Professor Xiao-Xiong Zhang

Temple Statue

Conversation with Professor Xiao-Xiong Zhang, resident choreographer and lecturer in dance at the Taipei National University of Arts for the past 16 years.

I’m the former Artistic Director of Restless Dance Theatre based in Adelaide, Australia. I recently traveled to Taiwan as one of the presenting delegates at the Global Dance Summit in Taipei 14 – 20 July 2012. This international dance event is a collaboration between Dance and the Child International (daCi), the World Dance Alliance (WDA) and the Taipei National University of the Arts (TNUA).

Over 1000 delegates attended the event from countries including, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Japan, India, Finland, United Kingdom, Denmark, Netherlands, Finland, Germany, Russia, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, United States of America, Canada, Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica and Papua New Guinea. The week-long program consisted of Key Notes from Christopher Scott, Martin Blake, Hui-wen (Kate) Wen and Chung-shiuan Chang, presentations and papers, Masterclasses and dance workshops, showcases and performances from both students and professional dancers from around the globe.

I met up with my old teacher Professor Xiao-Xiong Zhang in the dance studios at TNUA where he was rehearsing 30 dancers from both the 3rd and 4th year groups for his work, “Rite of Spring Part 1 : The Adoration of Earth ” which premiered in Taipei in 2008. The Rite of Spring, original French title ‘Le sacre du printemps’ is a ballet with music by Igor Stravinsky; choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky; and concept, set design and costumes by Nicholas Roerich. It was produced by Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes ballet company and had its première in Paris on 29 May 1913.

Professor Zhang has been a visiting choreographer at the Adelaide College of the Arts (AC Arts) for the past 20 years where he continues to build the relationship between both dance landscapes in Australia and Taiwan. I danced for Xiao-Xiong in my final year at AC Arts in 2001 in a work called ‘Tango Fantasy”. Unsure that I will ever regain the dancers physique I had when I was 31 years old in my final year at AC Arts,  I am however immortalised on the front cover of Zhang’s book “The Glory of the Ancient Gods”, a memoir of his life as a dancer, choreographer and photographer for more than 30 years. I admit there was a universal gasp of awe from his students when Xiao-Xiong introduced me and mentioned my pin-up credentials.

Approaching the 100th anniversary of one of the world’s most celebrated and well-known choreographies, “The Rite of Spring”,  you have depicted images in your latest work of the same name that both reference the work of Nijinsky and depicts aspects of Asian culture in a way that is sensitive to the original music and references your past as a child living in Cambodia.

Can you tell me a little about your interpretation of this work? How did you begin the creative process with the dancers? Have you borrowed any movement motifs from the original choreography or is it entirely new material?

It was about 20 years ago when I first heard the music and got the picture in my mind and decided one day I would make my own version of the dance, so I try not to be influenced by other choreographers. Only one version I saw in the past. It was a late 1950’s version by Bejart which was an all male cast of Rite of Spring which I saw on tv. That’s the only version I saw in the late 80’s before I created this.

I did read the bio from the composer and I believe what he said with his music already had a lot of information and images about the story and also I can imagine what I would say. Nijinsky tried too hard to work on the dance steps because already the music gives you the movement. So I wanted to listen to the music so it can transfer the information to the audience.

I looked back at this and what was close to my personal life and it’s the Cambodian war and the cultural revolution in China and that explains a lot of things about you. The poor innocent souls that are brainwashed to be the killing machine. It is a scary thought for human history. I asked why they became a killing machine and why did they have to be sacrificed. That is the question I have been asking myself for 20 years. In 2008 I decided to make the work and I completed the project in 2012 for TNUA.

I tried not to give the dancers too much information so I can give them space, but I started with some workshops about the group and the individual, about the intensity of the individual and what could be in a special historical moment, a special situation and slowly it guided me about the power, the control, the violence and the fighting back to protect their freedom. I did all this in the workshops. In a certain historical moment, human life is so precious. What touched people’s heart is even in that conflict between a single soul and the society, a person tried to keep their dignity and the only one thing they can do is fight and not keep silent. That touched me and it touches people…a single voice yearning for freedom.

I was trained in Chinese classical dance before I moved to Australia and I didn’t know contemporary dance until I moved there. I learnt Limon, Cunningham, Graham and Humphrey but very little of each and then I was 25 when I started learning ballet and I got into the Australian Dance Theatre when I was 28 years old. Leigh Warren was the artistic director at the time.

I often thought between eastern and western cultures and how it’s very different to use the body and because I already started on the stage in the west I had to do this repertoire and it made me think…”how can I draw something from my own blood and how can I combine the two philosophies of the two kinds to make my own work.”

