One Chinese Foot, One American Foot: Talking with Lily Cai

By Rob Taylor

Group of performers moving ribbons
Photo by Marty Sohl

MY CONVERSATION with dancer and choreographer Lily Cai began with a topic that is probably the most important issue facing artists in San Francisco in 2016: real estate. We met at her company’s South of Market rehearsal space, where they have been for many years and she told me “we’ve been very happy here. This is our first permanent rehearsal space, and it’s been nice to not have to haul props in and out of Dance Mission or Fort Mason Center.” However her current rehearsal space is located in a multi-use building at 8th and Folsom, which “is a commercial space. They were happy to have us 51?2 years ago, but it’s different now.” Their lease for this studio is not up soon, but Lily is aware of how hard it is to hold on to artistic space in San Francisco.

Despite this, she is adamant that “San Francisco is still the best place to be an artist. First of all we have Grants for the Arts, we have World Arts West [presenters of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival], and the community is here. New York has a bunch of modern dance companies, but San Francisco has more diverse ethnic groups and there is just more community support for dance from backgrounds that aren’t ballet or modern.”

Fort Mason Center was where I first met Lily and her musical director and husband Gang Situ. At the time, I was working at World Arts West, who also has their offices at Fort Mason. Over the years I saw Lily’s company perform many times at the Ethnic Dance Festival, as well in her own home seasons at YBCA and the Cowell Theater. I have found her work to be some of the most thoughtful choreography in Bay Area dance, and it was nice to take time to understand her artistic history.

After our brief discussion about real estate, I inquired about her early years in China. Lily: “I started dancing when I was five years old, and I’ll never stop. My life is dance.” Lily goes on to tell me that nobody in her family danced (she was the youngest of five), and her father, who passed away when she was nine years old, wanted her to become a doctor. While he was dying he told her mother, “that little one, she is the smartest, so she should be become a doctor.” She never became a doctor, but “I bring all of that intelligence into the dance. All of that energy comes into the dance.

Reflecting on the course her life has taken as a practicing dancer and choreographer, Lily tells me that despite the difficulties of being a working artist, she’s found over her years of practice that “there is a true balance, if you are really happy doing what you are doing.”

She discovered that happiness in San Francisco—like many of the best American success stories, Lily Cai’s story is an immigrant’s story: “When I immigrated to the United States I had no dancers. I came to this country in 1983. I had no money, I couldn’t speak the language—I had nothing, it was just another world.” However despite these challenges, she laughs as she tells me that “I’m a strong headed woman, and if I think things I make them happen.”

Lily also brought with her many years of training in traditional Chinese dance and a performing career as a principal dancer with the Shanghai Opera House Dance Troupe. As has been the case for dancers from other cultures who eventually called the Bay Area home, Lily found a welcoming stage for her art at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. “I auditioned for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in 1984,”as a soloist and after that she returned to the Festival numerous times over the following years.

After performing as a soloist, beginning to build a company became a natural decision. “I began working as a teacher’s aide at Galileo High School in San Francisco—they have a lot of kids from Chinatown.” She began teaching dance to students as a PE credit.

Lily divides the dancers in her company into first generation and second generation: “The first generation were basically immigrant kids who had never learned dance be- fore. They came to my dance through the PE classes at Galileo High.” The first girls took it as part of their two-year PE requirement, and some of them chose to stay for another year as a fine arts credit, and then they just kept dancing with Lily after school.

“That generation [of dancers] had no dance background. They couldn’t stay in time with the music and didn’t know their left foot from their right. But that’s how my dance style and technique formed. You can’t get angry with them [for not knowing]. They are so innocent—so wonderful. They are working so hard, but they just don’t know.

“I think of the saying, ‘there’s no bad orchestra, only bad conductors.’ It made me think a lot on how to solve this problem. So I began working with them for one hour during school in PE class and then again every day after school.”

A solo performer dancing with ribbon
Photo by Shawna Sarnowski

It was a challenge for Lily, “Of course, I had to tell them what to do, but after a while they began to understand what I was asking for and how to read my body language, and finally they began to move.” Eventually it got to a point “where they watch a video of themselves and [tell me] ‘Ms. Cai, I don’t see me dancing anymore. That’s you I’m watching.’”

After that group of girls graduated from high school, they continued dancing with Lily, and became the core of the company she toured with throughout the 1990’s, per- forming in more than 30 states.

As Lily established more performance opportunities and a successful touring company, she began to attract a more polished and trained set of dancers. The group of dancers that Lily works with now—what she calls her second generation—are dancers who were mostly born in America and “came to me knowing dance—it was their college major, but of course it was still challenging for them because we have a very unique style, and it still takes them two to three years” to really understand how to move in the “Lily Cai” style of dance.

As we continue talking, Lily pauses to try and describe how her working method has changed over the years. “You work with what you have, so with the first generation I had to teach them, but for the second generation I’ve had to inspire them and combine their passion with my stuff and it comes out as something very unique. I love it.”

Lily’s passion and choreographic intelligence are evident in the fluid, dynamic, stage-filling dances that characterize her work. She is a master of marrying movement with objects, be it ribbons, fans, or parasols, and after years of observing her work, I’ve found that she understands how a proscenium stage can be used to create a furious canvas of dance. It makes me curious to see how she’ll use the space at San Francisco’s City Hall for her performance at the Rotunda Dance Series.

“I just visited [city hall]…they told me a lot of times people sit on the stairway and watch the dances on the marble floor. But they’ll be facing the exits and the people going in and out. So I’m thinking we’ll use the stairway— it’s quite challenging, so I’m thinking we are going to present a completely brand new piece. If I have my stuff moving around and we enlarge our movements it will be nice.”

I concluded our conversation by asking Lily about her working relationship with Situ, and she explains that “I see the visual… it’s like when you write a Chinese character it’s in a square block, and as a writer, you have to decide how to use the space in that block. That kind of design thinking influences me very much. I see the design on the stage in my mind, and then I talk with him (Situ)… sometimes I hear a fluid melody and come to him with it and he shakes his head and says no—that’s easy listening.” She laughs at this and says, “he likes the counterpoint. He likes to mix it up.” Lily also designs the costumes her dancers perform in, “it’s still part of the creation. When I’m designing the costume, I’m re-thinking what I want the dancer to do.”

Their goal for creating the work is to have something that refers back to Chinese culture but makes something new with it: “we are so lucky that we have a foot squarely in Chinese culture and all of the different material that comes from China—there are 56 different minority groups in China and thousands of years of history to draw from. The other foot is my American foot—that foot wants to challenge yourself and do something unique.”

I ask her what it is like to return to China and watch dance there. Lily says that “the aesthetics about beauty are so different there—I watch dance there and it’s ugly and it’s beautiful—like plastic flowers. All the girls do the same thing, same arms; they’re the same skinny. But there’s no dynamic, and when you mix it up [which is what Lily aspires to] you see life. There they want everything to be the same, and this is why I live here. The depth is here.”


Rob Taylor is a writer and arts administrator working in the San Francisco Bay Area.