纽约面对面 - 李皎专访
《纽约面对面Facet o Face Interview NYC - 晓樱专访》 IMPACTCULTURE英湃特文化事业出品。
Jiao Li is school director in New York Chinese Cultural Center. She was soloist in Nai-Ni Chen Dance company. She is Chinese native graduate from Temple University Master of Fine Art in Modern dance. Before receiving her BA from Beijing Dance Academy in Chinese Folk dance, she served as an Adjunct Professor in the dance department of University of Sports Tian Jin in China. She has previously had the great honor of performing at China’s National Center for the Performing Arts. She was invited to dance at the New York Times Square Countdown Live 2017. She participated in Hong Kong international Choreography Festival and presented her piece in Sheung Wan Civic Center Theater in 2017, she has been teaching at NYCCC since 2018.
Y = Ying (Host)
J = Jiao (Guest)
Y: Hello everyone! This is Xiao-Ying. Welcome to a new episode of “Face-to-Face in New York”. Our guest today is a young professional dancer from New York. She is an expert in Chinese folk dance and Chinese contemporary dance, with which she has her own unique interpretations. She will also share her insights in living in New York as a newcomer.
It is a pleasure to have Li Jiao, graduate of Bejing Dance Academy and also Modern and Contemporary Dance Master’s from Temple University, joining us today. Hello Li Jiao!
J: Hello everyone!
Y: Thank you for being my guest on “Face-to-Face in New York”. Nowadays many people feel there are so many types of dance. To start, tell us what kind of events made you start dancing seriously when you were young? Was there influence from your parents?
J: Yes, kind of... When I was young, my parents were overly concerned with the fact that I didn't eat much.
Y: So you were skinny?
J: Yes, quite skinny. Actually there is this stereotype that a dancer should be tall and slim in order to look good on the stage. When I was little, my mom thought I ate too little. So she sent me to a dance team, hoping I would eat more as a result. She didn't mean to make me a professional dancer at all - let alone a renowned one. So this is all quite unexpected.
Y: So your professional dance career is very much by chance! Initially your mom only tried to improve your health; coincidentally you became the young, successful professional dancer that we see today.
Y: When you first started, did you know what ballet or folk dance are about?
J: Honestly not much. Growing up, I lived in a small city, and there wasn't much distinction between ballet and Chinese dance. I felt maybe ballet is about tip-toeing, but I really didn't understand the difference. It's only after I started studying at Hebei School of Arts and later the Beijing Dance Academy that I understood the categorization - like how the Chinese dance originated, and one level deeper - how the Chinese folklore dance was originated. Later when I studied contemporary dance during my Master's, I finally had a full picture of the various types of dances in the world - from the more global contemporary dances to the little branches in Chinese folk dances. It all started with tiny bits and pieces, then evolved to a distinction of the bigger concepts. Step by step I learned the differences.
Y: I see. Usually audiences only see the glamor of the professional dancers on the stage. I am guessing behind every successful person or every profession - especially professional performers - there must be lots of heartache. Heartaches sounds too miserable, let's say did your parents ever think about giving up, because of how tough the process was?
J: Yes, my mom did. I have this vivid memory of when I was practicing the forward roll - I was so little, just reaching the age where you could do this move. Somehow my grandma was watching too. To do the move we have to curl our legs over the shoulders, till the point that the butt is touching our head - the person is curled up like this. One day, I don't know why, my mom saw me doing it and she burst into tears.
Y: Because you could finally do it?
J: Not really. She thought it must be very painful. Actually I ddidn’t feel any pain myself. Yes there were some debates in the family, especially when I was finishing the 6th grade (age 12 in China), we were faced with this decision of whether to go to a performing arts school and make dancing my profession. Honestly, my parents were strongly against it - they thought my grades were good enough for other professions, why dancing? I argued a lot against my parents. I really wanted to do it. And I finally did. I first went to a performing arts school, then the Beijing Dance Academy. Actually in order to get into the Beijing Dance Academy you have to start from a performing arts school - it's almost impossible to go from a regular high school to the Dance Academy. That was the most difficult decision, with so many struggles. Afterwards the decisions came more naturally - as I got older, I knew what was the next step, whether to study abroad, and what I aim to achieve when studying abroad. But that decision was made under a lot of influence of my parents, I was able to assert myself.