I started in 1993 to teach my idea of body training process in Hong Kong and mainland China. From 1996 I started teaching in Taipei and have been there for the past 16 years. This program has been very successful in both Taiwan and China coz I teach there as well but mainly in Taipei and we can see all the young dancers who are very open and capable to cope with all the needs of different choreographers – it doesn’t matter if they’re from the east or west. They are comfortable with their own blood and capable to do different stuff…that’s what I’ve been trying to build here since 1993.

Before that they mainly had Martha  Graham technique because we had one of the greatest dancers Ross Park who brought the pure technique of Graham to the dance education system here and made that the mainstream technique in Taiwan for many years. I have great respect for him, but I am glad to see that that has changed and that my teaching has been part of that change. I am very proud of this.

Having danced in one of your works more than a decade ago and seen many of your productions for the AC Arts students, it strikes me that cultural references can be lost in translation with the Australian dancers you work with. Now witnessing in the rehearsal studio the exceptional talents of the dancers here at TNUA, do you consider there being any differences in the way they approach the work?

When I go back to Australia and work with the students there I try not to make them do the eastern stuff but I will put myself back to that cultural environment to find the interesting subject to work with the students, so for me the body language could be beyond the cultural borders. It only matters how you’re going to try something different – to have different tastes and different philosophies of the body.

My child was born in Australia and I didn’t ask her to be Chinese nor Australian Chinese, I just wanted her to have a Chinese background. So fortunately enough she grew up as an Australian kid but also she has something different. So when I train Australian dancers, they have their own culture and I need to get into this culture but also bring something to them. I try not to make them do Chinese dance. There is a lot of human issues to share without a cultural border.

You mentioned you worked for the Australian Dance Theatre under Leigh Warren as Artistic Director. You maintain a strong connection with Australia and in particular Adelaide. What attracts you to Adelaide and can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with AC Arts?

I emigrated to Australia in 1983. Before I landed at the city I knew nothing about South Australia only because my mum was a Cambodian refugee and was accepted by the Australian government – that was a kind and generous decision to make. I was born in Cambodia and left when I was 13 and after 12 years I went back to my family. That was completely a new culture and a new life for me. And also it was a new chance for me to pick up dance which was my teenage dream. I was in china studying history before that.

During the cultural revolution I was 13 living in China – no family, no friends and I was just living as a student at school, you have to be very careful what you say in public. You might have to pay a big price for a politically incorrect statement. It could cost you your life so I didn’t have much conversation with the locals and I kept my eye open to see and learn how to survive in that society.

My teachers told me not to talk too much in public. At age 13-18 it was a very lonely teenage time living alone in China. I needed to find somewhere to express myself. I began writing Chinese poetry  in the classical form which I never showed anyone at the time. I have published this a few years ago now. I find dance is such a way to bring me a simple joy but dance keeps me safe without using any language to express myself.

So I started dance with the high school arts group and became one of the leaders but to be a professional dancer at that time you had to have a very clean and strong political background. As an overseas Chinese I don’t have a right or a chance to get into any arts group. Any overseas connection at that time meant you could be an unknown enemy. So I could only keep dance as my hobby. Age 19 I graduated from high school and became a high school teacher teaching Chinese literature and at age 20, I got into university studying history. I had to bury my dance dream

I went back to China after I was 13. I was a teacher of Chinese literature before I completed my studies in History and in 1983 was accepted by the Australian Government as an immigrant. After I moved  to Adelaide I started teaching Chinese dance to the Chinese Society and one day in 1984 Ray Lewis who was the head of dance at the CPA before Gillian Ray Millard come to watch my class and he offered me to teach and study at the Centre for the Performing Arts (CPA) which is now known as the Adelaide College of the Arts. So at age 25 I made a decision to go back to school and study modern dance and complete my teenage dream to become a dancer. From 1991 the new head of the dance department offered me the opportunity to choreograph on the students at CPA, since then I have created ore than 20 works…later it became AC Arts. One was nominated the best production of the year in 1996 ‘Excavation’ and then I won an award for best choreographer for ‘The Forgotten God’. Through my connections I helped the CPA develop the links between TNUA, Guongdong Modern Dance Company and the Beijing Modern Dance Company which allowed for a successful cultural exchange program which saw my works The Forgotten God, Chinadance, Dance in the Forbidden City and Nirvana. After this I continued to make work for the AC Arts and brought TNUA dancers with me on several occasions to work with the students. This I consider to be a true cultural exchange.

