Young, refreshing and full of individuality, this is what modern dance means to dance legend Willy Tsao. Tsao believes that in China, a country known for its history and traditional art forms, modern dance is adding color to the city's rhythm and cultural scene.
Tsao has been acclaimed as the forerunner of Chinese modern dance, widely recognized for his relentless efforts at promoting the art form in China. In 1979 Tsao founded the City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC) in Hong Kong. He has also been involved in the development of several influential modern dance troupes such as the Guangdong Modern Dance Company and Beijing Dance LDTX, which he helped establish.
"I remember the first time I watched modern dance performed by a foreign dance troupe in Hong Kong when I was around 10 years old. I was really shocked because I saw that dance could be an art form that delivers personal expression and sets your feelings free."
Sky presented by Beijing Dance LDTX
Born into a wealthy family, Tsao was educated in both Hong Kong and the US. Despite earning his MBA, Tsao was not interested in taking over the family business. Instead, he devoted his passion to modern dance.
"For some time in China, modern dance was widely assumed as a dance form from the West, an uncoordinated and randomly presented art form to promote individualism. In this sense, modern dance was not quite adaptable to the collectivism China had long promoted," Tsao explained.
"However, with China's increasing openness to the outside world and the increased space for personal expression, modern dance has risen to the fore," he added.
Tsao has dedicated his life to promoting modern dance in China. Aside from holding modern dance classes, he was instrumental in organizing the annual Guangdong Modern Dance Festival and the Beijing Modern Dance Festival, both key events that attract professional and amateur dancers alike.
"When I tell my students that they can exert their own imagination instead of following the prescribed order when they dance, they show unprecedented enthusiasm and passion," Tsao exclaimed.
"Good modern dancers and choreographers create movements based on the experiences of their own era. They present complex emotions as well as ethnic, social and political issues. Some of the dancers have good techniques in their body movements but they fail to relate their dance to the outside world."
While modern dance originated in the West, Tsao believes that modern dance in China is not simply an imitation, as the form itself is interpretive.
"Presented by Chinese dancers and choreographers, Chinese modern dance is inevitably influenced by Chinese philosophy and cultural elements. We get fresh inspiration from Chinese culture," he explained.
"I once saw a modern dance work which used body movements to replicate the brush strokes and many exquisite scripts of Chinese calligraphy. The dancer's graceful movement left us with the impression that he was writing Chinese characters on the stage. That is the inspiration modern dancers draw from tradition."
Tsao said that modern dance and body expression can function as a common language for global audiences.
"For example, in dance we may emphasize the theme of interpersonal communication or contemporary issues of common concern such as pollution and peace that may provoke a resonance among audiences from different countries."
In 2005, the Trilogy of Modern Dance program was initiated by the Kennedy Center in the US as part of the Festival of China. Tsao led three of China's top dance companies, Beijing Modern Dance Company, Hong Kong City Contemporary Dance Company and Guangdong Modern Dance Company, in presenting Chinese modern dance for US audiences.
"Audiences in the US were amazed at the modern dance pieces presented by Chinese dancers. In their imagination, China abounds in dances full of ethnic flavor with traditional elements. They have a predetermined impression of what Chinese dance should be: dancers in ancient Chinese costumes, swinging fans or playing with red silk. Modern Chinese dance presents a fresh experience and perspective of a modern China full of creativity and vitality."
"I believe that modern dance represents progress in China, we are not only promoting traditional culture, we are presenting Chinese modern art, which is increasingly becoming integrated into the world's modern art scene," Tsao explained.
Tsao said that he is happy that modern dance in China is receiving more and more enthusiastic audiences and attracting professional dancers, college students and office workers alike.
Despite its growing popularity, Tsao said that he still sometimes hears new audiences complaining about modern dance's freedom of movement and abstract themes.
"One of the viewers told me that he was really confused about what the dancers were trying to express. Indeed, the presentation of modern dance leaves much space for interpretation and imagination. As the saying goes, there are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people's eyes."