Y: People say when we persevere in something, we must have passion in it. Parents could get us started, but we have to love it in order to carry on. So Jiao didn't give up despite all the difficulties, her spirit was never defeated, till this day. This is a message for all the dance professionals - perseverance leads to success! Right?
J: Yes! My dance teacher from childhood used to tell me "Many people are talented, for example athletes - some are just naturally talented..." I don't think I was born a talented dancer. Maybe my body is ok for dancing, but I don't have the flexibility. Hard work could compensate for some of it, but I won't be able to compare with those born with great flexibility. So the teacher would say "Dancing is a game of perseverance". I couldn't really understand it back then - what does it mean "game of perseverance?!" I think I understand now. When I find myself still persisting after coming to the U.S., while a lot of my fellows - who have a lot more talent than I do - are working doing something completely different now, no dancing at all.
Y: They all gave up.
Y: Yes. Most gave up; only a few persevered. It's not about physical pain; it's something inside the heart. Only with a determined mind are you able to persevere.
Y: Easier said than done. We know lots of sweat and tears are shed behind every dance move - that's why some parents discourage their children from studying it, they can't handle it. While Jiao said everything in a relaxed tone, we know for sure the difficulties she faced were many times tougher than they sound. One thing so positive is she's always had her passion and determination toward dancing, and that's why she's still doing it even after moving to New York. Dancing in New York isn't easy - it's not about physical pain any more.
J: Right, it's no longer a hobby; it's your life now. You must be confident that you can carry on even when you aren't making money for many years. You must be so sure about this. It's hard.
Y: Well you persisted till today - congratulations! We hope you will carry on tomorrow, the day after tomorrow. We wish we could see your pretty Chinese face on the stages in New York and around the world!
Y: Speaking of which...now that you are head of the Xin Miao Dance School, I know it's still dance-related, but what are the challenges now?
J: Before, when I was a dancer, I just focused on "doing my own things well". Now that I am the headmaster of the Xin Miao Dance School, I have a lot more responsibilities. Because I am carrying this new mission, which is to showcase the Chinese culture, I need to be a lot more disciplined, and think harder on how to promote the Chinese culture. That's quite different from before. A dancer only needs to focus on him or herself; later I realized I need to equip myself with more knowledge, in case someone asks me what is Chinese dance etc? I must be knowledgeable enough to convince others that I know what I am doing, and I am a responsible person. Being responsible means I shouldn't give any wrong information, and I should explain everything well, e.g. what is the origin of something, etc. Learning the background means reading many books, full understanding what's written, and performing research. Only with this one can claim to be a culture ambassador. That's different from a dancer who only knows to perform the moves that she is told to. Quite different. A lot more responsibilities.
Y: It's a change of career, from a dance performer to an educator, can we say that?
Y: So it's a different career, and you have to learn many thingsfrom the ground up. You also feel the sense of responsibility now that you are in a different place, yes?
Y: Jiao is a very responsible person! We wish her sense of responsibility will bring her even bigger achievements. You are in the U.S. now, but you were studying Chinese folk dance, correct?
J: Yes, I was studying Chinese dance in the performing arts school - every student there must study Chinese dance for six years. Then in college I studied Chinese folk dance, which is branched into traditional dance and classical dance. My focus was on traditional dance. Right now in the U.S. I am studying contemporary dance.
Y: Contemporary dance, I see. I know all we talked about is dancing - but what are the distinctions? Or even similarities?
J: Ok, they are completely different. Contemporary dance focuses on expression - the dancer expresses herself; meanwhile, the Chinese dance is more about aesthetics. Those are quite different. Contemporary dance is about oneself, what I want, etc. However the Chinese dance is more about how the dancer wants to showcase on the stage... like what kind of style. Contemporary dance is selfish, and it's so different.
Y: In the process of learning Chinese dances - we already know it's a complex system of various styles of dances - were you ever confused? There could be differences and similarities at the same time, whether we are talking dances from two different cultures or in two different styles. Did you ever say to yourself "Hmm that's different from what I learned" when you are on the stage?