My observation this past week is that young Taiwanese dancers are fully immersed in their culture. I’ve seen them performing dragon dances, fan dances, Taiwanese Opera and drumming which have all been executed with such professional standard. They seem to have adopted a European influence in their dance training which I imagine stems from the experience and connections their teachers  have inherited from some of the greatest dance masters.

Can you tell me about some of the choreographers the TNUA has commissioned in the past?

Li Hai Min (Artistic Director, Cloud Gate) was the founder of the dance department.  Right from day one he set up the very high standard and had a great vision which is to provide a great training program for the young dancers to stand by their culture and observe the new technique and ideas from western cultures to prepare for building a new Chinese contemporary arts form. So that’s how they set up the dance department.

Since then Chinese traditional culture and Taiwan culture was a very important part of the course, but it was very open to any new or leading form from the west. Graham technique, Cunningham, Limon, contact improvisation technique and post modern technique and so on. So the students are very open to different things, but at the same time their roots are deep in their culture.

In the past we have had a few classic works from America and Europe from the early days of dance history. We’ve had Martha Graham’s work, Lin Hai Min, Bill T. Jones, Trisha Brown and Balanchine repertoire but also we invite a lot of young choreographers from local and overseas companies to work with the students like Tanja Liedke who created  ‘Slide’ which toured to Melbourne with out third year dancers a few years ago before she died. This school is so special in Taiwan because the lecturer never stops to create their own work and continues performing on stage. We are creating and practicing different work so the students can always keep up with new ideas.

The Taiwanese dancers I’ve met in Adelaide have always presented with strong classical ballet technique, some have even shown physical virtuosity akin to Chinese-trained acrobats. What do you consider being some of the differences in terms of dance education at a tertiary level for western dancers and can you identify any gaps in their training?

In my technique I give them strong stretching exercises, so it’s not just from classical ballet, but it’s  also an awareness of their body and a logical understanding of the body in space. At the TNUA the program setting is very special compared to any dance school in the world. We set up the training. The program is in two parts…one eastern and one western.

Eastern – tai chi, martial arts, acrobats, traditional opera and folk dance from China or locally, even Taiwan aboriginal or Indonesian dance.
Western – we have classical ballet, Graham and all the different styles of technique as well my Asian influenced technique.

Also in academic studies we do have quite a solid set up for the students for dance history in western and eastern cultures. Chinese literature in contemporary and classical and a lot of other subjects as well including critical studies and anatomy etc. We have 3 years for high school and 4 years for university which means 7 years training in total so they have a strong technique in the end, not just in the classroom but also on stage. We have 30 students in one class with equal male and female dancers. That makes a lot of difference.

Like emerging professional dancers who complete their dance training in Australia and wonder where to next, do dancers who from TNUA usually find work after they graduate? What are their options for employment?

This year is our 30 year anniversary so we did some research about our graduates so it was very positive about the pathways they have taken. We have more than 90% of the graduates still working in dance related jobs. We do have a lot of graduate students dancing with Cloud Gate and overseas companies such as NDT, ADT, Martha Graham Co. Twyler Tharp. Cunningham Company, Trisha Brown, Alvin Aley, Piña Bauch, holdfish, Batcheva Dance Company, Akram Khan, Bonn Ballet Co and many German companies such as Sasha Waltz and others in Europe and America.

I led a Masterclass at the daCi/WDA event for 30 young dancers, mostly with an Asian background. Although none of them had ever worked with a person with a disability, many agreed that they would be interested to learn more about this kind of work. Disability Arts and Arts and Disability in Western Cultures is growing exponentially since the past 20 years although there is still so much work to do. Artists are featuring in mainstream festival events, accessing training opportunities to engage in  the arts, and touring work across the globe.

Can you talk a little bit about the disability culture here in Taiwan, what some of the barriers are that people face in the arts and whether you see opportunity for young people to expand their knowledge of dance in different communities?

I don’t know much about it but I do know someone working with hearing and visually impaired performers in drama and dance and other art forms. It’s quite successful. There is someone working it this field. They do something very artistic and also they just find a way for them to express themselves artistically. A friend of mine (Wang Shi Mai) will have more info about this.

How does somebody access a copy of ‘The Glory of the Ancient Gods’ and when can Australian audiences expect to see your work in the future?

You can get a copy of this at the Imprints Bookstore on Hindley Street in Adelaide and I don’t know when I will have the opportunity to work there again… we’ll have to wait and see. But I wish I could create a work once a year either with AC Arts or another tertiary intuition or a professional Australian dance company.