On the screen of Lily Cai’s laptop, three small images of the same dancer move in not quite perfect unison. Cradling a large glass ball between her head and shoulder as she moves toward us, the dancer, Tammy Li, moves the bowl and her torso in circular, rippling, troubled patterns. Music plays. Even two inches tall, the dancer involves me in her quiet, eloquent distress. Cai replays this clip several times; it’s a piece of filmed improv that she’s using as part of her new evening-length work, Red Typhoon, which addresses her childhood experience growing up in the shadow of China’s Cultural Revolution.
Cai describes Red Typhoon as “very powerful, very heavy”– this sense of tremendous weight is clearly central to her vision for the work. She says that the Cultural Revolution descended on the people of China “like a rock, a mountain”; there was “no more feather-like life.” It lasted from 1966 to 1976 and during that time, it blighted each of the five generations who experienced it. The 60 year olds who were 20, the 50 year olds who were 10, even the 40 year olds who were born as it started are all affected. Cai’s work is focused on the Cultural Revolution as background. It isn’t a narrative or history of events that took place, but a psychological, atmospheric study of the experience of living through such an upheaval.
Part of the reason for doing this work at this time is the 40th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution. For Cai, it is also the culmination of 20 years of effort in developing her own dance technique. The training works with chi, quietness, meditation, yin-yang philosophy, even isometrics to allows the dancers to express more deeply the internal power and strength of Chinese women, who have always been Cai’s artistic subject. She says that in the past her dances have always been beautiful and cultural; they are now more personal and deep, which is a challenge for the dancers. In rehearsal, I notice that the dancers’ whole bodies are involved in everything they do; at one point, my torso extends responsively before I am consciously aware that the dancers have raised their glass bowls high. Cai points out that the movement is powerfully centered in the pelvis. I also notice that when the dancers move with ribbons or flags, their bodies are fully, expressively involved–they don’t impassively create effects with the fabric.
Cai’s goal is to show the deep beauty and power of Chinese women in a different way. Their surface reserve and timidity mask strength and power; she says, “whatever happens they can swallow, they have patience.” She is not abandoning the undoubted beauty of her work to this point. She always wants to create a visual impact, and points out that in darkness there can be beauty and power. She begins each work with an image, not with movement; she suggests that this practice is connected to the calligraphic nature of Chinese character writing. And it’s true: the work I see is strongly visual, deceptively simple with colors limited to black and white, a restrained range of movement and clear spatial patterns and juxtapositions of solo and group work. The dancers’ faces are calm and inward; often their eyes are closed. The effect is to concentrate the meaning communicated by their strongly moving bodies and to totally focus our sympathy on what they express physically.
In rehearsal, there are four dancers: Li, 20-year veteran Phong Voong, and relative newcomers Ling Cheung and Eleanor Fong. While I am completely engaged in what these dancers are doing, it’s clear that there should be more. This work is an opera, about the suffering of millions; it’s a lot for four dancers to carry. The score, by Cai’s professional and personal partner Gang Situ, clearly has this in mind; I know I caught Verdi among others.
Cai’s efforts to find more dancers for Red Typhoon read like a cautionary tale about the peculiar pitfalls of making dance in China and the U.S. She had intended to collaborate with the Shanghai Opera House, where she received her training and has collaborated before. After five weeks of work in China, she learned that the project had to stop–the Chinese government does not allow any artistic discussion of the Cultural Revolution. Here in the U.S., she can say whatever she likes about any subject–but the financial support for the arts is so meager that she is hard put to realize her vision. Some dancers may come from China if she can get visas for them; she may dance herself, or she may be able to work with a local school.
Cai’s feelings about this piece are very, very strong. I suspect that she is always powerfully involved with her work, but I also think that Red Typhoon carries unusual emotional weight for her. The dancers’ bodies express a contained strength that could endure or–quietly–stand up to anything, which is a pretty good metaphor for the determination Cai needs to make this dance.
Experience Lily Cai’s Red Typhoon April 27th and 28th, 8pm at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater. For more information visit ccpsf.org.