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Found in Translation 

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company uses the international language of movement to communicate with Chinese collaborators.

Wednesday, Sep 2 2009

It must have been a daunting scenario: two dance companies from opposite sides of the globe, five weeks to make a dance, and no language in common. That's what the members of San Francisco–based Margaret Jenkins Dance Company (MJDC) stepped into when they arrived in Guangzhou last September to start work on a collaboration with China's premier contemporary dance group, Guangdong Modern Dance Company (GMDC). The resulting creation, Other Suns, is a trilogy that investigates perceptions of balance and imbalance in both American and Chinese cultures.

It's a theme that came to define the daily experience of the eight MJDC and 12 GMDC dancers as they choreographed their way over, among, and around cultural barriers. "I'm interested in the ways we do — and do not — communicate with other cultures, and in what we think we have the right to assume about what people feel," Jenkins says. "I want to create situations in which I'm vulnerable to new ways of thinking and learning."

Vulnerability abounded as both companies sought to navigate misunderstandings that arose from the translation process. But they learned quickly to draw on the main means of discourse they did share: movement. "There were things I wanted to sort out with words, but I had to let them go," MJDC dancer Heidi Schweiker says. "I remember wanting to check in with one of the male Guangdong dancers about a quartet through the translator. 'Just move,' he said. I tend to talk a lot more than I need to because I'm verbally inclined. He was less inclined to speak. ... We discovered early on, though, that we could trust them as partners."

Other Suns evolved out of many such compromises, as well as what Jenkins calls "the wonderful accidents that come from what's lost in translation." Given her conceptually driven process, it's no wonder language issues proved sticky. Most of the material in her work is generated by the dancers, often in response to questions or problem-solving tasks she gives them. The veteran choreographer then shapes, orders, and edits the movement into a cohesive whole. (Part I of Other Suns, which MJDC created prior to the Guangdong collaboration and performed for San Francisco audiences in December 2007, was developed this way.)

Guangdong's usual approach is less reliant on the spontaneous discoveries of individual dancers. Like many aspects of culture in China, collectivism has trumped individualism in the evolution of modern dance. Guangdong is one of only three modern dance companies in the country, all run by the same artistic director. It's a fact that runs counter to perceptions of modern dance in the West, where ardent individualism all but defines the form.

Willy Tsao, who directs the companies and is considered to be the father of modern dance in China, sees no conflict between fostering both self-expression and a communal approach among his dancers. "When they get together, it's much easier for them to submit themselves or lay down their own thoughts and work with each other," he told Time Out Hong Kong magazine last year.

But Tsao has worked to create an environment where multiple perspectives can cross-pollinate. "He's brought over many companies and choreographers from around the world toward encouraging modern dance in China," Jenkins says. "We were invited to go and experiment and see if there was a chemistry which felt challenging. We found the potential for a collaboration rich with lessons, which is what inspires me to make work. ... The dancers are extraordinarily intuitive."

Jenkins and Guangdong deputy artistic director Liu Qui hope to highlight their differing approaches through Other Suns' three-part structure. MJDC will star in the opening act, and a collaboratively devised middle section follows. The piece concludes with the Chinese company's interpretation of the work's theme, created and performed solely by Guangdong. The final product is a cross-current of cultures mediated through limbs, legs, and torsos. Appropriately, its premiere coincides with the 30th anniversary of successful US-China relations and the 35th anniversary of the MJDC, making it the longest running modern dance company in San Francisco.

Working across borders is not new for Jenkins, whose last international project took the company to India to work with Tanusree Shankar Dance Company on 2007's A Slipping Glimpse. As in that experience, it was the individual exchanges with the dancers that galvanized the process of creating Other Suns. "We came with this large idea of cultural exchange, but in the end it came down to building bridges one person to another," Schweiker says."I went to China. I didn't travel around; I spent most of my time with these particular people in this particular studio. The immediate experience was just as important as the large concepts we were working with. I wouldn't have wanted it any other way."

Fall Arts Guide

Nicola Luisotti by Chloe Veltman
Five Classical Music and Opera Events to See This Fall by Chloe Veltman

Fall Dance Picks by Bonner Odell

Stage Sage: Speculating about this season's theatrical experiments by Chris Jensen
Other Fall Stage Events by Chris Jensen

Visual Art
Harpoons and Harbingers: This fall, visual artists bite, reflect, and cannibalize by Traci Vogel
Art listings compiled by John Graham

HUM525: Hitting the Books: Your required reading for the fall semester by Jonathan Kiefer

About The Author

Bonner Odell


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