How Does Idyllic Conception Exist?
By Tan Shuo
Wu Bo bent forward — so close to the lighting control board that her forehead almost touched it. Her right forefinger extended. The hand was slightly shaking. Though it was she herself who designed the lighting plan and had it rehearsed several times, she was yet to get familiar with the panel of nearly a hundred push-buttons.
To her relief, during the whole performance, the lighting coordinated well with the action. At the curtain call, she walked out on stage, being cheered and applauded as choreographer and artistic director.
The dance-theatre (tanztheater) piece, Goldfish, is the fourth work of Wu Bo over the last two years. To save the production cost, she single-handedly created the lighting, the costume, the set, the prop, the multimedia, etc., as she did in her previous works.
A young woman in the audience instantly identified the music played in the final scene. It was Visions of Gideon, a song from this year’s Oscar best picture nominee, also a gay romance movie, Call Me by Your Name.
“Is there any deep meaning?” she asked curiously in the post-performance talk.
“It conveys a sense of loneliness…” Wu Bo’s answer was a bit obscure.
Visions of Gideon seems a right choice, as both its melody and lyrics fit the scene well, yet copyright has to be neglected at the moment – with barely any income, the dance ensemble cannot afford new music commissions, which to them is too much of luxury.
In the spring of 2016, Wu Bo, a lecturer from Hunan University of Arts and Science in Changde (a city in Central China), started up her modern dance company with a dozen of her students. In the same year, they took part in a festival in South Korea with their poetic work Winged Migration. Just, by the premiere of Goldfish in the spring of 2018, there were only three dancers left.
“The biggest problem is the economic problem. If it can be solved, there will be much easier to find dancers,” Wu Bo told, and she has little hope for being granted by the state. “Unless the project abides by the set standards,” she said, “otherwise, it is very difficult to get funded.” In other words, to succeed in grant application from China National Arts Fund (CNAF) next year, the best subjects – as noted in A Guide for Fund Application from CNAF for the Performing Arts Projects in 2019 – are: the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening -up policy, the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, the goal of accomplishing a moderately well-off society in China, and the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party.
To secure her last three dancers, Wu Bo sought help from a local culture promotion company and did her utmost to gain the whip hand over the employment negotiation. And the result turned out that her dancers could be hired at a fair salary by the local living standard as “dancer for tourists”, and they have the right to ask for a leave of absence whenever they need to fulfill their duty as dancers in Wu Bo’s company. While, being “dancer for tourists” means to entertain passengers on cruise ships, specifically, to give a six-minute dance at the riverbank – eight times per night unless there is stormy weather.
“A waste of life,” dancer Guo Zhouyao shook her head and signed, but she also knows that she needs the salary to keep livelihood in order to pursue her modern dance dream with “Mother Wu”.
As one of the founding members of Wu Bo’s company, Guo Zhouyao has witnessed their growth over the past two years. Besides Seoul, they also performed in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Wuzhen, etc. “We travel by our bodies,” Wu Bo said, “which means it is our dances that bring us chances to visit the cities different from Changde – chances to see the world.”
In the fall of 2017, the company debuted at the Carnival of Wuzhen Theatre Festival. A Taiwanese audience, after watching their improvisation, wrote a short couplet “Be Idyllic, Be Creative” to pair with the name of the company Idyllic Conception. Wu Bo likes the couplet, saying it accurately outlines their profile.
It is worth noting that Idyllic Conception is by far the only modern dance company in Hunan – a province in Central China with a population of 70 million.
“She has been devoting her full attention to it, which I really admire,” Wu Bo’s friend, choreographer Xu An commended, but he thinks that Wo Bo holds a bit too high reverence to the art genre as if it is something sacred, which may lead to misunderstanding and isolation.
Guo Zhouyao also feels, “Modern dance to Mother Wu is of paramount importance and cannot be blasphemed.” Yet she thinks it is entirely understandable, for if there had been no such piety, Idyllic Conception may not have survived all the difficulties.
Just one month after the premiere of Goldfish, the only male dancer left for Shenzhen (a coastal city in South China) for a higher-paid sales job. One of the two female dancers also quit and returned to her hometown, hoping to find better opportunities. Guo Zhouyao now is the only dancer.
“Even if there isn’t a single dancer left, Idyllic Conception will continue to exist. It will exist, definitely,” said Wu Bo firmly, “I can collaborate with freelances in each different project as long as I pay for their work.”
In fact, Wu Bo has been the only funder of Idyllic Conception since its establishment in 2016, and the premiere of Goldfish was the very first time to ask for entry charge from audiences: 80 yuan (about USD 12) per adult, half price per student. “After all, the production costs us money,” Wu Bo explained, and she needs to consider financial returns.
But as it turned out, the ticket sales, after two performances, failed to cover the expenses on the props and the costumes. “The deficit is over a thousand yuan, but it’s a satisfying result, for it is not a zero-income deficit this time,” Wu Bo said, and she also admitted that the loss would be actually bigger if the three months preparation was taken into account.
The premiere of Goldfish was staged at the small theatre (85 seats) attached to the dance studio that Wu Bo jointly runs with her partners. Therefore, the cost of venue rental is saved, which is certainly an advantage of Idyllic Conception over other independent dance companies.
Goldfish had been planned to run for five or six performances so as to achieve a surplus, yet it had to be called off after two shows due to the sudden leave of two dancers. And for Wu Bo’s part, how to refine the work matters more. “The current quality is acceptable in Changde, but there is still much to do to hit the stage in other cities, especially the cities in other countries.”
