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  • Xiaowei Lu

When...WEST + EAST = ???

August 2021


This is a practice as research project which aims to develop a 'common ground' in dance techniques and aesthetics from the dance practices of both China and the UK. The eventual goal of the project is to recognise whether Chinese dance technique has potential benefits for contemporary dance practice. I would like to further develop this topic as an emerging dance practitioner, generating findings through practice.

Photographer: Zhiwei He (2019)

(This was the first inter-cultural dance theatre work that I produced with Arts of China in 2019.

Named 'In Mist and Rain'. It was collaboratively created by artists from both China and UK.)


To begin with, objective analysis and practice of both Chinese classical and contemporary dance produced interest in exploring this topic. My understanding of Chinese dance is symbolic of Chinese culture with specific national aesthetic. The training system includes strong values but also certain barriers. It represents a part of Chinese ancient and modern culture, yet at the same time limits physical expression and aesthetic concepts for those of different cultural backgrounds. Despite this, the development has never stopped. As dance practitioners from varying backgrounds, we are all discovering more possibilities in dance, improving the diversification of body movements and creative expression by learning different dance styles.


To explore the above statement through my own experience, I was encouraged to learn contemporary dance during my time in the UK. However, my movements and creative habits were limited to those pre-existing Chinese dance patterns, leading to struggles and confusion. During the learning process, I began to understand that contemporary dance is a diversified art form with inclusiveness and freedom (Clarke, 2020). As is the nature of contemporary dance in the twenty first century, it allows dancers to innovate, express the value of individual and continue to create new possibilities (Clarke, 2020). I have also discovered that contemporary dance technique has many similarities to Chinese classical dance technique, such as breathing, grounding and spine movements. By learning more about contemporary dance, I actually developed a deeper and more objective understanding of Chinese dance. With these ideas in mind, it is interesting to consider whether dancers with a contemporary dance background can develop more physical and creative opportunities by learning the techniques of Chinese classical dance? This question prompted the research to the current stage; it is an experimental process that carries the following questions:


The main research question

To what extent does Chinese dance technique benefit contemporary dance practice in the UK?


Sub questions

  1. How effectively does Chinese dance technique contribute to greater contemporary dance practice?

  2. How can problems or difficulties during the fusion of practices be resolved?


Literature Review

Within this research, dance technique can be understood as fundamental for all genres of dance. Technique is no more or less authentic and meaningful than anything else within dance practice, as it is a physical learning process as well as provides tools for dancers to discover creative materials within choreography (Burrows, 2010). It is experiential in a vast array of practices, processes, aesthetics and sensations (Clarke, 2020). To support this research, I am particularly looking at contemporary dance practice in the UK. Dancers are usually encouraged to learn different forms of technique, developing experiential knowledge of diverse movement possibilities (Clarke, 2020). There are many different practices in contemporary dance technique, the most introduced ones are:

  • Graham Technique

Named after its founder, Martha Graham. The primary feature of the Graham technique includes contraction, release and spiral (Clarke, 2020). The pattern of breathing has a great influence on the physical actions (Foulkes, 2002). Based on these fundamental practices, the spirit of Graham's technique is to continue developing and bringing new ideas to the movement (Freedman, 1998).

  • Cunningham Technique

This technique is named after founder Merce Cunningham. Defined by precision and complexity, Cunningham's dances combined intense physicality with intellectual rigor (Merce Cunningham Trust, 2021). He challenged traditional ideas with his desire to break away from certain beliefs assumed 'fundamental' of dance (Clarke, 2020). Cunningham pieced together ballet and modern elements but did not try to synthesise the aesthetic principles of each genre, collecting their various characteristics to form his technical basis (Foster, 2021).

  • Release-based Technique

While this approach finds initial roots through American post-modern choreographers in the 1960-70s, it is unique from other techniques as it evolved from so many different influences that it has no direct lineage (Clarke, 2020). Release technique utilises somatic approaches and proprioception to form a 'holistic experience of the self' (Clarke, 2020). It is an individual-driven technique which synthesises body and mind to fuel movement patterns.


