第二屆廣東現代藝術小劇場展演節場刊House programme of the 2nd Guangdong Modern Art Experimental Theatre Festival（照片由孫曉星提供 Photo provided by Sun Xiaoxing）
戲劇構作不僅是工作方法，它同樣代表了某種特定的政治文化立場。在中國（內地），戲劇構作率先被民間獨立劇團和舞團所採納，這標誌著創作者將自己與流行展品或宣傳工具區分開來的文化自覺。此外，由於長期的競技化傾向，舞蹈已逐漸與思想領域疏離，舞蹈戲劇構作作為一種學術支持，則促進舞蹈與前沿思想重新展開對話。比方，最近將後人類主義、生態主義等理念帶進舞蹈劇場，孕育出像L-square Performance 直角尺獨立表演《我們談論的是關於未來》、三種碗合作社《流量》、草字頭展演集團《蘑菇》等作品，都是由青年舞蹈編導與戲劇構作聯手的結果。
三種碗合作社《流量》©️馮躍紅Traffic by Three Bowls Cooperative © Feng Yuehong （照片由孫曉星提供 Photo provided by Sun Xiaoxing）
草字頭展演集團《蘑菇》©️李小草Mushroom by Double-Grass Performance Group © Li Xiaocao（照片由孫曉星提供Photo provided by Sun Xiaoxing）
組合嬲《嬲林匹克》於明當代美術館Niaolympics by Niao Collective at Ming Contemporary Art Museum（照片由孫曉星提供Photo provided by Sun Xiaoxing）
Why Mainland China Needs Dance Dramaturgy
Text: Sun Xiaoxing
Translator: Penny Zhou
First, let’s take a look at several important events which have taken place in China in recent memory, particularly the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China and the 2022 Winter Olympics. It’s easy to see that in such major national celebrations, the bodies of dancers are often turned into objects of expropriation. During the rehearsal stage, teachers and students at the Beijing Dance Academy are asked to prepare Chinese folk dance numbers as opposed to ballet or modern dance. With folk dance being the favoured genre of the government authorities, the folk dance department tends to hold considerably more sway in dance education institutions. Meanwhile, since modern dance—a genre characterised by its focus on personal expression—was first introduced to China in the 20th century, it has been largely regarded as a mere supplement to existing dance techniques, or worse, an extension of the cultural penetration of Western liberalism. As a result, a certain degree of "caution" has been used to prevent its excessive development in China.
However, modern dance happens to be the dance genre that has most in common with experimental theatre. In 1998, the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, at the time led by Yang Meiqi, hosted the 2nd edition of the Guangdong International Experimental Theatre Modern Arts Festival. The festival provided the opportunity for members of the Beijing-based Living Dance Studio and Paper Tiger Theatre Studio, as well as the Shanghai-based Collective Z (the predecessor of Niao Collective), to come together in the southern province of Guangdong, far from the centre of the system. Although at the time ‘dance dramaturgy’ wasn’t part of any job title in China, such work was already taking place under the radar within these independent groups. Artists with backgrounds in film, theatre or literature, such as Wu Wenguang, Tian Gebing and Zhang Xian, started to collaborate with dancers, thus giving birth to modern dance theatre in mainland China.
Dance theatre and dance dramaturgy have a complementary relationship. When dance creators wish to cross over into theatre, they bring in theatre scholars, playwrights and sometimes even directors to take on the role of dance dramaturg. The existence of such a position is arguably more meaningful than the actual work itself, as it signifies the establishment of an identity. On the one hand, the diversity and mixture of team members from various backgrounds results in works which push the boundaries. On the other hand, combining dance with theatre serves as a great survival strategy for modern dancers to expand their space and reach.
The theatricalisation of dance is first and foremost about the decentralisation of the dance or dancer's body—not dissimilar to the approach taken by postdramatic theatre towards traditional drama scripts. The fundamental purpose of this decentralisation is to give equal standing to all the theatrical elements: the body, the space, the visuals and the text. Dance dramaturgy fills the gap of non-dance language and therefore serves as a bridge for dancers to enter the realm of theatre. In addition, while dancers are generally used to presenting works through a personal and emotional lens, dance dramaturgy helps place unorganised emotions into a clear, structured historical and political context, thereby forming a tangible connection between the individual experience and the shared social zeitgeist.
The renowned Chinese theatre director Meng Jinghui is the founder and artistic director of a number of theatre festivals in China. In recent years, an increasing number of dance theatre productions have been featured in these events, raising criticism about there being too much ‘dance content’ in theatre festivals. In the world of fine art, dance performances have also been a frequent fixture at the opening and closing of contemporary art exhibitions.
