Dans Storm: Proof that underground theater is alive in Shanghai

Dans Storm: Proof that underground theater is alive in Shanghai

It's the pariah of the Shanghai arts scene, but underground theater finds approval at the Ke Center, with workshops and this weekend’s Dans Storm event
Ke Center Shanghai - Dans Storm
Zhang Yuan, one of the young choreographers who will be at "Dans Storm," shows his latest work to audiences.

Judging by the difficulties organizers have putting on shows, contemporary dance may be the most punk rock art form in Shanghai.

Often, independent dance performances (read: "underground theater") can only proceed when tickets are given away free of charge; they're called “workshops” or “communications,” instead of “performances,” and held at small or remote venues.

Nevertheless, some ambitious performances are taking place -- and this weekend they get their moment on the main stage at Shanghai's Ke Center.

'Dans Storm'

In recent weeks a series of dances called Dans Storm has been held at the Downstream Garage, a converted, underground factory space, set well back from Longcao Lu, near Caobao Lu metro station.

Dans Storm has provided a forum to see Chinese and European dancers perform in a year -- and a 2010 Expo year, no less -- when other independent performances failed to get off the ground.

In one recent piece, Finnish dancer Sari Palmgren performed “Animal Motion.” Hunched down, with just a spotlight on her naked back, Palmgren maneuvered her shoulders like a jungle cat, poking holes in the paper screen that separates us from other mammals. It’s the sort of performance that couldn’t take place in mainstream venues.

"In exhibitions nowadays they at least let people put up nude pictures," explains Ann Lin, a co-organizer of Dans Storm. "But for dance, it’s live, so it’s still very, very sensitive. If you record a video of a performance where there’s nudity in a proposal, it’s never ever going to get approved [by the Shanghai city government].”

Because the local environment is sometimes less than supportive of contemporary dance, Chinese dancers often find better opportunities overseas, pushing away some of the city -- and country's -- brightest young talent.

“When I was in Europe I saw more Chinese contemporary dance happen than here -- especially good dance,” Lin says.

Young choreographers showcase at the Ke Center

This week, however, Dans Storm moves to the Ke Center for Performing Arts where it will host the Young Choreographers Showcase. The event, which has been held annually since 2006, is a rare chance for choreographers to show their works.

This year’s choreographers were first chosen from proposals submitted to Caochangdi Workstation, a studio in Beijing, where their works have already been developed and performed.

Contemporary dance is itself young in China and none of the participating young choreographers have much experience in dance, but that does not stifle their creativity.

Fang Fang, whose work “Snap Snap” explores the highly mannered poses Chinese youths adopt in photographs, says “I have never learned any dance, but I’ve attended some physical workshops and seen some contemporary performances.”

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Ke Center Shanghai - Dans StormWang Chong studied Theater in the United States before taking a sideways step towards dance.

Wang Chong, another of the young choreographers, has taken a sideways step towards dance from a theater background.

“When I saw Japanese theater and butoh, I always had the same question: why do Japanese artists have their own physical language on the contemporary stage while we don't?”

Wang investigates the physical vocabulary of Peking opera in his piece “Peking OperaTION.”

“The output is not Peking opera, and it's not dance either,” he says. “It's not-not-Peking-opera. Instead of seeing characters from hundreds of years ago, in my piece we see contemporary Chinese people and society on the stage.”

Struggling, energized artists

There is little support for these sorts of experimental, unproven performances, but as long as they can take place, Lin suggests that the challenge of staging dance in Shanghai isn’t altogether a bad thing.

“For the artists, sometimes because they are in this struggling situation it makes for very nice dance, because they have lots of energy," she says.

China Young Choreographers Showcase, October 16 and 17, free, 7:30 p.m., Ke Center for the Contemporary Arts, 613-B Kaixuan Lu, near Yan’an Xi Lu 凯旋路613-B室, 近延安西路, to reserve tickets email dans.storm@gmail.com

Go online to see the list of Downstream Garage’s upcoming underground theater performances.
Sam Gaskin is an arts and culture journalist based in Shanghai.
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