The opportunity is offered here to innovate contemporary dance practice by embedding personal experience and understanding. As practitioner with a Chinese dance background and inspiration from contemporary dance, the desire is to find my own value in dance practice and performance. Correspondingly, it is important to understand that Chinese dance is an embodiment of Chinese culture and heritage that have been inherited and developed through the thousands years of history in China (Wilcox, 2019). Chinese dance includes a variety of forms, the most commonly known:

  • Chinese classical dance (zhongguo gu dian wu) derived from Chinese opera (xi qu) and Chinese martial arts (wu shu/kong fu), influenced by Russian ballet and western modern dance;

  • Folk dance (min jian wu), refers to regional dances of the majority Han ethnicity. Han ethnic includes many different styles of folk dance, such as Northeast yangge (dongbei yangge), Yunnan flower lamp (yunnan huadeng);

  • Ethnic minority dance (min zu wu), refers to regional dances of non-Han ethnics, such as Mongol (mengzu wu), Uyghur (weiwu’erzu wu), Tibetan (zangzu wu) and so on (Wilcox, 2012).

 

* footnote: the Chinese spelling of these italicised words have a direct & recognised English translations, whereas words occurring later in this research do not. Those words will be roughly translated to the best of my ability.

 

During the current stage of this research, the most familiar genre of Chinese classical dance is 'shen yun', or fundamental techniques established by several generations of Chinese artists. After 'The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution' (1966 – 1976), shen yun boasted many years of exploration and practice, continuing to develop and innovate (Zhu, 2015). The technique emphasises lifting, sinking, punching, leaning, twisting, tilting, bending, turning, and rolling. This supplemental training not only enhances performance ability but also embeds aesthetics of Chinese classical dance in the body (Lin, 2012).


Common skills such as breathing, grounding and spiral are emphasised in both Chinese classical and contemporary dance techniques. They are simply practiced through different approaches in their relative styles. For example, both Chinese classical and contemporary dance attach great importance to the training of the torso. Contemporary dance practitioner Martha Graham introduced contraction and release through spiral technique, which built a vocabulary of movement that would 'increase the emotional activity of the dancer’s body' (Martha Graham Dance Company, 2021).

Contraction is a full expression of the motion involved in exhaling.
Release is letting go of the contraction and lengthening the torso when inhaling.
Spiral involves twisting the torso. The torso is extended long, and the twist is initiated from the torso rather than from the limbs or the head.

(Clarke, 2020)


Click on the video below and watch an example of the physical process regards to the Graham techniques ⬇

(BBNOS, 2014)


In relation to torso movements, Chinese classical dance training not only enhances the expression of the torso, but also subtly implants the aesthetic essence of 'method' and 'rhythm' (Lin, 2012). For example:

  • Ti (lifting) is to lift the spine section by section from the tailbone (coccyx) to neck (cervical vertebrae) when inhaling. After reaching the vertical state, the intention energy still moving upwards over the top of the head.

  • Chen (sinking) is also started from the bottom of the spine, but opposite to lifting, the spine is sink towards to the floor section by section with exhale.

Along with the pattern of ti and chen, Chinese classical dance techniques also include chong (punching) and kao (leaning), han (contraction) and tian (release), and pang yi (side shift) movements.


Click on the video below and watch an example of the physical process regards to the Chinese classical dance technique ⬇

(Amy, 2018)


Understanding this section of literature review enabled me to locate the value and demand of Chinese and contemporary dance more accurately. Thereafter, I developed a stronger methodology for choosing communicative and practice-based materials to study the contents of both dance forms.


Research Method

This project employed an action research approach, which can be defined as applied research carried out by practitioners who have themselves identified a need for change or improvement (Bell, et al., 2018). Methods include both self-examination and a review of the people involved in the research, revolving around participation (Giguere, 2014). Considering myself as a researcher and practitioner in this project, action research allows me to frame my findings when drawing on the following features reviewed by Avison at el (1999):

  • Action research focusing on change and reflection;

  • Action science trying to resolve conflicts between espoused and applied theories;

  • Participatory action research emphasising participant collaboration; and

  • Action learning for programmed instruction and experiential learning.

The impact of the research project is the main influence for researchers to consider action research design (Bell, et al., 2018). In this case, I shall often ask myself:

  • How can I improve contemporary dance practice by incorporating Chinese dance technique?

  • How can I make the practice and the outcomes more effective?

  • Can I generate new understandings through the practice, so as to continue improvement?

These questions serve as a starting point for the research and ongoing investigation. Action research is an iterative process involving researcher and participants acting together (Avison, at el. 1999). It is introduced to follow a cycle of activities, including observation and questioning, action plan, data collection and analysis, reflective learning, and subsequent action plan resulting in a new observation, which will then be questioned once more (Giguere, 2014). See chart below for visual representation of action research design:


Research Design

This research was conducted through a series of workshops and participant interviews, which were designed according to the research questions and previous findings. Instead of intruding Chinese dance training in a traditional way, the content of workshops were a fusion of Chinese classical dance and Western contemporary dance practice. They provided scaffolding for the introduction and implementation of Chinese classical dance materials, which are derived from Chinese martial arts and traditional Chinese opera techniques. Additionally, these workshops allowed time for participants to practice new skills learnt in Chinese classical dance and encouraged further development to personal practice through guided application of familiar contemporary dance concepts.


