Modern Dance finds a Dance-partner: “Ethnic” Dance re-danced

Illustrations (clockwise from upper left)
1. Dai Ailian sketched as “Yao” dancer (husband Ye Qianyu), ca. 1940
2. In London as Laban method student later 1930s
3. “The Old Carry the Young”, modern dance from Guangxi Vernacular, 1941
4. Program for (first) Modern Dance Recital (June 1940 Chongqing)
5. “The Great Union of all the Nations” (husband Ye Qianyu, 1953)

In our last review, it was suggested that the qualifier “modern” entered the vocabulary of PRC official dance genre-making as an appendage or modification of ballet, into which it was swallowed. The forward pull came from gymnastics and drill, appurtenances of course of the incorporation of soldiering into procedures of national self-enactment. In the process, or perhaps even at the cost of, abandoning most truly feminine as well as exotic/erotic sensibility. Even female dress becomes a uniform, a marker of de-individuality, even perhaps soullessness, though Red Sisters is of course an extreme case. Of course the infamous tutu ushered in by the Maryinsky-ian teacher-choreographers who came in the 1950s to teach the real thing helped somewhat to peel back this martial coloration. But they kept the ethos alive by imposing the barre and the murderous rigors of ballet barracks-schooling.

But what then becomes of the much more fluid techniques and social utopianism of truly modern modern dance? As first displayed in East Asian by Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan? Does it find soil for transplant and hybridizing, “indigenizing”? Or, very much related, did it or does it get reliably supported? The two are closely interlocked, and not just in Asia. Commercial audiencing has not ever or anywhere supported the modern-dance program (to disestablish ballet as the premier form of “art” dance) at anywhere the scale needed to make it a repertory asset; still less have public agencies. Even Martha Graham (Gardner, Creating Minds, 305-06) failed a NEA grant and almost went under after Sol Hurok found her following unpredictable.

How to then fill a theatre and how to publicize the genre as a fixed piece in the national repertoire? And how to sustain a recruiting and training program embedded outside the all-smothering local school system?

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