J: Such things…
Y: Ok we know Jiao may need to think about this for a bit, as she doesn't seem the type of person who makes a lot of mistakes. We will take a break. You are watching Face-to-Face in New York, today we are interviewing the young professional dancer Li Jiao. We will be back soon, after the break.
Y: Welcome back to Face-to-Face in New York! I am Xiao-Ying, and our guest today is the head of New York Chinese Cultural Center Dance School and young professional dancer, Li Jiao. She is joining us today and sharing the bits and pieces in her dance journey. She is also a foreigner living in New York. If you are interested in learning anything about dancing, please stay tuned!
Let's continue the discussion. During your dance performances, was there ever any hiccup? For example you couldn't remember what the teacher taught and made the wrong move?
J: Indeed it happened once when I was young. I was little, it was the first time I went on stage. There was a problem with the music. I was young, like 16 years old. It was a competition.
Y: So it's very important!
J: I was doing a solo. The music started, then after 10 seconds it was restarted from the beginning. But I couldn't just do nothing! I was in the process of approaching the center of the stage, however the music stopped and restarted from the beginning.
Y: So you were trying to figure out…
J: I knew I wasn't supposed to freeze and do nothing - we had rigid training, and since young I knew we shouldn't just do nothing on the stage. Thoughts like "I am done" flashed through my mind. Then I started improvise and did whatever. Later I heard the instrument Kuai Ban, and I was able to resume the dance on the right beat.
Y: That wasn't your fault. Your teacher should praise you for what you did.
J: That's still quite an experience. First time on stage ever! About 15 or 16 years old. Felt like a nightmare.
Y: So it's a scary experience for you.
J: Yes it's scary. First time soloing, first time on that stage, and something went wrong. Very scary.
Y: At least it ended well. I assume you grow a lot more experienced after that. Unexpected things could happen on the stage, not only with the dance performance itself, but also with the instruments, vocals, etc. It's a test for how artists handle unexpected events. It's also a learning process.
J: Correct. Actually hiccups on the stage are common. I dance folkl dance, and I drop my prop fan or lose my head piece quite often too. Seriously. You have to figure out a way. For example if you dropped the fan in one place, you have to come up with a way to move there and use some kind of dance moves to pick it up while pretending nothing happened. It's inevitable. It's part of live performing. Experience helps. Sometimes you have to rely on others too. For instance a dancer from the previous performance dropped his head piece on the stage. He didn't get a chance to pick it up. Now you must solve the problem. You better find a way to roll there, pick it up, and toss it off the stage. You need to cover others. We not only need to worry about ourselves, we also need to ensure all performances are well carried out. It takes years of experience to be more natural in this.
Y: That's true - whether it's a dance performance, or another venue, hiccups could happen. These situations tell a novice apart from a master. These are just the warmups; we face all kinds of difficulties during our learning and growing. So you made the decision to come to New York; what triggered that decision? Or you didn't really care, when the opportunity came you simply took it?
J: I actually really wanted to come to New York. When I graduated with my Master's degree, there were various opportunities of performing with Chinese dance teams in New York. Then I thought "hmm if I go to New York, I could have a much bigger stage!" That was a sure option. There's a huge uncertainty to move to New York after finishing my studies in Philadelphia. It brings many more opportunities too. I will have a better stage.
Y: Regarding studying dancing - we already talked about how Jiao's passion supported her all the way till now. Now that you work both as an educator and a dancer, but you definitely do still perform. Do you feel Chinese folk dance has become more valuable after you came to New York? And that triggered some emotions?
J: Yes definitely! I feel it often! Especially in large scale performances, for example when my students are performing Mongolian dance with a bowl on top of their head, I really feel I am showcasing the many facets of Chinese arts.
Y: The charm of Chinese arts.
