I am in search of an experimental
dance performance in Beijing, and the experiment begins
before I get to the theater. When I eventually find
the small stage hidden behind the Capital Theater in
Wangfujing, I realize that the uniformed women of the
Beijing state-worker ticket-takers brigade are on a
mission: do not allow anyone beyond the threshold without
a ticket, do not provide any information about how to
get tickets, and do not, under any condition, smile.
I had heard that the performance was free, but the ticket-taker
militia insist I go back to door number one and find
a ticket. I am pushed toward a door marked "exit" and
all seems lost.
Suddenly, beaming like a ray of light
from the warmth of the stage beyond glides a fairy goddess.
She is petite with a broad smile, waist-length hair
and the poised gait of a dancer. Clearly a rank above
the ticket-taker militia, she addresses the ticketless
on-lookers: "Forget the tickets," she commands, "Let
them in. All of them!"
The goddess is Wen Hui, 38, mother
of modern dance in Mainland China. Guardian not only
of the rights of experimental theater-goers against
bureaucratic ticket-taking red tape, but of the freedom
to dance, create, experiment, fly, film, and push the
boundaries of tradition in the performing arts.
I am here to watch Wen Hui's most
recent foray into experimental modern dance, Report
on Giving Birth, a production involving video installations,
dance, drama and music. Wen Hui has transformed the
small stage of the Capital Theater into a unique artistic
womb for the opening night of her performance. This
is a space thriving on apparent chaos, but held together
by the common thread of movement: movement of audience
members trying to find a seat, videographers arranging
cameras and monitors, and dancers stretching and turning
as the performance begins.
Report on Giving Birth is the result
of four years of research and collective brainstorming
and is the latest project to come out of Wen Hui's company
Living Dance Studio which was founded in 1994. Although
Wen Hui has no children of her own, she interviewed
factory workers, doctors, journalists, athletes, midwives
and her own mother on the subject of childbirth in China.
She then chose three female dancers (Feng Dehua, Wang
Mei, and Wang Ya'nan) because of their ability to collaborate,
their creativity, and their willingness to participate
in the choreography.
"We wanted to capture the things
women struggle with, whether it is having children or
other social pressures. Women in China, women all over
the world, are still not equal, we still struggle,"
says the choreographer. "And childbirth," she points
out, "is that moment when you are open wide, everything
Although Wen Hui declares that she
is not a feminist, her piece captures a raw, disturbed
feminine essence. Some in the audience cry and a few
men went home afterwards looking paler than when they
had arrived. It is no wonder, after watching two hours
of the most gut-level, intimate acts transformed into
dance: giving birth, sleeping, making love, and the
repetitive domestic tasks that still define modern womanhood
- folding clothes, washing hair, washing dishes and
making beds. According to Wen Hui, men have very little
to do with the childbirth process in China, and this
is an opportunity for them to share the experience.
During the final few months of rehearsal,
Wen Hui decided she wanted to represent male characteristics
in the piece and so added a male dancer to the performance.
He is born into the performance through the folds of
raw cotton blankets, and throughout the two-hour dance
display offers an alternative perspective on the birth
But the production involves another
character who offers an entirely different kind of creative
energy. The world of sound, light and images as projected
by Wu Wenguang. He is the smiling four eyes following
the dancers around the theater with a video camera until
they are forced to climb onto the laps of a giggling
audience. He is the invasive eye, projecting the dancers'
every movement on a screen. He performs his own dance,
imprecating shadows of movement over a distant picture,
offering you a glimpse of the world as he sees it, through
Wu Wenguang, co-founder of the Living
Dance Studio, is an established filmmaker, best known
for his 1988 documentary Bumming in Beijing. The film
focused on the lives of a group of artists living in
Beijing without residence permits, and is considered
China's first independent documentary film. He is also
the longtime partner of Wen Hui, both personally and
creatively. Their collaborative works include Toilet/Living
Together and Skirt, performed both in China and at international
festivals. The coupling of dance and video gives Report
on Giving Birth an eclectic and sometimes disorienting
structure. There is always something that demands your
attention, on stage, on the large screen suspended at
one end of the theater and on the floor where audience
members are munching on sunflower seeds. The dancers
seem to thrive on running just a little too close to
the hands and feet of the onlookers, not to mention
Wu Wenguang who randomly points his camera into the
crowd and asks embarrassed members of the audience "How
were you born?"