However, it’s worth noting that, against the backdrop of consumerism and youth culture, these days dance performances are often staged in tourist spots, art galleries and at fashion shows, in the forms of site-specific dance, installation dance and fashion dance. It’s a practice that essentially turns beautiful young bodies into a tool to attract eyeballs and drum up traffic for cultural, tourism and even real estate businesses.
Dramaturgy is more than a theatre practice, it represents a specific political and cultural positioning. In mainland China, dramaturgy was first adopted by grassroots, independent theatre and dance troupes, which signaled the self-awareness of these creators to distinguish their works from popular exhibits or promotional tools. In addition, for a long time dance has been treated somewhat as a competitive sport in China; as a result, it has gradually become alienated from its function as intellectual expression. Dance dramaturgy, as a kind of academic exercise, helps to support and promote a renewed dialogue between dance and innovative ideas.
For example, concepts such as post-humanism and ecologism have lately been brought into dance theatre, resulting in works such as L-square Performance's A Poem About the Unknown, The Three Bowls Co-op's Web Traffic, and Grasshead Performance Group's Mushroom—all produced through collaborations between young choreographers and dramaturgs.
Recently, I worked with Ergao Dance Production Group (EDPG) on its project Butterfly Island. Along with other members of the creative team, we wove a plethora of topics into the work, from subcultural phenomena such as shanzhai (knockoff/copycat), ‘too cool’ and Y2K, to millennial nostalgia, identity justice and Chinese Futurism.
二高表演《南方舞館》©️廣州美術學院大學城美術館Southern Dance House by EDPG © Art Museum of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts（照片由孫曉星提供Photo provided by Sun Xiaoxing）
In fact, EDPG became interested in dramaturgy fairly early on—an interest that initially stemmed from its collaborations with various contemporary art institutions and exhibitions. For example, after participating in the inaugural Pan-Southeast Asia Triennial, EDPG was inspired by the event’s curatorial statement to deliberately strengthen its ‘southern’ identity. Even following the absence of a physical space, it continued to operate as a ‘Southern dance house’.
Commissioned by Tai Kwun, Butterfly Island builds on the ‘hometown’ theme of EDPG’s previous work, Kung Hei Fat Choy, while incorporating new thematic elements such as islands, ocean and migration. When the show was staged at the Blanc Art Space in Beijing as part of the More Than Human exhibition, it also emphasised the de-anthropocentric perspective of the butterflies.
Due to institutional constraints, dramaturgy is not formally incorporated into China’s official theatre system. However, the academic research or curatorial departments of museums sometimes serve certain functions of dramaturgy in supporting the development of drama, dance and other performing arts genres. It has also prompted the shift toward performativity for many modern dancers.
For example, when it was first established, the Ming Contemporary Art Museum had a strong focus on experimental theatre and performance, while at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai, experimental performance project ReActor created a platform for dramatists, dancers and performance artists to carry out exchange and collaboration.
當代表演文獻開放展「二〇20年：整個世界變成了劇場」海報Poster of 2020 Twenty Years towards A World Theatre, an exhibition of contemporary performing arts archives（照片由孫曉星提供Photo provided by Sun Xiaoxing）
These art institutions provide the space for an array of groups and individuals—from Niao Collective, Xiao Ke x Zi Han, aoao_ing and EDPG, to Wenhui and Paper Tiger Theatre Studio—to present their cross-disciplinary works, including works of dance theatre. In addition, during his tenure as curator of performance art projects at Ming Contemporary Art Museum, Zhang Yuan presented dance-related projects including Being Fragile (2020) and Dance in Asia (2019), and the co-curated 2020: Twenty Years Towards a World Theatre for OCAT Shenzhen. The curation of the exhibition, which featured a new archive of independent theatre, avant-garde dance and performance art projects that had not been brought together previously, clearly involved dramaturgy.
In general, dance dramaturgy in mainland China is notably different in its ideological leanings compared to the official approach to dance. It can help modern dancers break away from the collectivist and nationalistic system, while preventing the over-commercialisation of modern dance.
Most importantly, dance dramaturgy can establish a bridge between contemporary or avant-garde dance works with various experimental theatre festivals, the contemporary art world, academic circles, and international performing arts networks. Whether it is practised in the form of curation, academic consulting or dramaturgy, it is instrumental in advancing the transformation of traditional art forms such as dance and drama and their integration into the contemporary performing arts scene.
Sun Xiaoxing is a playwright and theatre director, as well as a researcher and curator of contemporary theatre and performing arts. He currently works as an associate professor at the School of Modern Music and Drama at the Tianjin Conservatory of Music, and is a doctoral candidate at the Shanghai Theatre Academy.