Data Collection

Focused group dance practice, observation and interview took place according to the research design. As dance practice is a physical process, it can be a reflective action in the moment. Recording on a camera would be the best way to capture as much detail as possible for further observation (Bell, et al., 2018). Therefore, workshops and interviews were filmed and edited with transcriptions. Since both expected and unexpected outcomes involve an evaluation of the reflective process in participants, it is important to encourage informants to clarify their responses, avoiding 'yes' or 'no' questions (Weller & Romney. 1988). A tested good example of language used in the interview of this research:

  1. What dose contemporary dance mean to you?

  2. What is you first impression of Chinese dance?

  3. What have you learnt during the Chinese dance workshops?

  4. What is the most challenging part when leaning Chinese dance? Why?

  5. In which practice did you feel more engaged? Why?

  6. What changes have you noticed in your movements and creative ideas after learning Chinese dance techniques?

  7. What would you like to further explore in your future practice or career in dance?

The interview proceeded from general description to discussion with more in-depth reflection.


Data Analysis & Reflection

This section bravely employed the SWOT analysis to unpick the impact of Chinese classical dance practice including strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in order to better contribute to research and methodology. Through reflection of my own experiences as well as observations of participants, I have identified these aspects within the SWOT analysis. This method is usually used in business marketing, it defined as a multidimensional tool for strategic analysis (Speth, 2015). However, I found an interesting connection of the concept in line with this research. It was used as a tool and guidance for the reflective process. More details will be dressed out in the 'Discussion & Findings' section of this work.


Potential Challenge and Ethics

According to the Code of Human Research Ethics (2011), four main principles of ethics should be followed: respect for the autonomy and dignity of persons, scientific value, social responsibility, and maximising benefits and minimising harm. Therefore, the researcher needs to follow these principles to conduct research properly and morally. The main ethical concern in this project involves human participants and data protection. To better avoid developing ethical problems in this research process, the researcher secured ethical approval to conduct empirical work through the University of Salford.


Although this was a concern, issues were addressed mainly by following the university’s ethical guidelines to avoid discomfort. Firstly, participants were made fully aware of what the research involved and how the research would be used. Secondly, they were ensured confidentiality via signed consent form before data collection ensued. Thirdly, all participants had the right to withdraw at any time or choose not to disclose particular information.


Discussion and Findings

This research was conducted with the participation of undergraduate dance students at the University of Salford. We provided each other with opportunities to learn and practice together. In line with cultural diversity needs within higher education, this can promote individual reflection and improvement of personal cultural development (QAA, 2019). Through learning and participation in a variety of techniques, students develop more diverse and competitive skills, leading to further career possibilities. Additionally, this realisation fed into my research needs.


The entire research process lasted for two months. In order to make readers clearer about process, discussion and findings, the following table shows progress and content of the exercise and research process.

Section

Content Brief

Identify participants, meet and get to know each other.

This process can help me understand their dancing habits and context more clearly, so that I can communicate with them in a way they can understand in the following exercises.


I had two participants (Stephanie Rushworth and Christopher Ratcliffe), both of whom were second-year dance students at Salford University. In order to better understand each other, I first explained the background of this research project and introduced Chinese dance to them via verbal description and video materials. Then asked each of them to show a short piece of their own choreography and keep it for reflection and development with the choreography at the end of this research process.

Practice process

Weekly based dance workshop, June 30 to August 18, 2021.

(Every Wednesday 10:00 - 12:00)


Focused on practice the Chinese classical dance technique and further exploration / development through improvisation. Evolving and embedding are the main spirit of this research. Once participants understood the movements, they progressed them in collaboration with contemporary dance practice.

The effect of acceptance

This process aimed to take the participants onto another level of understanding, as well as worked to fuse new skills into contemporary dance practice.


Allowed them to reflect and recognise about changes in their body movements, and then adopt new elements and knowledge of the body to explore on their original choreography. So that they discover more possibilities for their physical expression and creative possibility.