J: Yes. My specialty is Chinese folk dance. I know there are 56 ethnic groups, but when I explain it to others they don't understand. So I would tell them. Look, the U.S. has a diverse culture, with people from different ethnicities. Similarly, in China there are 55 minority groups (besides the Han majority ethnicity), each with its own distinct language, costume, culture, and holidays. Now they can understand the diversity in China. They used to think we are all the same, since we all have the same yellow skin. There shouldn't be any differences. Then I introduce Chinese dance, now they are amazed at how diverse the Chinese culture is. It's a surprise to them. When I perform, no matter whether it's a dance from the Han ethnicity or a minority group, I show them something different every time. They get to see that a dancer isn't limited to just one style; rather, a dancer could have many styles. In their mind, a ballet dancer and only dance ballet, and a contemporary dancer and only performance contemporary dances. The body has been tuned for one specific dance. The case is quiet different with Chinese dance. Chinese dances promote a comprehensive development of the dancer's body. This is further backed by a rich culture. There is a lot of confidence.
Y: Agreed. Therefore, when you introduce Chinese dances to foreigners - whether in English or another language - you feel their understanding of the Chinese culture is limited, right?
J: Yes haha. They have this stereotype and misunderstanding that Chinese dance is all about wearing red costumes and carrying a red scarf. That's the perception - waving a silk scarf. That's a total misconception. Chinese dances are well developed and have many aspects. Whether we are talking about Chinese folklore dance or classic dance, there is a lot of diversity. It's not what's in their mind - a happy dance with the scarfs in celebration for the New Year's. Chinese folklore dances can happen for many reasons - entertainment, rituals, cultural events, etc. There's content and depth. With strong culture roots. It's a lot more than just the stereotyped wiggles.
Y: Here comes your mission: how to deep dive into the Chinese culture and carry on the heritage? Telling people how diverse Chinese dances are - as diverse as what's in the New York Fashion Week. You are holding an important role as an educator. No matter where the members of Xin Miao Dance School perform, it's a form of communication.
Y: When you perform in the U.S., there is more elements of communication. How about the performances you did in your college? Like a graduation performance? Would you think like I did - I was a vocalist and I used to think "how come only a few people showed up? Why can't I have a full house as if I were in Central Conservatory of Music?" Regardless of that, your teachers must have carefully observed your progress and achievements in your graduation performances. Have you performed Chinese folklore dances in front of your teachers at Temple University?
J: Yes! I did a workshop during the first year of my Master's. I started a powerpoint and said let's briefly introduce the Chinese folklore dance, focusing on the Han ethnicity and the minorities Zang, Meng, Wek, Chao. I showed a slide for Han, telling them the props are commonly scarves and fans. I also demonstrated some simple movements with the props. All audiences were dancers and they immediately saw the diversity. Every ethnicity has its own rhythm and unique way of carrying and utilizing the props. Then I covered the Mongolian minority group, as well as the Xin Jiang style music and dance. The level of diversity was quite obvious. Each ethnicity has a unique style. For example, when they heard the Xin Jiang style music, they felt the strong beats from the drums. They even commented the style is almost Russian.
Y: And Middle Eastern.
J: Correct! They wondered “is this part of the Chinese folklore dance?” They were shocked. They finally learned how diverse the Chinese folk dance is. It was beyond their imagination.
Y: So Jiao you should aim to establish a Chinese folk dance major in the U.S. That should be your main mission.
J: Yes absolutely! Honestly I feel it…
Y: Feeling the urge right?
J: Yes the urge! Honestly there are so many Chinese people in the U.S., but Chinese dance does not receive similar attention to other large ethnicities such as African American dance is a lot more popular. In Temple University the African American dance school was very in vogue. Rightfully so, people of African descent are very proud of their dances. I feel that similar recognition and self-pride in our ethnic dances has not manifested among Americans of Chinese ethnicity and heritage.
Y: The most deserted area has the most opportunities! Grow something! We are toward the end of the interview. I do want to ask what are your short-term and long-term goals? Would you mind sharing your little secrets?
J: Short term I want to do what's on my plate and do them well. Slow and steady. Long term I will think more about my career path. For example, maybe I will publish a book introducing Chinese dances. But it requires years of preparation. I will keep doing preparations for my long-term goals. As of now, I want to focus on the present, create some choreographies, something that I really like, have everything recorded, and keep on creating and building up.
Y: Great. Many thanks to Jiao for sharing stories in her dance career. Speaking of dreams and hopes, we hope Jiao will bring Chinese folklore dance to more audiences, letting more people know about it. I wish you every success in your future endeavors!
J: Thank you!
Y: Thanks to our audience as well. See you!