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The exquisite dancing figure in the award-winning movie, House of Flying Daggers, was for many, their first glimpse of YABIN WANG’s talents. The brilliance of her technique stems from the fertile fusion of her training in classical Chinese dance, ballet, and contemporary, as does her creativity infused by the wealth of stories and the theatricality of China’s ancient performing arts tradition. She discusses with ICONS the philosophy and work ethic guiding her chosen career.
ICONS: When did you first realize that you wanted to choreograph?
YABIN WANG: I was 15, in my first year in college. I had started to dance at six years old with an excellent dance teacher, Madame Li Hua. She thought I could become a great dancer and told my parents I should go to the best school, so at nine years old I went away to the Beijing Dance Academy (BDA). It was when I graduated from junior school and went to the college that I realized maybe in the future I could become a choreographer.
ICONS: At the Beijing Dance Academy were you encouraged to choreograph? Were there classes in choreography?
YW: At BDA there are many different departments. I majored in Chinese Classical Dance, and choreography was part of the course. In addition, I took classes in contemporary dance and ballet. I started to choreograph when I was 19 years old, but the curriculum was intensive, and I didn’t find the time to continue. I, therefore, waited till 2009 when I started to choreograph seriously, and this was the beginning of Yabin & Her Friends. Having my own company gives me an official stage where I can ensure the high standards of the music and lighting and showcase my choreographic works to the highest quality.
ICONS: What influences shaped you as a choreographer?
YW: When I was in first year at college, we had classes in ‘dance appreciation’, and we were introduced to the work of Western choreographers. I saw works by Mats Ek, Jiří Kylián, William Forsythe and Pina Bausch, and I was amazed. The dance world seemed full of magic. In Forsythe, I loved his style of how he uses the space and pointe work and how he shows different aspects of the body during the movement. I was stunned by Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring and Mats Ek’s Smoke.
These choreographers were not from my cultural background, but through the medium of dance, I could understand exactly what they wanted to say. The dance, the body language crossed the barrier of the language and culture. I thought then that may be in the future I could also create. I wanted to take my dance to perform in different countries and communicate with different people.
What provokes my creativity is the limitlessness of expression in limited space and time. The power of expression through body movement makes dance a uniquely powerful art form. I started to see dance as a medium for creating dreams and felt overwhelmed by the unleashing of creativity and imagination. That is what shaped my destiny and led me to become a choreographer.
ICONS: Mats Ek’s Smoke was made for the camera. Has your background in films shaped or influenced your choreographic choices?
YW: When I dance, it’s like a dance video, whether with the camera or without. I can see myself dancing within a three-dimensional space, but the audience is myself and I am dancing inside. I feel I am influenced by cinematography because I can always sense the pace of extension of my body in the same way as pacing in film shooting. It’s like seeing how a leaf grows from a twig. I see where it comes from, how it grows, twists and turns into the final position. Creating a movement is like drawing a picture. You start with dots, lines, and objects and then it becomes motion.
ICONS: Where does your creative process start? How do you prepare to choreograph a new work?
YW: I think very hard about why I want to create a piece. Contemplating ideas from conceptualization to creating movement is a slow and gradual process. It takes at least three years before I make the first step in my choreography. It all starts with considering the eternal questions: Where do we come from? Where are we going? I have developed a way to track the inspiration, through ideas into words, phrases, and paragraphs. I then do intensive research, going to places to find traces and nuances of cultures, traditions, literature, music, and history and develop those findings into a structure for my work.
I collect the resources that are meaningful and discuss my ideas with my creative colleagues. These turn into choreographic notes for designers, composers and musicians, and finally, we put the meat on the skeletal structures. I follow up by creating movements and choreographing the roles. Finally, I synchronize the disciplines, bringing everything together for the dress rehearsal and the premiere. As a choreographer, I am torn between the temptation of what I want to do and the time that I have to do it.
ICONS: Share more about creating the movement.
YW: When I have a clear idea of the structure and the design, I will go into the studio knowing what I want to do. Sometimes I will give a concept and the dancer will offer some movement material and then we will work together and sometimes I will give my movement to the dancers. A lot of Chinese dancers have very good body condition and can work in different styles and with different movement material. I will tell them the story and during the rehearsal, if they have some questions, they also can ask me. We keep communicating so my dancers understand not only the body language but also my thinking and emotional direction.
