文惠 Wen Hui; 攝 Photo: Ling You-juan
“I have struggles inside,” dancer Wen Hui said. She grew up in the time of the Cultural Revolution (the Red Era) and at the same time was influenced by western ideas. Her body has instinctive reactions to the Red Era. She felt a need to break out, rebel and be free. She once worked in the foremost mainstream dance ensemble. But she also set up a dance studio in the early 90s that has been pioneering in dance-making. She took the voice of ordinary people into theatre, working with the body to write the history of the people.
“Art does not change society. We are still trying,” Wen Hui said.
From the National to the Personal
Wen Hui was born in 1960. The Red Era inevitably influenced her relationship with dance. This started with the popular “Zhong-zi dance” on the streets during the Cultural Revolution and this became her earliest "memory of the streets" . "Art for the service of workers, peasants and soldiers" – during her childhood this slogan was deeply rooted in her mind. Her father wanted her to study at an art school because he did not want her to fall victim to the national practice whereby young intellectuals became working labour in rural areas.
After graduating from the Faculty of Choreography in Beijing Dance Academy in 1989, Wen Hui joined Dong-fang Ensemble (Dong-fang) as a choreographer. As one of the three major performing groups directly under the Chinese Cultural Department, Dong-fang was responsible for political propaganda, and art and cultural exchanges. Having the most talented artists in the country, Dong-fang was regarded as the top performing dance group. Most dancers wanted desperately the opportunity of working for Dong-fang. Thinking now of the time when she worked there, Wen Hui laughed, "It was boring, oppressive and distressing."
She felt that this boredom stemmed from her perception of Dong-fang's limitations in making art. "I don't remember exactly which year. I had choreographed a piece of Jazz dance. It was the time when China and the US were in conflict. On the first night my work was immediately taken from the programme. I was very young and naive at the time. I could not stop crying backstage." The political nature of Dong-fang meant that choreographers had no space for personal creativity. At times when many of the company members went on tour and the dormitory was almost empty, Wen Hui dreamt of her own dance group in the future. Her life then took a turn after she travelled to the US.
文慧 Wen Hui; 攝 Photo: 黃大志 Ricky Wong
It was in 1994 when Wen Hui went to America to film a documentary. She asked herself, “Why don’t I stay here? I want to learn contemporary dance.” She changed her visa and got to stay in New York. Her English was not good. She looked for dance studios in the magazines her friends gave her. She then went to the listed addresses one by one. Without any cash in her pocket, she carefully picked the courses and performances she wanted to attend. “I went to watch the class from outside at the window. If I liked the teacher, I would take a lesson. I would take more if the lesson was good. I usually watched off-Broadway performances. I would never go to a real Broadway performance unless my friends brought me the ticket. The same was true for musicals; it was only when my friends had a ticket for me that I would go.
In New York, it was not the different types of dance or various training courses that impacted on her the most. It was the freedom that struck her. “In New York, no one cares what you do. You can even walk on the streets naked. Choreographers always want to have their own dance group. But how can it happen without budget, a place to perform or lighting? What is possible when you have nothing? But in New York, you would think everything is possible. What matters is you, yourself as an individual. If you want to do it, you can do it everywhere, whether on a bus, on the subway or on a bridge. Just do it.”
Wen Hui saw this journey in New York as an “eye-opening inspiration”. When she returned to China, she set up Living Dance Studio with Wu Wen Guang. There was no longer the ornate orderliness she had had in Dong-fang. It was now the time to face the rough reality of running her own studio and company.
Hearing every individual voice
She describes her early journey as follows: “From Dong-fang to Living Dance Studio, it has been a process of a dream coming true. I was working for the country in Dong-fang. Now, I am doing what I want, working for myself, for the society and for this era.”
The works of Living Dance Studio have creative input from arts practitioners in different fields. They involve various forms of art, including dance, theatre or documentary to represent real life. For example, The Report on Giving Birth focused on the life of women and was based on interviews with women of different ages and from different industries about their experiences of childbirth. The Report on Body in 2000 was about materialism in China reflecting on the booming economy. Report on 37.8 ºC was about SARS. Dance with Migrant Workers played at The Venice Biennale in 2015 and invited to the Forum of the Berlin Film Festival in 2002 and listed as Dance with Farm Workers. The work was created when Beijing underwent considerable urban reconstructions after China’s successful bid for holding the Olympic Games. This production combined the efforts of professional choreographers and visual artists with thirty rural migrant workers who came from Sichuan to work in Beijing. It was the first time that these neglected workers who were used to working in dust and mud performed on a stage.
《身體報告》Report on Body；攝Photo： Richy Wong
For Wen Hui, “society” is probably about “every individual”. Her works are the voices of many people. They are the sound of the era and represent the fierce reality. This is why people like using “documentary-theatre” to describe her works.
Painting history with the body
2008 was the turning point for Wen Hui in her creative practice. From this year on, the works of Living Dance Studio began to explore history and memory. The first piece of work, Memory I embodied the two choreographers’ childhood experiences. Wen Hui and Wu Wen Guang traced back to their past using different perspectives. “The entire work lasted for 8 hours. I went from backstage to front stage in a straight line, very slowly and repeatedly.” Memory II was filmed by youngsters and presented the memories of the elders now over 70 who had survived the Great Famine in China. Memory III follows the life of third “Nai-nai” (Aunt) from Wen Hui’s family. Wen Hui went to her hometown and filmed the documentary which was later staged in theatres.
《聽三奶奶講故事》紀錄片中文慧跟三奶奶跳舞的場景 In the documentary Listening to Third Grandmother’s Story, the scene of Wen Hui dancing with her third grandmother；攝Photo：Li Xin-ming
“I am using the body to write, to explore the society, to enter into history.” Wen Hui explained.
In Red, the connection of body, memory and history was profound. This was about the quintessential ballet of the Cultural Revolution, The Red Detachment of Women. Wen Hui asked Liu Zu-Ying, who had been part of The Red Detachment of Women, and two post-1980s dancers to share their feelings and thoughts onstage.
“It is a straightforward and honest approach to use body to represent history. ‘The body does not lie,’ someone once said. It is a cliché but it can also be true. When we use our body to look into history, every physical body holds an individual existence.” In the rehearsals of Red, the four different bodies were explored to manifest the Red Detachment of Women of the Cultural Revolution and four different portrayals were represented. “Liu is the eldest, but she is like a live museum. I can learn her movements, but I can never imitate her inner essence, gesture and style. Liu is herself. We are separate individuals. Growing up in the Cultural Revolution and influenced by western ideas of art and culture in the 1980s, I have my own struggles inside. The other two dancers also found their personal ways to present themselves.”
To fully represent history is impossible. But it is through portrayals by different individuals that we can get closer to the truth. “By approaching the past, we found that the contemporary history of China is not accessible to the public. ‘Official history’ is largely different from true history.” To look into history is for not forgetting and for living in the present. “History is not about remembering for remembering’s sake, nor is it about remembering only the nice parts of the past. I wish that more young people would get to know their true history.”
Although Dance with Migrant Workers had enabled workers to get onstage and have their say, the work did not change their reality. Wen Hui is not unrealistic about art. “Art does not change society,” she said. “But why do we still continue to create art? I ask myself this whenever I am creating a work. It is because I hope to improve the conditions of society. I hope my works would bring positive changes to society and to the environment we are living in. We are still trying.”
Has Wen Hui ever felt defeated? “Always!” She laughed.
文慧與民工 Men Hui with migrant workers；照片由文慧提供 Photo provided by Wen Hui