A Red Thread: Creating Dance Across Cultures and Politics, Sept 2008

By Kim Epifano

September 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

San Francisco, May 9, 2008

Abby Chen of the Chinese Cultural Center, invited me to create a site-specific improvisation on the bridge that crosses through Chinatown into downtown San Francisco. The performance was to lead into the opening reception of an art exhibit by Bei Lu. Lu’s vision was that of red thread—the connection between people of Chinese cultural tradition. The symbolism of the red thread was just what I needed. A connection between cultures, politics, dance, and art making—even if only symbolic. Lu’s red thread image was what I needed to tie together my experiences traveling through China and India.

Shanghai November 2007 & Beijing April 2008

On the Great Wall my footsteps fell alone in snow on old stones. It made me think about who was being kept out, who in. I was in China on my second visit to create Speaking Chinese, a collaborative project with Chinese ballerina Hou Honglan, American dancer C. Derrick Jones, producers Barry Plews and Hu He, musician Zhu Zian’er and a slew of other artists, both Chinese and American. Speaking Chinese was set to premiere as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival in May, 2008.

For our first creation period, we all met in Shanghai for two weeks. The city was at once complex and wonderful, and we worked in the most beautiful dance studios at the Shanghai Ballet.

Actor/dancer/improviser Jones, from Los Angeles, and prima ballerina Honglan,who danced with the National Chinese Ballet of Beijing, mixed beautifully together. They were such different movers, yet these differences fit within this new work that was crossing cultures, time-zones, races, and politics. The dance was inspired by Eileen Chang’s story Love In a Fallen City. The story, set in 1940s China, was one of love, and a couple torn apart and brought together by the bombing of Hong Kong. Speaking Chinese quickly became a piece that was personal and political.

In between rehearsals I was able to see some of China. In visiting historic places the mix of Modernism and history was mind-boggling. The Temple of Heaven, The Forbidden City, The Drumm Temple, and The Bell Temple, all steeped in history, were a strange collage of ancient and modern juxtaposed with skyscrapers and ads for the Olympics. The subway stations were covered with these ads. My sense was of the Chinese people being very proud of the Olympics coming to China. There were new buses, cabs, and train stations; throughout the city sat huge cranes and construction sites in various stages of completion. It reminded me of our work in the studio—Honglan in her pointe shoes and Derrick in his calloused modern-dancer feet—a union of the traditional and the new.

We worked hard in those few weeks, amidst the challenges of cross-cultural collaboration. The schedule changes, the logistical obstacles of travel and funding, the early morning skype calls to San Francisco, the language barriers, the political landscape of being an American traveling, and the daily news of uprisings and violence in Tibet.

Dharamsala, India, a few days after leaving Beijing

I landed in Delhi and traveled from there to a school of 2,000 children, from toddlers to high school age. Many of the children had traveled from far distances, left their families, or were orphaned. The school is nestled high in the hills above Dharamsala and is called The Tibetan Children’s Village. It was founded by the sister of the Dalai Lama to keep the Tibetan culture alive.

I was there with Mudd Butt International, an educational arts program I have co-directed with Sally Davis for the last 15 years. Through Mudd Butts we take 16 students from the United States to a village somewhere in the world and do a two-week residency. We work with 25-40 local students wherever we are and together, with the American and local students, create a show and perform it in the town and surrounding villages. It is always hard on the American kids—difficult living conditions, strep throat, stomach bugs, etc.—but they all hang in there. Sally and I stay on campus with the teachers and our students stay with the local students. We rehearsed everyday and presented the show for over 2,000 students and teachers in an auditorium and at a school in town. It was amazing to watch these young artists transform in front of my very eyes. They grew as performers and diplomats of the world—what an extraordinary combination! Here was education, politics, and art being developed and played out and I was thankful to be able to play a part.

One day, as we came into the town, the sun was setting and we saw light emanating from hundreds of candles. Thousands of students came into view, from different schools in the area, dressed identically in blue pants, blue sweaters and blue checkered shirts walking with the ethereal shimmering light of the candles and Tibetan flags. As we marveled at this spectacle we watched as the group took a sharp curve and headed back down into the town. At the same time there were hundreds of monks converging into the vigil. The maroon red color of their monks’ robes was seeping into the blue of the students’. They were all chanting and each group started to chant in their own time. The moment was haunting, beautiful and extremely moving. I had to pinch myself: was I really seeing this?

I had just arrived straight from Beijing only a day before and here I was in the middle of the news I had been reading about. During this time, in March, was the golden moment (which the Tibetans call it) for the Tibetans to let the world not forget about their cause. There had just been an uprising in Lhasa. The politics were rushing out of the chanting, out of the moment, and my worlds were colliding and caressing. After my experience in China, where I had been treated so well, I couldn’t help but ask myself: what do I really believe in?

The next morning we awoke to find out that the Dalai Lama just happened to be at his home in McLeod Ganj—a suburb of Dharamsala that is also referred to as Upper Dharamsala or “Little Lhasa”—for three days until he headed off to speak and meet with people all over the world. We hiked down to the temple where there was a huge line to get in to see him. There were Tibetans in suits who guarded the Dalai Lama and his home, alongside hundreds of Tibetans and foreigners praying. Everywhere you looked prayer wheels were spinning. We immediately sat and meditated for an hour and half. Praying collectively with the same cause in mind was extremely powerful. Within all this group energy I felt introspective. My busy mind swept through a review of my life, family, loves, art, the work I do, the person I am. But even with all these thoughts racing, I was continually pulled back to the sound of the chanting.

Amidst this, the Dalai Lama looked worn and worried as if the world had given him a job that really was not his job. There was much press about him and what the Chinese were saying, so many people wanting things from him. I had to think that he is a spiritual leader not a politician. The Dalai Lama stopped at one point and came over to a monk who had been crossing the world in a wagon as a show of the Tibetan cause. Here we were, sitting in India, surrounded by Tibetans who felt like the time was now to be seen and heard, and no one was backing down.

San Francisco, May 2008

It’s only three weeks before the premiere of Speaking Chinese, and I’m still in the troughs of sorting out my experiences abroad. The day Honglan arrived in San Francisco for our final rehearsal was the same day the devastating earthquake hit the Sichuan region of China. When she arrived at the airport she had just found out about the natural disaster, which had surely impacted her family in Sichuan, and yet she had no idea if they were OK. She finally got through on the phone and learned that they were safe, but the constant flow of news that described the devastation and the people who died was overwhelming for Honglan. With loss weighing heavily on us it was hard to work and I thought to myself, how am I going to finish this piece and have it ready to premiere? But, in the end, I believe we made an extraordinary dance that reflected this moment, while becoming its own story.

ART making—that has an opportunity to travel the world—creates change and creates peace. Stories will always need to be told, and everyone has their own way of engaging in the centuries-old storytelling. Without these stories it is difficult to capture anything close to the complexity of humanity. ART making shares these visual images, without the need to be “overtly political.” Yet the paradox is that each of our experiences is inherently political because of the direct action in the communities in which it is created and the subsequent dialogue it opens through the shared experience of live performance. The red thread keeps rolling.

This article appeared in the September 2008 issue of In Dance.

Kim Epifano has over a 35-year history as a choreographer, director, performer, vocalist, educator, producer and curator. Kim illuminates the ordinary and the extraordinary on the stage and in the street, using art as a vehicle to inspire social change. She founded Epiphany Dance Theater in 1997 and serves as its Artistic/Executive Director.