A Lifetime Of Achievement for Lily Cai

By Rob Taylor


The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and as part of the festivities, the Festival will be awarding the Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement award to choreographer Lily Cai. Lily is a well-deserving recipient of the award, not only for the signature beauty and power of her voluminous body of work, but as the leader of a dance company that has been such a regular part of the Festival. As the Festival enters its 40th year, Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company is turning 30. Both entities have helped one another on their journeys.

And according to Lily, “it’s a great journey, one I really enjoy. You know many times parents will say this [being a dancer/choreographer] is not a real career. Parents think a real career is either a lawyer or doctor or technician working in the computer field.” For Lily a career means to be “stubborn like myself [and] speak to what it means to be human, not just only the money making career.” Is it rough? “Yeah, it’s a challenge. It’s not easy, but [there’s] a lot of excitement.”

portrait of choreographer, Lily Cai

Lily’s journey began in Shanghai, where she danced as principal dancer with the Shanghai Opera House Dance Troupe before moving to the US in 1983 and founding her dance company in 1988. Her father died when she was young and wanted her to be a doctor to help people who were sick like him heal. When I point out that the young girl who was guided towards a career healing bodies as a doctor has become the woman who works with the bodies of dancers to bring joy and transcendance to audiences, she agrees there may be a parallel there. She credits much of her persistence towards her career to her mother. Growing up they made their own clothes, and Lily would often want to give up midway through a project. “If I started knitting a sweater, and wanted to give up, oh she would be so mad!,” she says, “and that kind of dedication is something I pass on to my own dancers.”

Lily’s journey reached her next important milestone when she began teaching dance at Galileo High School in San Francisco in 1986. It was primarily with dancers she worked with during her Galileo experience that she formed her dance company in 1988. This was what she called her “first generation” of dancers and as the company grew its reputation during the 90s, she began attracting her “second generation,” dancers who came to her with more professional training and experience, primarily in ballet.

One of the dancers that started with her in 1986, Phong Voong, is still in the company and shares that when she started taking Lily’s class as a high school freshman in 1986, “I knew nothing about dance before taking Ms. Cai[’s] class. Once I stepped foot into her class, I’ve never stopped dancing!” Lily says Phong is her best dancer, and one the other dancers look towards for guidance. She says “Phong is a beautiful dancer, she is my delicious soup that has been simmering and getting richer over time.”

Over the decades the company has toured around the country and internationally, as well as presenting new work every year in her home season. Lily has received commissions from the Santa Fe Opera, Memphis Ballet, and the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. She has received support to create new work from Creative Work Fund, San Francisco Arts Commission, and the Rockefeller Foundation. And of course, every year she creates new work for her home season.

Regarding her strenuous work ethic, she tells me “that’s not easy…[but it] gives me the opportunity to do my dream, challenge myself, put my passion on the stage, in a studio, and that kind of journey is so much fun. But it’s not easy, it’s never easy… when they say ‘it’s easy’ that means they’ve never done it before.” She continues: “this is our 30th anniversary. I do a new show every year [and] just like a chef has a delicious new creation on the table for your guest to enjoy with you,” so does Lily create something special for her audiences. She is also adamant that she shares her lifetime achievement award with “my dancers, Gang Situ [her musical collaborator], it’s not just me. People say ‘you’ve been doing this for so many years,’ I say yeah, I’m stubborn. But Lily Cai being stubborn doesn’t make it happen. You need a great team to make it happen.”

A lot of our conversation was about her method for developing choreography that she’s developed over a lifetime of refinement. She explains that “there is something culturally different [between Western and Chinese dance forms], just like writing. English writing is through the space. Chinese writing is in the space.” Lily holds up some notes written in the respective languages. “Can you tell? I think this makes a wonderful world, not all the same…It’s apples and peaches, which one is more beautiful? Both of them are beautiful.”

