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ResCen's collaboration with the Beijing Dance Academy is a life-changing experience for the performers, creators and academics.
"There are many questions in the world today," says Christopher Bannerman, "and almost every answer contains the word China."
Ever since he left the National Ballet of Canada in the 1970s to travel in South Asia, Middlesex's Professor of Dance has sought inspiration from non-western dance forms. He performed at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, and has choreographed South Asian dancers at the South Bank Centre. In 2009, his focus switched to China when he was one of a team that brought British choreographers to work with the Beijing Dance Academy. Their collaboration culminated in ArtsCross 2013. Co-directed by Prof Bannerman, it assembled nine choreographers, 31 performers and 25 academics from the UK, China and Taiwan in London - "bringing it all back home," as he puts it.
Prof Bannerman heads the Centre for Research into the Performing Arts (ResCen) at Middlesex. Students there learn to work as administrators in the international arts world. "I see it as interesting to understand the work of artists in the marketplace," he says. "I don't want to bring them into the university context, but rather to ask: how do artists respond to society?"
ArtsCross is as much an act of cultural diplomacy as a dance project, and ResCen's focus on artistic Practice as Research was very new in the Chinese context. A leading Chinese choreographer noted that it was the first time in 15 years that the academics had set foot in a dance studio to watch a rehearsal.
Bannerman admits the preparation was daunting. "While it was fascinating to navigate the path, I did fear that we were working by committee. An overly formal hierarchy might be fine for developing policy, but we want an environment that's catalytic, that's creative." In British dance projects, problems tend to be dealt with as they arise. "In China, there's none of that." Contracts were drawn up specifying the themes and number of dancers. Dealing with China's most prestigious and influential dance school was always going to involve bureaucracy. "I just think," he says, "it was something we had to go through."
The rehearsals and discussions were sometimes unexpectedly charged. One choreographer, mindful of the impact of the Cultural Revolution on artists, was wary of applying social or cultural science to dance because he associated it with interference by the Communist Party. Another Chinese academic was deeply moved by a Taiwanese interaction. "Don't you get it? We haven't been able to talk to these people for 50 years," he explained.
After three weeks of rehearsals, nine short works were performed at The Place in central London followed by an academic conference at Queen Mary, University of London. Their overarching theme was Leaving Home: Being Elsewhere, which held a particular significance for the Chinese participants.
So intense was the experience that the dancers burst into tears as they took their final call before an enthusiastic audience. And the wider cultural impact of ArtsCross should not be underestimated, Prof Bannerman says. Beijing Dance Academy comes under pressure from both traditionalists and modernizers. "In October 2014, China will celebrate its 65th birthday," he says. "BDA has to be part of that." At previous celebrations, they have always presented traditional Chinese work. "This time they are presenting a mix of influences, a programme demonstrating their traditions and their contemporary spirit. That's very significant. As soon as BDA breaks the mould, it's allowed. Other dancers know it's been accepted by the Party."
But the impact of Chinese choreography and ideas on the British participants was just as profound. "We can't build a nuclear power station or a high speed train without China. We think London is special, but we need to be a lot, lot better about negotiating the rest of the world," says Prof Bannerman. "It's that international cultural dialogue that I think Middlesex is so good at. So much of what we do is borne out of social perceptions that are constantly evolving. We have to learn from the students."