Inter-area/Border Crossing

Organized Panel Session

3 - Choreographing the Contemporary: Dai Ailian and the Making of Chinese Dance

Friday, July 6
10:20 AM - 11:50 AM
Location: Rudraksha, Lower Ground Floor

In Chinese historiography, the era known as the “contemporary” (dangdai) begins officially in 1949, with the end of the Chinese Civil War and the founding of the People’s Republic of China. In contrast to the “modern” (xiandai) era of 1912-1948, the contemporary is marked by a deepening of the relationship between art and politics, especially the idea that art should advance social critique and incite revolution. Early contemporary Chinese artistic productions were gritty, often improvisational, and popular in orientation. Whereas modern culture was resolutely urban, contemporary culture arose in the countryside. To better reach rural audiences, contemporary artists engaged indigenous vernaculars, adapting the folkloric for new political expression.


Dance was a major component of this new Chinese contemporary culture, and the contributions of one individual—a third-generation Cantonese Trinidadian woman named Dai Ailian (1916-2006)—were especially influential. Before arriving in China in 1941, Dai had spent a decade in England, where she had been inspired by new dance experiments happening there—especially those of Indian artist Uday Shankar and the German artist Kurt Jooss. When Dai arrived in China, she brought with her a diasporic sensibility shaped by exposure to these dance activities and by years of racist treatment in the British dance scene, as well as involvement in wartime relief efforts organized by overseas Chinese communities. Through her choreography in China in the 1940s and 1950s, Dai established her own form of contemporary dance culture in China, which laid the basis for what became known as “Chinese dance.”

Emily Wilcox

University of Michigan, United States

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3 - Choreographing the Contemporary: Dai Ailian and the Making of Chinese Dance



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