Friday, October 19, 2007

China: Still and in Motion: A Conversation with Mitsi Shen and Janie Yao of Dance of Asian America

Top: Stone Bodhisattva.

Photo by Erin Blatzer

Bottom: Dance of a Thousand Hands
Photo by Tom Ye

Who better to have by my side at the Treasures of Shanghai exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science than the mother/daughter team of Mitsi Shen, director of Mitsi Dancing School and Janie Yao, artistic director of Dance of Asian America. Their upcoming concert, Splendid China: Journey to the East, takes place literally across the street at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Treasures of Shanghai contains objects from the Neolithic period (3,000 B. C. to the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911 A. D.). I was intrigued with the idea of so much of ancient Chinese culture happening with a few hundred feet from each other that I couldn't resist having these two highly knowledgeable women in tow to gaze on these exquisite objects and discuss their upcoming project. Where better to talk about ancient Chinese dance than among ancient Chinese art?

Splendid China will feature two works with ties to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A. D.) so we naturally gravitated to that zone of the exhibition. “The Tang Dynasty was a big one for culture,” says Yao. The exhibit features fine porcelain boxes, diningware made of jade and agate, and detailed bronze mirrors. Apparently things went well during the Tang Dynasty. “It was a time of wealth and expansion,” says Shen. “Trade along the silk road led to great prosperity.” Buddhism was introduced to China during the Tang Dynasty. Trade and exchange with neighboring countries was on the upswing and the arts reached a new peak during this period.

Shen and Yao stopped in front of a Stone Bodhisattva. Yao immediately recognized connection to one of the featured pieces on the program, The Dance of Thousand Hands, with choreography by Zhang Ji Gang. Unlike the stone Bodhisattva, Zhang is not from the Tang Dynasty, but a contemporary choreographer who is inspired by his cultural history. This dance concerns Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion who revered by Buddhists as the Goddess of Mercy. “Her name is short for Guan Shi Yin. Guan means to observe, watch, or monitor; Shi means the world; Yin means sounds, specifically sounds of those who suffer,” writes Yao, in her description of the dance. Shen points out the delicate hand positions, showing me her own extremely flexible fingers. Zhang's dance contains overtones of classical Indian dance in the hand and arm positions. The dance was inspired by painted clay sculptures found in caves in Dunhuang.

Things get pretty complicated when thinking about world dance because the world just doesn't stand still. Yao mentions that influences from the west continue to change the face of Chinese Dance. “Modern dance and ballet have had a tremendous impact on contemporary Chinese dance,” says Yao.

I keep expecting Yao to tell me that she learned these dances from ancient scrolls or that they have been passed down from generation to generation through some sacred process of oral history. “Honestly, if you saw the dances as they existed in the Tang Dynasty you might be bored,” says Yao. “These dances have ancient origins but are also contemporary interpretations. Chinese dance is in motion.” Also on the program is the Tang Dynasty Palace Dance, choreographed by Zhang Yun Fun, which reflects influences from the western borders of China.

Several dances that depict the rich culture of China are also featured on the program. “Outside of Dance of a Thousand Hands the program is all new,” says Yao. “I find it important to not only connect and communicate the Chinese culture, traditions, and history to our audience through our dance performances, but make sure that they continue to be entertained and captivated.” I suggest a visit to the exhibit, a picnic dinner, and a starry evening of dance.

Talking to Chen and Yao made me realize one of the fundamental differences between visual art and dance. These glorious objects in front of us will remain the same through time. Not so for dance. Dance is a living, breathing, and evolving form, continually renewed by the people that bring it back to life. It makes sense. The people that gave the world gunpowder, paper, the compass, and spectacular works of art through the ages are focused on innovation. Why should it be different in dance?

After Shen and Yao left, I went upstairs to sneak a peek at Lucy, my 3.2 million year-old cousin. Suddenly, the Tang Dynasty felt like yesterday.

Dance of Asian America presents Splendid China: Journey to the East on October 19 & 20th at 8:00 pm at Miller Outdoor Theatre. It's free. Visit

Treasures from Shanghai: 5,000 Years of Chinese Art and Culture continues at the Houston Museum of Natural Science until January 6th, 2008. Visit