Eager to bring the piece to bigger cities of China and even abroad, Wo Bo sought advice from Uncle Kuang (Kuang Wei-li), an acclaimed arts manager from Hong Kong who has decades of experience in the field of dance. “I can give some suggestions on the dramatic structure,” he said. And he also invited his friend — a Hong Kong-based lighting designer — to help make a better version of the work. Meanwhile, two freelance dancers joined the group. The costumes were hence newly made. Besides, live music would be adopted in case the movie soundtrack was forbidden to be used again due to the copyright protection…Not surprisingly, the production cost went up, and as usual, Wu Bo bankrolled everything.
“If there is no support from the government, it will be really hard to carry on,” Uncle Kuang opined on the future of Idyllic Conception, “Raising funds from business entities can be a solution, but it may affect the artistic quality.”
Similar remarks were made by the artistic director of Beijing LDTX Dance Company Willy Tsao, who is also known as the godfather of Chinese modern dance. “To be a healthy arts organization,” he said while being interviewed by One TV about his 30-plus years of experience in dance company management, “the best way is partially government-funded, partially self-sufficient.”
Facing an uncertain future, Wu Bo seems unworried. She is conceiving her next piece, and despite nearly 40 years of age, she began to learn English, hoping to communicate directly with her foreign artist friends.
In some ways, Wu Bo is still a pioneer, for the first modern dance company in China (Guangdong Modern Dance Company) was not founded until 1992, and the first privately-owned independent modern dance troupe (Jin Xing Dance Theatre) did not come into existence until as late as 1999, i.e., less than twenty years ago.
On 23 June 2018, the new version of Goldfish had a preview. About fifty audiences were invited, who were also the ticket-buyers of the premiere. A post-performance talk was routinely held and when it came to an end, Wu Bo raised her voice, “Arts are too dear and we really need your support!”
- Three months after the article was written, Idyllic Conception Modern Dance Company was renamed Changde Modern Dance Company (CMDC) and they have been invited to perform Goldfish at Fukuoka Dance Fringe Festival in 2019 – a tour which will mark their debut in Japan.
For Audiences, Artists, and Theatres
The Timeline of Modern Dance in China
With the support from the Ministry of Culture of China, the Asian Cultural Council and the American Dance Festival (ADF), Yang Meiqi, then headmaster of Guangdong Dance School, along with two Chinese choreographers, visited America for a few weeks in the summer to gain a better understanding of modern dance.
Thanks to Yang Meiqi’s persistent lobbying, Guangdong Dance School was authorized to set up an experimental modern dance programme, which is the first of its kind in mainland China. About twenty students were enrolled for the first term, many of whom became great choreographers and are still active today. Teachers of the programme were primarily from ADF.
The diplomatic relationship between America and China was deteriorated, which almost led to the abortion of the modern dance programme. Willy Tsao, founder and artistic director of City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC) in Hong Kong, also a guest teacher at Guangdong Dance School, was therefore appointed to the position of teaching director.
The first enrolled modern dance students graduated, yet they had to wait in the school until the application for a modern dance company was approved by the Guangdong Provincial Government.
Just a few weeks after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Deng Xiaoping, then retired leader of China, made his famous Southern Tour in Guangdong, reaffirming the reform and opening-up policy. And after a few months, in April 1992, the first official modern dance company in China, Guangdong Experimental Modern Dance Company, was founded, with Yang Meiqi in charge of administration and Willy Tsao being artistic director.
Beijing Modern Dance Company was founded under the auspices of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture, and Jin Xing, a transgender dancer and choreographer, who had studied briefly in Guangdong Dance School between 1987 and 1989 before she won a scholarship in America. Jin Xing was appointed as artistic director of the newly-founded dance company.
Willy Tsao left Guangdong Experimental Modern Dance Company and held a teaching position in Beijing Dance Academy. Jin Xing left Beijing Modern Dance Company.
Willy Tsao became the artistic director of Beijing Modern Dance Company. Jin Xing founded Jin Xing Dance Theatre in Shanghai, which is the first private performing arts troupe in China.
Willy Tsao was once again invited to take over Guangdong Experimental Modern Dance Company. At his insistence, the company was renamed Guangdong Modern Dance Company (GMDC).
Regulation on the Administration of Commercial Performances was promulgated by the state council of China, by which privately-owned independent performing arts organizations are allowed. Willy Tsao left Beijing Modern Dance Company and founded with his partner Beijing LDTX Dance Company, which is the first registered privately-owned dance company in China.
He Qiwo, a graduate from Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, founded Ergao Dance Production Group (EDPG) in Guangzhou, with a focus on theatre, film, community art, and education.
Tao Ye, who once served as dancer in both Beijing Modern Dance Company and Jin Xing Dance Theatre, founded TAO Dance Theater. While Beijing Dance Theater, an official modern dance troupe led by Wang Yuanyuan, was founded in the same year.
Wang Yabin, a graduate from – also a teacher of – Beijing Dance Academy, founded Yabin Studio, featuring dance, drama and other theatrical productions.
More and more modern dance companies/studios have popped up in China, many of which are led by independent choreographers, such as Hou Ying Dance Theater, Xie Xin Dance Theater, Zhao Liang ART, etc.
In 2017 Beijing LDTX Dance Company launched a platform called Dance Courier Stations Network, aiming to tie the newly-emerging dance organizations in the inland cities of China and enhance their networking. By the summer of 2018, the platform had already drawn 30 troupes from 30 different cities, including Wu Bo’s Idyllic Conception Modern Dance Company (also known as Changde Modern Dance Company).