UCI, Beijing and Shanghai Troupes Dance Across Borders

By Julia Clausen

The Claire Trevor Theatre was nearly packed Saturday night as people gathered to see the first annual “East Meets West,” a collaborative performance by three universities from the U.S. and China: Beijing Normal University, Shanghai Normal University and UC Irvine. Each group performed several pieces from a range of styles — classical, religious, folk, and contemporary — to offer a unique and diverse experience.

However, “East Meets West” extended much further than the footlights of the stage and into the classroom. The students from each university, with the addition of the Beijing Dance Academy, spent the entire week leading up to Saturday’s collaborative show taking classes, performing and discussing techniques together in the UC Irvine studios, and according to the project’s coordinator, UCI Professor Tong Wang, the students had an incredible time.
“We learn from each other,” he explained. “We want [the show] to become a bridge to other dance cultures.” In fact, he and the UCI Dance Department hope to expand the forum in future years to include as many countries and dance programs as are willing to contribute.

As a former student of one of the participating universities, the Beijing Dance Academy, who later came to the United States to dance professionally, Wang can attest firsthand to the power of dance to transcend barriers.
“When I first came to the U.S. I didn’t speak a word [of English], but luckily, with dance, we use body language. Bodies don’t lie,” he explained.

This definitely seemed to be true for the final show Saturday night; despite the linguistic and cultural barriers, the audience responded with cheers and applause to the entire range of dance traditions because they were able to connect to the depth and intricacies of the movements.

The evening opened with “The Mountain Flowers Are in Full Bloom” from Shanghai Normal University, featuring large fans draped to look like flower petals which the dancers spun and flicked in seamless patterns.
This was immediately followed by a special performance of Bharatanatyam, a classical Hindu dance, by UCI graduate dance student and professional dancer Sukanya Kumar. Her complicated footwork and engaging presence left the audience entranced.

The crowd favorite was a piece titled “Back,” performed by the Beijing Normal University students. From back flips to delicate foot and hand gestures to synchronized floor movements echoing the pounding drums, this dance had it all. The dancers were talented and their eyes told stories of hardship and victory. The choreography walked a fascinating line between symbolic and detailed traditional gestures and the impressive leg extensions and leaps of a more contemporary experimental style. When the dynamic piece reached its final pose, the dancers received the loudest roar from the audience of the night and closed out an incredible show.

Beyond the music or technique, however, for Professor Wang, this performance in particular is all about reaching the surrounding Irvine community, and the community reached back. From small children to gray-haired elders, the audience was much wider than just students and family members, and they were enjoying the show. After the final piece, the cast of the entire show returned for a curtain call, as did their friends and family who were called onstage to follow along as a student from each school demonstrated a simple movement of their dance style. The audience clapped along and cheered for their favorites.

The first annual “East Meets West” was certainly a success, and Professor Wang hopes that the program’s efforts to reach out to all corners of the world will allow students and professionals from every dance heritage to realize the strength of UC Irvine’s ever-growing dance department.

“We want people to know we’re here and doing great things,” said Wang.