Projected periodically on the screen
during the performance are the individual faces of four
mothers, each discussing their experiences of giving
birth. Wen Hui interviewed her own mother, Wu Wenguang's
mother and several of the dancers' mothers.
Wen Hui recalls the interview with
her own mother. "It was 5 a.m. and my mother's stomach
started hurting. It was 1960 and there weren't any cars,
I mean really impossible to find a cab, or public transportation
at that hour. The doctor was asleep. But none of that
mattered because she had to have the baby. So my father
got out the gloves and the forceps. And that is how
I was born."
Wen Hui was born in Yunnan province
to artists and spent her teenage years separated from
her parents who were sent to a "Cadre School" farm in
the mountains during the height of the (1966-1976) Cultural
Revolution. She also spent this time dancing and tested
into the Yunnan Art Academy at age 14. She then began
choreographing her own free-form pieces in private to
avoid being labeled bourgeois in the hostile political
environment of the time. Later Wen attended the Beijing
Dance Academy and was recruited by Wang Kun of the Oriental
Song and Dance Troupe which gave her the opportunity
to develop her own ideas.
"To this day, no matter where you
study dance in China you learn the exact same things:
ballet, Chinese traditional dances and minority dances.
Students become teachers and there is nothing new,"
she says. "But for me, modern dance has always been
a very natural part of who I am. It is how I interpret
It was only when she was invited
to the United States in 1994 and attended a workshop
with Meredith Munch at George Washington University
that creative doors began to open. "That is when I realized
that I can do anything. It was the first time I left
China. I didn't know how to create modern dance, I just
had this desire to be a modern dancer. She [Munch] gave
me direction and a certain freedom. She said, anything
goes. If I want to use water I can use water, if I want
to use a bucket I can use a bucket. If I was in China
I wouldn't allow myself to think that way. But really,
I can do anything."
These days Wen Hui is bringing that
creative freedom back to China, and it is not always
easy. Issues of censorship and a lack of funding makes
the PRC less than an ideal creative environment. Funding
for Report on Giving Birth came from the Dutch Prince
Claus Fund and the Yunnan Jumping Dragon Culture and
Broadcasting Company Ltd. To avoid getting a permit
for the project, which would involve censors scanning
the content for inappropriate sexual or political content,
the Living Dance Studio made it an unofficial production.
Hence the 'two nights only' performance and 'free' tickets.
Ironically, putting on such a production in defiance
of Chinese regulations is more like pulling off an underground
guerrilla action, but the very same work is publicly
celebrated abroad. Wen Hui and Wu Wenguang are currently
in Holland performing Report on Given Birth.
Wen Hui may be recognized internationally,
but she is determined to remain a Mainland artist. "If
I lived abroad I would be a failure," she says. "Of
course I could work, but I would lose contact with my
creative roots. China gives me such a rich backdrop,
it is the passion and energy I need to dream."
Her future plans include an experimental
dance in a Beijing hutong. She suspects that it may
be difficult to accomplish considering that distractions
will include passing cars and bicycles, but pushing
boundaries to their limit is what she thrives on. Her
work may not be understood by everyone, but Wen Hui
knows how to get her message across and reach a place
inside everyone who watches her performances.
"My dances may escape the average
Chinese person's sense of beauty. It is not what they
are used to," Wen observes. "They just want to know
what is going on and where to sit, but in the end, people
are moved and they understand something new about the