Lucky Seven: Janie Yao, Randall Flinn, and Amy Cain talk about Chinese dance, sharing culture, and East Meets West

Dance of Asia America has done tremendous work, bringing authentic and contemporary Chinese dance to Houstonians. For the last seven years, they have welcomed spring with East Meets West, a presentation arranging Chinese dance side-by-side with dance forms of Western culture. The show will be presented free of charge at Miller Outdoor Theatre on May 30.

The evening’s Eastern dances will include performances by top dancers from Mitsi Dancing School in new choreography from the heart of China. Representing the West are four local dance companies that illustrate a broad spectrum of dance in American culture. Barbara King Dance Company will offer a medley of Latin ballroom dances, and Wyld Styl will represent with hip-hop and popping. In addition, contemporary dance company Ad Deum, and the multifaceted Revolve Dance Company, each return for their second year of participation.

Having little knowledge of Chinese Dance myself, I cornered Janie Yao, founder, choreographer, and artistic director of Dance of Asia America (DAA), for a little enlightenment and a chat about this year’s program. Also joining us, Randall Flinn, artistic director of Ad Deum Dance Company, and Amy Cain of Revolve Dance Company, who give us their perspective as emissaries of the West.

Dance Source Houston: Congratulations, Janie, on your 7th year of presenting East Meets West! In the West, seven is often considered a lucky number. Does the number seven have any special significance in China?

Janie Yao: The number 7 (七, Pinyin: qī) symbolizes “togetherness.” It is a lucky number for relationships and one of the rare numerals that is great in both Chinese and many Western cultures.

DSH: Certainly appropriate for an event that joins two cultures, and their diverse dance forms, and shares these with spectators. I suspect there will be many in the audience, whose only knowledge of Chinese dance is what they see on movies and television, including “Superstars of Dance,” a reality competition that debuted on NBC last January. Do these mediums present accurate examples of Chinese dance?

JY: I happened to have caught a little bit of “Superstars of Dance.” The group that represented Chinese dance was a Buddhist martial arts group. It was not dance and certainly not Chinese dance. It was so sad realizing that television viewers are being misled.

Most Americans only relate Chinese dance to Lion Dancing, Dragon Dancing, acrobats, and martial arts. Not to say that they do not influence each other, but Chinese dance, much like ballet, is its own performing art form. New audiences to DAA will often comment on how Chinese dance is not at all what they thought it was.

DSH: So, let’s set the record straight. Give us some background we can use to better view Chinese dance.

JY: Classical Chinese Dance from the Mainland represents the Hans ethnic majority, which makes up 91% of the people in China and is the largest ethnic population in the world. It is influenced by tai chi and fung fu. Chinese Folk Dance consists of dances from the other 55 ethnic minorities in China. Dance of Asian America presents both Chinese classical and folk dances in each of our shows.

The movements are derived from the Chinese people’s everyday life, mannerisms reflecting the region and climate, customs, traditions, and history. These folk dances are not to be thought of as backyard dancing. Authentic movements are fused with full-blown dance technique that is specific to each region: Mongolian dance, Xing Jiang dance, Dai’s dance, etc.

DSH: The choreography performed by your company ranges from classical to contemporary Chinese dance. Will those with little exposure to either be able to tell the difference?

JY: New audiences may find it difficult to distinguish between authentic and contemporary. Chinese Folk Dance often contemporizes with more modern costuming, props, and music. Classical Chinese Dance does the same but also fuses modern dance and/or ballet from the Western world into the Chinese classical technique.

Dancers and enthusiasts of Western dance forms will be able to see the differences, though. Chinese dance is a dance technique much like classical ballet, Graham’s modern dance technique, or Luigi’s jazz technique. In fact, there are specific arm positions that are very near to the five ballet positions, though the fingers are more stretched and the hands are typically turned outward rather than inward. As a method of study, Chinese dance is very compatible with Western dance techniques.

DSH: Amy and Randall, many viewers attending the show may focus on the differences between Chinese dance and American dance forms. What are the parallels, and what do cultures learn from one another through sharing and experiencing dance?

Amy Cain: Dance is art in any form. It is an expression of the human body interpreting music, sound, or subject matter through movements and gestures.

Randall Flinn: We learn so much about ourselves as people through dance – our worldviews, the things that we share in common, the things we hold the most precious, the things that are the most fearful, our desire and great need for hope.

DSH: What draws you two and your companies back to this mixed program?

AC: Janie Yao and her dancers…they are a pleasure to work with!
RF: We appreciate the opportunity to work with a diverse, multicultural, and eclectic dance community in a performance presentation. It heightens our artistry, awareness and understanding to extend beyond our own borders and learn from the beauty and expressions of others.

DSH: Amy, last year Revolve wowed with a tap piece. I hear Matt Dipple is working on another one for this year.

AC: Yes, Matt’s piece “Swing Set” mixes Broadway and hoofin’ tap styles in an interesting and whimsical interpretation of artist Jurassic 5’s music.

DSH: Ad Deum is performing “Prophets,” a work choreographed by Steve Rooks, who was a principal dancer for ten years with Martha Graham Dance Company. Can you tell us a bit more about the work, Randall?

RF: Yes, it was a true honor to have Steve set his work on Ad Deum. Before Martha passed away, Steve was collaborating with her on this wonderful score by John Adams. The work is explosive. A fire burns within three women, prophetesses, whose yearnings to obey the word of God stirs the very fibers of their beings.

DSH: Janie, I like that you’re bringing all of these diverse dance forms together but, if you wanted, you could just stick to presenting Chinese dance. So, why is it important to you to offer a mixed program?

JY: Well, in the fall, we do get down and serious with Chinese dance as DAA collaborates with one of China’s best, Shanghai Dance Company. But, as a mixed program, East Meets West is a great way to introduce new audiences to Chinese dance.

Dance of Asia America also loves working with amazing local talents. After all, the greatest part of dance is sharing it – not just with our audiences, but with other dancers and choreographers. This presentation brings out the mix of talents in Houston. Each company is unique and the variety and quality of their work is what makes East Meets West one of a kind.

Dance of Asia America presents East Meets West at 8:00 pm, Saturday May 30, at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Tickets are free. For more info visit www.danceaa.org.
Reprinted from Dance Source Houston

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Nichelle

Nichelle balances careers as a dancer, instructor, writer, and mother. She is a seasoned performer whose strength lies in bringing dramatic

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