I am part of a generation
of artists who lost their childhood to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, who experienced a world gone mad: Our elementary school teachers ejected from the classroom; factory workers hauled in to conduct class. Our parents – if on the “wrong road” politically – publicly humiliated, forced to admit to trumped-up “crimes” against the People. Red Guard factions fighting in the streets, each proclaiming righteousness in the name of Chairman Mao. Beatings. Executions. Suicides. Five thousand years of Chinese art and culture tossed in the garbage heap. From this, a generation of survivors – and of fighters – my generation – was born. But from this, how does one make art? How does one deal with memories that burn in the brain, that haunt one’s waking hours, that tattoo images of rage beneath one’s skin? For me, the trauma of my early years has led, not toward social engagement, nor toward abstraction, but toward the unmapped provinces of my own heart. What I have come to understand is that my work is essentially an exploration of the wounded self: How does a fighter dance?
I came to the United States from China in 1985 eager to discover contemporary dance. I wanted to immerse myself in its freedom – and to run from the stifling limitations of traditional Asian dance as taught during the Cultural Revolution. After years of study, I discovered two things. The first was that, even as I had jettisoned the formal rigidities of my early training, my way of moving remained rooted in the fundamentals of Asian dance. The second was that modern dance itself has its formal codes and restrictions, its self-limiting categories and definitions, its obsessions with technique – and its obsession with the rejection of technique. Modern dance, I found, was not enough.
Realizing I could neither escape the world into which I had been born, nor completely embrace the world I had adopted, I sought a choreographic approach that would employ Asian energy direction and spatial principles as a means of creating dance within the rubric of contemporary dance theater. Given the profound differences between these genres, it is no surprise that diverse and even contradictory elements appear in my work. Differing disciplines – tai chi and downtown “release”, for example – are at times thrown against one another, at times intermingled, so that the line between performance styles becomes indiscernible. Working in collaboration with prominent visual artists and composers, I foster and relish the magical incongruities that can arise between and among the stage, sound and choreographic environments. I see my work as both traditional and experimental, as inspired by classical sources (both Eastern and Western) yet willing to subvert them.
In bringing these disparate elements together, though, my purpose is not to create a “fusion” of East and West. My aim is more distant, more elusive. It is to offer a vision of something that cannot be localized in any field, discipline or technique – to push beyond the markers of ordinary experience. The ground of my approach tracks my own development as an artist: to live through, push beyond, and finally return to, with fresh eyes and open heart, one’s innermost dramas. Doing this, one attains insight – and through this, and this alone, one discovers technique. Indeed, my artistic journey has led me away from the outward aspects of dance altogether. Reviewing one of my works, a critic once wrote that it contained “no dance steps per se”. In truth, I am not interested in “dance steps per se.” I am interested in crossing the line between performance and experience, theater and self. I seek to answer the same simple questions in my choreography that I pose to students when I teach: Where am I? Who am I? Why am I moving? My aim as a choreographer is to bring the audience on the same journey I made in creating the piece, the same journey the dancer makes in performing it. It is to make visible through dance an inner world that lies beneath the surface of everyday existence – a parallel world, stemming from emptiness, filled with the mystery of life.