I believe I am a very open choreographer. I will listen to advise and suggestions from others. If the suggestion is suitable for our piece, we can incorporate it, but if I think it is not suitable, it will be rejected.
ICONS: With your position as artistic director of Yabin & Her Friends, do you still like to perform in your works?
YW: Yes, but not for every piece. Last year for our production, I was just director and choreographer, but for Moon Opera, I choreographed, directed and took the main role. However, I also like to view my work sitting in the theatre as an audience member.
ICONS: In Chinese Classical dance the costumes are often very elaborate and can become part of the dance. In your choreography do you like to use these elements?
YW: I love the long sleeves as a motif to play with, especially in relation to the quality of the fabric. It is a traditional element of Chinese dance and I feel that it could also be part of the contemporary movement and style. In this way, I can give a tradition fresh life but I will only use the long sleeves when it’s right for the piece and then they can be used to elongate the body and intensify the emotion.
ICONS: Where else do you find inspiration?
YW: Nature is something that inspires me. I must have an image in my mind when I choreograph. For example, if a character needs strong emotion, I think of the ocean. Human emotion is really like the ocean. As an artist, I have a sensitive eye for many things. Life is a journey and on the journey, I discover many things that inspire me and sometimes give me exactly what I need for my piece.
ICONS: Many of the dancers trained in China are brilliant technicians. How important is this for you?
YW: That is a really good question. For Chinese Classical dance or ballet, technique is very important. Technique is fundamental in pushing the limits of your body to be the best you can be. I am very grateful for my training although it was really, really hard. However, there are things that are equally, if not more, important like your insights and your expression of an idea. In performance there are also elements that determine how far you can adapt techniques, taking what you need from different styles of dance to achieve the ultimate freedom in expressing yourself through your work. So, I think the technique is important, but it is only the base.
ICONS: Is there a difference in your focus when you are working with Eastern or Western dancers?
YW: Honestly you don't need to label your work specifically to one nationality. That is why I always want to create my work by incorporating artists from different cultures and backgrounds and even different training techniques. People can see different styles mingled cohesively and purposefully. Such collaboration makes the work more powerful.
Over the last ten years, I have also worked with many different choreographers, composers, and designers. When I invite a creative artist, it is because I think their style matches the production theme. For me, that is more important than having a big name.
ICONS: To what extent are your ideas shaped through your culture and philosophy?
YW: Uniformity has much appeal for Chinese classical philosophers who believe in living with differences while pursuing harmony. However, in pursuing truth, you discover the depth and need to be critical and it is important to understand the paradoxical nature of everything. The discovery of quantum theory was a major step forward for human beings, indicating that nature is more complicated than dualism. Between the physical and the metaphysical world, we know there are worlds, still unknown, that exist around.
In Chinese culture, people like works dressed in bright colors and with a happy ending, but for my works, I don’t want only happiness and light entertainment. I like to look also for deep subjects, to show both life and death, almost like a documentary. So, our themes are different from other Chinese choreographers. I want to show both the reality of society and the unknown. As in Western art, I want to see the good and the bad side, the troubles as well as happiness.
ICONS: Is dance a good medium to discuss the big questions of life and death?
YW: I believe so because dance is art conceived through contrast: motion and motionless, in movement or in pause. It can take the abstract form of a long book, a drama or a movie and reveal the same idea in five minutes, ten minutes or an hour. It can be as long or as short as you wish. Like life, it is fuelled by the power of emotion.
ICONS: You have a new project opening soon. What are the themes and what is the inspiration for your next work?
YW: My next project is called World. It premieres on September 28 at the Tian Qiao Performing Arts Center in Beijing and will celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Yabin & Her Friends. I thought when I started the company that I wanted to do a work about dancers and to show their experience. However, at that time, I felt I needed more experience to find deep feelings to tell this story. Meanwhile, over the last ten years I have talked with many dancers and choreographers and asked questions like: ‘Why do you dance?’ ‘What are your feelings when you dance?’ World is dedicated to all the talented artists I have come across in my career. I really want the audience to hear the voice of the dancer, the voice that is the result of my many interviews. The work is abstract in form but in detail, there is concrete imagery. I have finished the synopsis, structure, setting and also the movement. The work will take you into the dancers’ world. Through the daily routine of class, the creative process and ultimately the performance, different dancers will say what dance means to them.