The following content is a record of the above process and the findings drawn through reflection on this process:


Part 1 - The perception of contemporary dance and Chinese dance in the UK

Christopher and Stephanie, both from the UK, were participants in this research process. They started to learn contemporary dance in high school with relatively basic and simple physical movements, then began to unpick and practice more intensively in college and university. They both agreed that contemporary dance can be defined as 'abstract, freedom, expressive and individual'. This draws parallels between the quote from Clarke’s article (2020), in which innovation, individual expression, and the creation of new possibilities are pinpointed as key elements within contemporary dance practice. When we talk about contemporary dance as being abstract, it is to discover the relationship between forms. Abstract art pursues to break away from traditional image of physical objects (Abstract art. 2021). Freedom of movement, in particular breaking away from the strictness of codified techniques such as ballet, is also crucial as contemporary dance was found to be freed from ballet (Martha Graham Dance Company, 2021). Lastly, having a sense of ‘the individual’ is perhaps the most important matter contributing to contemporary dance. The search for individuality is a key theme in contemporary choreography and classes, as well as something practitioners are keen to identify within themselves.


According to interviews with participants, the barriers to accessing Chinese dance include inaccessibility and lack of widespread awareness. Cultural differences can be frightening, just like visiting a foreign country and experiencing 'culture shock'. This represents a period of time in which we must make adjustments to familiar previous behaviours in preparation for a completely different experience (Atma Global, 2013). In order to combat this, it is important to remain flexible, open-minded and consider the bright side of looming change (Atma Global, 2013). Therefore, contemporary dance has a great potential to aid with this suggestion. When viewing Chinese dance, participants recalled images of flexibility and gymnastic tricks. The intensity of technique caused hesitation; they acknowledged the need for extreme physical strength and concentration. However, participants also identified the sessions as fun, easy to take influence from, and quite similar to contemporary dance. It is requested and important for them to learn different forms of technique to enhance their dance practice and creative expressions.


In response to this research, an analogy is utilised to explain the relationship between Chinese dance and contemporary dance. First, it is necessary to clarify that the aim is to introduce the techniques of Chinese dance to contemporary dance practice and people who practice contemporary dance. Then, assume that the contemporary dance and the practitioner is a 'target customer', while the Chinese dance technique is a 'manufacturer'. The goal is to sell the product from manufacturer to customer. Therefore, it is imperative to understand the needs of target customers. Then, consider which products are in demand and most suitable to meet our target customers’ needs. This analogy explains why we need to first understand the perception of contemporary dance in the UK, the needs of contemporary dance practitioners, and further their views of Chinese dance. After that, it is essential to refine materials within Chinese dance techniques to supplement gaps in contemporary dance practice. This will minimise the possibility of culture shock and strengthen effective communication.


Part 2 - The process of learning Chinese classical dance

Drawing from SWOT analysis in research method section, the process of learning Chinese classical dance is analysed here:


Part 3 - Exploration

Improvisation is a technique within contemporary dance practice that is often utilised as a choreographic tool (Schwartz. 2000). Improvisation helps when exploring new ways of moving, developing problem-solving skills, and is crucial to the technique of contemporary dance. During this section of research, participants were asked to explore Chinese dance materials through contemporary-focused improvisations. The aim was to generate new awareness of their physical and creative abilities. Furthermore, it was valuable to myself as a practitioner and researcher. I have learnt and transformed the practice, adopting new patterns by observing the outcomes of participants (Kemmis, S. 2009). For example, both Christopher and Stephanie discovered a greater grasp of their arms after practicing Chinese classical dance, such as generating fuller awareness of arm movement during practice. This outcome provided further knowledge for exploration, transforming methodology for me to incorporate new elements into future research. Moving forward, I would like to consider the restructuring of content in Chinese dance practice to better suit the needs of contemporary dancers today.


Conclusion

At the conclusion of the research and practice process, I found that Chinese dance technique did show potential benefits for inclusion within contemporary dance practice. Through observation and analysis, the presence of Chinese dance influence was embedded into participants' practice, and a greater awareness of Chinese culture was both discussed and admired in the video outcome of this project. It is worth mentioning that these new elements have provided a greater inspiration for practitioners to improve contemporary dance practice and choreographic skills. However, further development is needed to discover more possibilities in this realm. This will be an ongoing process, as contemporary dance represents how we learn about achieving new things as opposed to simply being a series of movements we learn to do (Clarke, 2020). This reference will indicate the importance of practice, as awareness is built through practice of the technique; the skills, knowledge and value are built through awareness itself (Clarke, 2020).


Word count 3520

 

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