is the veteran among a scant handful of fledgling modern dance companies, and the only one to receive government funding. The 13 dancers in the troupe hail from all over China-from Qinghai to Jilin, Beijing to Hubei — and collaborate together on original choreography performed worldwide.
On stage, the dancers are dramatic, lyrical and powerful. In “I Want to Fly,” a 1998 solo, a lone male dancer performs great athletic leaps and corkscrewing shoulder stands to glorious choral music. Bathed in diagonal slabs of golden light that dramatically defines his musculature, the dancer seems to exalt in freedom-or he yearns for its promise.
Because of the company’s origins, it’s tempting to interpret the dances as social or political allegories. Do the six dancers standing in a rigid line in “Sitting Still” represent conformity? Does the dancer who breaks from the line and is left lying on a corner of the stage symbolize exile, or escape?
Liang Xing, a dancer and co-artistic director, and Long Yunna, dancer and choreographer, say that simple enjoyment of movement comes before an agenda. The aforementioned squares of light in “180 Degrees” might be seen as confining cages, but the dance derives from a spiritual theme not necessarily a political one.
Mr. Liang explains that the idea for the piece came from the human challenge of overcoming obstacles. Inspired by the writings of Lao Tzu, Mr. Liang realized that clarity of purpose must begin in stillness, thus the first half of the dance has no musical accompaniment. The mood changes from silent and contained to fluid and lyrical when cello music is played. Hence the title, “180 Degrees,” signifies a complete turning point in attitude.
Guangdong Modern was established in 1990 through ties with the United States. In 1986 Yang Mei Qi, a well-known folk dance teacher and educator, won a scholarship to the prestigious American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina.
Mr. Yang’s experience abroad was followed by further collaboration. ADF co-directors, Charles and Stephanie Reinheart, sent American teachers to help establish a school in Guangdong to work with young professional dancers. In 1990, dancers trained by ADF instructors made their debut inGuangdong and appeared at the American Dance Festival the following summer where they received positive reviews.
Guangdong Modern has performed in the U.S., India, Singapore, Korea, France and the Philippines. Such crossing of international borders often means that their work is subject to the audience’s cultural context. For instance, “Heart, Shape and Substance” (1997) is a tense, sensual duet performed by two men; they embrace or rebound from one another in both pain and tenderness.
In the U.S., critics often interpret the duet as a commentary on homosexuality. The reviews surprised Mr. Liang, who choreographed the piece, called “Tongzhi” or “Comrade” in Mandarin, as a narrative about male friendship in general, not necessarily homosexuality. “In China, the relationships between men are different than in the west. For example, it’s common for men to walk hand in hand on the street. It’s not considered as a sign of homosexuality,” he says.
Ms. Long adds, however, that people are free to interpret the dances in whatever way that moves them. “That’s the beauty of modern dance,” she says.
Whatever the choreographer’s intentions, a play on gender is notable in several of the pieces. In “Linglei” (2001), a female dancer with a shaved head is paired with a man whose long hair flows like a mane. Both are similarly clad in white outfits with voluminous tulle skirts and tight one-shoulder tops; they look like androgynous, otherworldly beings.
Yet in “Linglei,” a long and sophisticated dance, the prevailing theme is derived from nature. Dressed in shimmering silver costumes, the dancers move across the stage in groups, becoming alternately feline or bird-like. Arms become craning necks or flapping wings and the dancers move in a tittering flock to the intense music of synthesized violins. Program notes indicate that the dance draws upon animals in Chinese folklore. But there is little reminiscent of Chinese folk dance here when a loincloth-clad man, contorted into a C-shape, moves with painful slowness across the stage and the menacing flock stalks him like prey.
Some traditional references are faintly detectable in some works (dancers wield yellow fans in the second half of “180 Degrees”) but for the most part, the presence of modern masters such as Martha Graham or Alvin Ailey resonates louder than folk elements in the dancers’ contractions and their weaving arm movements. Members of the troupe have received formal training in Chinese folk dance, ballet and tap from an early age, but they have made modern dance an art form of their own.
On stage Mr. Liang and Ms. Long are commanding dancers who appear large in stature. So it is a surprise to meet the two after a performance and to realize that are in fact gentle and diminutive. Says Ms. Long, “Modern dance gives a different feeling than traditional dance-there’s enjoyment and a sense of freedom.” No wonder then that the dancers appear larger than life.
Ms. Yee is a New York-based writer.