Dance Curating in Asia
The Sublime in the Imperfect — The birth of a new dance theatre by non-professionals: The Vision of Yoyo
Original text: Song Xinxin
Translator: Penelope Zhou
The Vision of Yoyo／Photo: 馮躍紅 (Photo provided by Shanghai International Dance Center)
The Vision of Yoyo is a dance theatre with amateur performers produced and presented by the Shanghai International Dance Center. The piece is performed by a group of largely non-professional dancers who come from all walks of life. Instead of portraying characters, they are on stage as their unvarnished selves, telling genuine life stories with their own authentic physicality and movement. Presented in the format of contemporary dance theatre, the work aims to explore ordinary people’s physical and spiritual conditions in the uniquely-challenging post-2020 world. We started the audition process last July, and rehearsals began last October. The show will finally open this year, running from May 21 to 23 at the Shanghai International Dance Center Experimental Theater.
The idea of making a piece like this first came to us in March last year, when all performance venues were shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In response to that, we launched a series of free online dance courses taught by local dancers and accessible to the public. Amongst all the participants, an 11-year-old boy named Yoyo really caught our attention with his homework submission. We learnt that Yoyo lived in Wuhan, that his mother was a medical worker, and that dance had been keeping him company during the lockdowns. Yoyo’s love for dance and for life inspired us tremendously, and sent us on a mission to look for more people like him. And, just like that, The Vision of Yoyo was born. The creativity and passion of over 100 dance enthusiasts were distilled into a finished work, presented by around a dozen dancers, who explore and express their individual realities through the interactions between their bodies and lives.
At the beginning of the development process, our initial concept was to create a story about Yoyo and get a child actor to play him. But soon we came to the realization that what was so compelling about Yoyo was that he was telling real stories about his life through dance, without any pretence. If we were to make up a story about him, we would betray this sense of honesty and rawness. So we decided to do a 180 degree turn and seek non-professionals to share their real life experiences using their own bodies. We believed that would be more meaningful, and more respectful to Yoyo and the inspiration he gave us.
Our casting calls got over 100 responses. Watching those audition videos and the wide variety of interpretation and expression of the applicants further strengthened our desire and resolution to make this show happen. We eventually whittled the applicants down to 13 final cast members. Amongst them were an eight-year-old child, a 66-year-old painter, a female PhD, a programmer, a business analyst and various freelancers, as well as street dancers, former professional dancers and dance students. They were not selected based on any conventional criteria as to whether they were good at “dancing” per se, but rather their individual physicality, personality and experience. They were so gracious with their time, happy to spend most weekends dancing, rehearsing, working together — in a sense it was probably a window, or an escape for them.
Every dancer in the work has their own segment, where they convey their unique experiences and circumstances via their motion and presence. Each one of them is an irreplaceable part of the show. They do not have to be anyone other than themselves. They are not just performers, but also creators. Although the character of Yoyo no longer exists in the finished work, he remains the spiritual guide, the heart and soul, of the project. Therefore we kept his name in the title of the piece.
Apart from a few professional dance students, the cast is largely made up of a group of dance enthusiasts — who we call “amateur dancers”. Their untrained bodies deliver movement in some of the most natural, pure and candid forms. To watch them dance is to forget about the standardized definitions of technical perfection or aesthetics, and instead become immersed in the texture and power of their joys and sorrows, triumphs and struggles. This work creates a space where trained and untrained bodies are treated and appreciated equally, because they are carriers of different — yet equally important — individual information and cultural impressions. Their differences are precisely what makes the piece meaningful.
In fact, this is a notion that has been put into practice by many Chinese and international artists, including such influential figures as Pina Bausch and Jérôme Bel. Although with varying goals and targets in mind, these projects share two fundamental beliefs. The first is to send a message: dance should not only belong to trained elites, it should be for everyone. As long as they want to, anyone can experience the joy of dance and express themselves through whatever movement they are able or want to use. The second is to challenge the conventional definitions of “dance” and “beauty”. What is dance? Does it have to involve technical excellence and pre-approved standards? If so, who sets the rules and criteria? And what counts as a beautiful body? One which is youthful, svelte, ideally proportioned? Says who? As our culture and society evolve, the answers to these questions are changing and expanding. Any definitive conclusion should be subject to doubt and debate, and it is our job to question these flawed conclusions with our art. Everybody gets older, and none of us is perfect. Perhaps accepting these truths is in itself a beautiful thing.
As the audiences watch The Vision of Yoyo, we hope they can learn to suspend their conventional understanding of “dance” and “beauty,” and see the sublime which is present in these “imperfect” bodies and movement. At the end of the day, it is the dancer that defines the dance. And I think the fact that the Shanghai International Dance Center made The Vision of Yoyo the first production it has staged itself is testament to its belief in openness and inclusivity.
In the small park next to the dance centre, I often see a street cleaner sitting on the bench, whistling little tunes with a blade of grass. It moves me more than any performing artist I see on TV, because what he is pursuing is not the outcome of art, but simply the act of art. And I very much hope that we also treat the act of art as being as important as the outcome.
Director of The Vision of Yoyo
Song Xinxin is a lecturer at Shanghai Theatre Academy. She has a double master degree in choreography from Beijing Dance Academy and London Contemporary Dance School, and is a scholarship recipient of the China Scholarship Council. She has received commissions from the China Dancers Association’s National Young Dancers Development Programme and the China National Arts Fund’s Young Creative Talent Programme. She is also an associate artist of the Shanghai International Dance Center.