Chinese, American ballet dancers meet to swap steps
A young bride implores her husband not to leave for the Army. After all, they were just married this morning. She whirls around, tossing his sword on the floor. She pulls on him, bending her back like a bow until her head almost touches the floor behind her. He crumples over her, covering his face. But then she retrieves the sword and hands it to him, shoulders turning aside and head down in resignation. Reluctantly, he takes it. She takes off the robe she made for the wedding, and as she watches him go , her hands shudder. That last move is too much. The audience, students from the dance department of the Boston Conservatory of Music, stealthily wipe their eyes as they sit against the mirrors around the edges of a studio. The dancers, Li Heng Da and Shen Pei Yi, solemnly compose themselves. It looks as if the dance, ``Departure of the Newlywed,'' wasn't any easier on them, even though they've been performing it regularly on a 10-city, 40-day United States tour with the China Youth Performing Arts Troupe. This afternoon, h owever, they are at the Boston Conservatory with two other dancers from the Peking Academy of Dance to swap steps.
The Bostonians show them a jazz routine they're working on. It starts out with a slouching, swaggering walk worthy of ``West Side Story'' and continues with some hip-popping and knee-swiveling, tough poses, and a pivot turn. Even before they break off, the Peking Academy dancers have slipped into their midst and are popping their hips, frowning earnestly. Their slouches look a bit deliberate, but they have the steps.
Rochelle McReynolds, dance division coordinator at the conservatory and the teacher who made up the routine, leads them through again, yelling the counts. Standing on the sidelines, Kailin Chu yells counts in Chinese, adding some encouragement which translates, ``Loosen your hips!'' Nikki Hu, a Chinese-born Boston choreographer, is there to translate when the Bostonians want to know how the Peking dancers got so limber. (The answer: ``Stretching.'') By the time things have slowed down, the Boston men
can all do ``flying feet,'' which requires them to fling a hand overhead, then casually kick it while doing a wild turn. And the ``Camel Walk,'' a pelvis-rollicking mode of slouching across a Broadway stage, will undoubtedly slouch and rollick in Peking.
The China Youth Performing Arts Troupe does a kind of variety show, with a juggler, acrobats disguised as a graceful lion, singers, and musicians, as well as the dancers. They are in the US through the auspices of the Overseas China Affairs office, sponsored by local Chinese-American groups.
But the reasons for the afternoon at the conservatory go back to the time before the revolution in China when Nikki Hu's mother grew up with Kailin Chu's in the Szechuan town of Changtu. Just after Nikki Hu's father went to Columbia University on a dental scholarship, the revolution broke out. Her mother escaped with her to Taiwan. While they waited to emigrate to the US, little Nikki took ballet. She grew up in New Jersey and became a choreographer.
Meanwhile, back in Changtu, Kailin Chu grew up to be an accompanist for the Peking Academy of Dance. When the cultural revolution ended and the Hus returned for a visit, the two daughters became friends. Nikki made a second trip to China. Kailin arranged a modest Chinese dance tour for her, and in return, she gave Kailin information about US music schools. As a result, Kailin Chu got a scholarship at Berklee School of Music and a job playing piano for Boston Conservatory dance classes. So when the dance rs she played for in Peking came to town, naturally she and Rochelle McReynolds got them together with the dancers she plays for in Boston.
As the session ends, the Peking dancers begin to drift into other classrooms, shadowing whatever steps are being practiced there. Nikki Hu is reminded of students she met in China. ``They were so open and daring'' about doing new steps. ``They'd try anything,'' she says. She felt the whole country was aware it had been out of touch with the rest of the world for 30 years and wanted to catch up. ``They didn't scoff at anything,'' she says. ``They showed up with pads and pencils, and their teachers follow ed her back to the hotel. ``We'd do stretches in the lobby,'' she said.
Meanwhile, the tour continues. Onstage, the Chinese folk dances are even more impressive than ``Departure of the Newlywed.'' Ding Jie's ``Dance of Happiness,'' which the program says is about ``the happiness of a Mongolian on the grassland,'' is a tour de force. The fluid, powerful arm gestures rival those in ``Swan Lake.'' They're similar because they come out of great emotion -- pure joy in this case. Ding Jie beams and shakes her shoulders so merrily that you don't realize how hard her movement is to
do. Even when she bends over backward and keeps a steady ripple of the arms going inches from the floor, the spirit is more striking than the physical prowess.
Later, the Boston students laughed at their classical approach to jazz, but not at their technique or expressive gifts. Rochelle McReynolds said she was glad her students saw ``the participation of the soul'' in the Chinese dancing. Rich Fabris, who studies dance theater, said they ``picked up well'' when he was showing them steps. Asked if he had any communication problems, he said, ``Steps are universal.''
The troupe appears at Pasadena City College through tomorrow, at the Chinese Cultural Center in San Francisco Nov. 1 and 5, at Herbst Theater in San Francisco Nov. 2, and in Sacramento Nov. 6.