We perform in different countries and meet different audiences. In our aftershow talks, audience members often ask about the emotions that dancers feel. Dancing for an audience you can share the happiness of dance during the performance and audiences can feel this. But they want to know more, and this is what I want to show in my piece. It is the heart of the dance. For example, in rehearsals, we often have to repeat one movement hundreds of times. This is hard and brings up many emotions. This is the part the audience never sees and so I want to show the process of dance. I’m calling it World.
ICONS: Why do you dance?
YW: This is a question I have asked myself time and time again since 2009. It is a question that keeps coming back and is the foundation I laid down when I formed Yabin & Her Friends.
ICONS: In the West, it’s an auspicious time for women choreographers. Is this also the case in China?
YW: Sometimes I think the issues are also about the generation and not only gender. If you are young, you are rarely given the chance to choreograph a big production. But I think I am lucky because in China female choreographers get respect from others and there are some great female choreographers. Women artists have a better time than before, both economically and professionally. Personally, I have not experienced any barriers because I am a woman. When I am creating, my gender is not an issue, but I often choose a story with a strong female protagonist. In Moon Opera, the main character is a woman. I had just come from Norway where I choreographed and played Ellida Wangel in Lady from the Sea. For the English National Ballet, I chose to create a ballet on Medea, the character from Greek tragedy. In this way, there is a relationship between female choreographer and the female character.
I have been very independent throughout my life, economically and professionally. My driving force is to be brave and not be seduced by materialism. Many of my peers, particularly women, are tempted into other careers. But I still persist.
ICONS: You lead a very busy life, but do you have other interests outside of the studio?
YW: I like reading books: novels, biographies, and stories of philosophers and artists. I also write. I've already published two books, one as a joint author, and the other one as the author. I like to watch movies and go to the theatre; for me, theatre is the most comfortable place to be. I also go to art exhibitions and draw and paint and, if I have time, I like taking photos.
ICONS: What is constant in your choreography and what changes?
YW: What is constant is my commitment to achieving the highest level of artistry and creativity together with clarity in expression. However, the movements, motifs used, visual and sound, and of course, the designs are ever-changing. I believe strongly in a movement that is dynamic in different contexts in contrast to a movement that is rigid and stereotyped. I have always admired agility, flexibility, and accuracy, enriching the movement to intensify the expressiveness. This is what I want to achieve.
ICONS: Looking back on your career as a dancer, film actress, choreographer and now director, what might you have done differently?
YW: Nothing special, except maybe find more time for other things. I think perhaps I work too hard. From six years old until now I haven’t had time for play like other children have. However, I trusted my judgment and the choices I have made. I feel proud of what I have done and look forward to a bright future.
Video Demo of M-Dao from She Said Program by English National Ballet:
More About Yabin Wang:
YABIN WANG is China’s most renowned contemporary dancer and choreographer. Trained at Beijing Dance Academy in the Chinese classical style, she has won numerous gold prizes in Chinese national and regional dance competitions. She primarily experiments in the contemporary styles of dance. In 2009, she started her own Yabin Studio, and has since presented a dance new productions every year under the brand name “Yabin & Her Friends.” Her dance company creates full-length dance works while also commissions choreographers from the US, Europe, and China.
Her extraordinary talent as both a dancer and a choreographer has received acclaim from critics and artists alike, as a most promising and pioneering choreographer, dancer, and producer of original contemporary dance works in China and beyond.
In 2013, Yabin Studio commissioned Belgium choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to create a full-length original contemporary production, Genesis. In 2014, Yabin was commissioned by English National Ballet’s Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo, to choreograph a ballet for the triple bill, She Said , in celebration of female choreographers. The work named M-Dao premiered on April 2016 at Sadler’s Wells, London. This production, together with Akram Khan’s New Giselle, won the 2017 Laurence Olivier Award for the English National Ballet in Outstanding Achievement in Dance.
Yabin photo portrait by Wang Kun
Moon Opera, by Wang Ning
An Individual Soliloquy, by Duan Chao
Yabin Studio, and working with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, by Ke Zhou
Interviewer: Maggie Foyer
Content Editor-in-Chief: Camilla Acquista
Dance ICONS, Inc. September 2019 © All rights reserved.