March 14, 2010

Characters in Dance and Writing

For the last month, I have been traveling the state to teach Chinese Calligraphy and Painting. My program, A Brush With History, teaches students the historical development of Chinese writing and painting with hands on training in brush painting. My February Residency at Spartanburg Day School happened to coincide with Mardi Gras, which only added to the festive spirit - replete with King Cake served in the school cafeteria. King Cake was a delicacy that I had been hitherto unacquainted with, but as someone with a penchant for sweet things, I was more than happy to make that acquaintance. It was a tubular creation filled with an eclair-like cream and festooned with sugar sprinkles in a gaudy array of colors ranging from purple to yellow. Tradition has it that a small baby doll is hidden inside and whoever gets the piece with the baby in it will have good luck and will throw the next party. (I’m not sure how bearing the expense for a party can be called "lucky" but I suppose you just have to roll with that).
My Brush with History residency went quite well. The classes were small, the students were attentive and my teaching hosts were very accommodating. The school was unusual in that a Chinese language program had been in place and the elementary students already had up to four years of exposure to Chinese. I was also amazed at the plethora of work by professional artists adorning the hallways and hung in large meeting places. The cafeteria was like a restaurant with a full time professional chef. My eyes were often wide in disbelief at the cornucopia of fresh fruit and greens available. Such is the lot of private school students: good food, good culture, small classes, one-on-one attention opportunities. Although the residency was only four days, I was able to cover the three classic elements of Chinese Painting: calligraphy, brush painting and seal carving. The residency was fortuitously covered in the Spartanburg Herald as my stay happened to coincide with a visit to the school of a Chinese contingency from Guilin.
My second residency was at A C Flora High School in Columbia, SC. What a contrast public to private school was! The grounds were still under construction and there was a lot of repair work still needed on the school infrastructure. Teachers packed their own lunches but that was fun anyway for the lunch comradery. At Spartanburg Day School I had about a total of thirty eight students. At A C Flora there were over one hundred. (I have had some public school experiences where there were over two hundred students for the week Some teachers regularly have about one thousand!) Although some of the combined classes were quite large, I fortunately had the help of the visual arts teacher, Mary Conner as well as the dance instructor, Gayle Etheridge. This was an experimental residency combining dance students and visual art students. It was the culmination of something I had been wanting to do for several years - have dance students choreograph a performance based upon Chinese calligraphy. It entailed having both the visual art and dance students study Chinese calligraphy forms; the basic strokes of kai characters, stroke order, and stylistic variations such as oracle bone, zhuan shu, xing shu, li shu and cao shu. The final day, the entire group of participating students were divided into fourteen groups of about five to eight students - visual artists mixed with dancers. Because I had about two decades of pent up ideas with regard to dance and Chinese calligraphy I had loads of suggestions for these groups. The art teacher and the dance instructor advised me, however, to hold back as much as possible during the student’s creative phase. And they were right because although many students incorporated some of my ideas, most of them came up with even better ones on their own.
Despite the two days of emphasis on Kai, or regular hand characters (something I could compare to printing versus script) most of the students performed dances based on zhuan characters. This made sense in that ancient Chinese zhuan characters (roughly 800 BC) are closer to pictographs and it is easy to envision people striking exotic poses when looking at them. In some instances, though, these were used as elaborate floor patterns for creating dance movements - something I wouldn’t have thought of. Since I provided translations of the zhuan characters many of the students focused on literary content in their dances. One used the concept of wisdom and philosophy, another used both the form and content of the sun and earth elements.
There was one truly brilliant dance performed to the writing of basic strokes of kai characters and I was glad to see at least one group take on that challenge. There was one particularly fascinating bit of choreography with the calligraphers drawing in the air with brushes over the heads of the dancers who simultaneously "translated" these gestures into body movements. The students did such a great job that I almost cried at their performances.
Performance day itself was full of surprises. We had a visit from the director of the Confucius Institute at USC, Professor Tan Ye. Professor Ye gave us information about what how the Confucius Institute is supporting scholarly exchanges between South Carolina students and China and encouraged the high school students to consider further language and cultural studies. Professor Ye did not come empty handed and presented students with a bag full of goodies in the way of Beijing Opera letter openers and silk good luck charms to hang from door knobs.
After the residency, I attended a meeting with the dance instructor, her student teacher, as well as the art instructor. We all came up with ideas to make the next residency even better but most of all we just took some time to bask in the warmth of each other’s company and the satisfaction of a job well done.

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