“For me it’s about the body,” and when she says the word “body” she enunciates it slowly, imbuing the word with the weight and significance of someone who has dedicated a life to understanding how a body can express an idea or an emotion. She pauses for a moment after saying the word “body”, and then continues: “What people see are body motions – the body comes first, and [her dancers] are award of their body. That’s why many times people say our dances are very sensual.”

“Movement is a result. I train my dancer on how to arrange the energy in their bodies, and the movement comes from from how that energy is arranged. And you never make movement from thinking – you making from feeling.” She continues, “Feel it, don’t think. Thinking is a scientist’s job. Scientist says 1+1=2, but an artist says 1+1=100.” People sometimes watch dance for the physicality of it, for reasons that I think are somewhat similar for why other people watch sporting events. They are looking to see bodies test their limits. But dancers know that the process for getting to that point where the audience says “wow” requires a complicated internal workflow. The deeper that internal process takes a dancer, the more subtle and nuanced a performance can be. Lily’s method for creating work is based on an extended and creative rehearsal process that allows her dancers the freedom to take an inner journey, and is a key element contributing to her exquisite choreography.

I spoke to a couple of her dancers to get a better idea of what the process of working with Lily is like. C-oNe Tong, who joined the company in 2008, describes an organic process built out of an extended, improvisatory rehearsal. She says, “we spent a lot of hours in the studio, as if we were in a lab researching our own bodies…there aren’t any counts that you can follow, it has to be from your breath, from your spirit.” Lily records her dancer’s improvisation, and studies them with her dancers. When C-oNe, watches the videos, “the way I learn best is to study the breathing aspect, as opposed to the timing, I’m not even thinking about the music.”

Alexandra Nguy became entranced with the Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company when she saw them as a high school student, and a few years after college she joined the company. She says Lily is “a visionary when it comes to her creative direction, using many different metaphors and methods and life experiences” to illustrate what she wants her dancers to do. She also credits Phong Voong: “we all strive to be like her. When I joined the company, I had to unlearn a lot of what I thought was dance…and having Phong in the company is wonderful – Lily’s technique is in her body already and it comes out like Tai Chi.”

As Lily’s dancers describe her method, it reminds me of the methodology of the late film director Robert Altman. Lily gives her dancers a concept, they improvise around that concept, and then Lily sets the work on the dancers using the movements they’ve discovered that she finds most compelling. Lily’s vision guides the entire process, and the final result is strong and fully formed, and she is a master of her medium the way Altman was a master of his.

woman in a red backless gown on the grand staircase dancing with a parasol

After the lifetime achievement award is given to Lily Cai at noon on June 8th at San Francisco City Hall, Lily Cai Dance Company will perform Silk Cascade as a part of the Rotunda Dance Series, re-staging the site-specific work that won her an Izzie award in 2016.

Creating a performance that integrates the grand staircase is a particular challenge that Lily is proud of having achieved and earned acclaim for doing. “When performing [on the staircase] when you go up it’s not too difficult, but when you go down you need to go very slow, because the steps, they’re all the same color, no difference, no edge mark. And we can’t mark the edges, so when you make big movements they [the stairs] disappear and it creates dizziness. It’s very difficult, but when I asked my dancer’s if we should use the staircase or the floor, they said “staircase, staircase.”

“My goal is to create signature work, so that when people see it they say that is Lily Cai’s work. My own signature is beautiful, powerful, one-of-a-kind, and unique. Every year is getting richer…I’m accumulating experience…knowledge…wisdom. It’s like a warehouse that’s constantly getting bigger.” This warehouse will not stop expanding anytime soon, “it’s so exciting…I look back at [what was created] five years ago, or even one year ago and I think about things differently now. I’m just constantly working on new developments and new discoveries.” She tells me she never even thinks of taking a year off, so while she may receive a lifetime achievement award this year, we should expect to see new Lily Cai work for years to come.

This article appeared in the June 2018 edition of In Dance.

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