‘The godfather of dance’

One of the first dance companies in China to receive artistic autonomy, Willy Tsao’s BeijingDance LDTX thunders into Tel Aviv in mid-February.

Chinese Dance 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Chinese Dance 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In 2005, when Willy Tsao was finally permitted to name his dance troupe, the words “thunder rumbling under heaven” came to mind. Tsao, a longtime figure in the Chinese artistic community, had grown tired of the technical-sounding names of the companies in his country, he explained. Now in its seventh season, Beijing- Dance LDTX (Lei Dong Tian Xi, which means “thunder rumbling under heaven”) was one of the first dance companies in China to receive artistic autonomy, free of the restrictions of the conservative government.
BeijingDance LDTX will visit Israel in mid-February as part of the Spring Chinese Dance Festival at the Suzanne Dellal Center. Celebrating the year of the rabbit, SDC has invited BeijingDance LDTX, as well as a group of Shaolin monks to perform in Tel Aviv.
“Before 2005, when the government passed a law that the independent private sector could run a private company, all the performing arts companies were state supported.
They all had very dull names like Beijing Dance Company, very technical names. I think those are very boring names.When we started this company with individual freedom of expression, we chose a name that we liked. I thought the name sounded very majestic with a lot of power, and it fit very well with the image of the company,” Tsao explains to The Jerusalem Post.
Tsao is a humble and gentle man, with a lovely speaking voice full of passion and patience. He is credited with bringing contemporary dance to China and is often referred to as “the godfather of dance.”
TSAO WAS born in Hong Kong in the 1950s to a wealthy family. He still plays an important role in running two family businesses – a printing press and a garment factory. Like many young men in China, Tsao began dancing at an early age. In 1979, he founded his first company in Hong Kong called City Contemporary Dance Company. In the 15 years following, Tsao succeeded in convincing the proper authorities to establish and fund similar companies in Guangdong and Beijing.
Today, these three ensembles are the leading dance troupes in China.
In the beginning, Tsao explains, the Chinese public was reluctant to accept contemporary dance as a viable art form. “In the past few hundred years, because of feudalism or imperialism, our sense of freedom was blocked.
The sense of freedom, the respect for the individual, it’s all in the culture itself. That was the preaching of Lao Tsu.
Many artists demonstrated these ideas in ancient times.
When the government decided to open the door and be part of modern, contemporary civilization, they found many things in the past that were very valuable. Modern dance came to China and created awareness of the past culture that included respect for the individual and respect for the body. It’s a very good thing that contemporary dance came to China and revitalized ancient Chinese culture, which put an emphasis on individualism and the human being as a harmonizing factor in the universe,” says Tsao.
In addition to supervising three companies and two factories, Tsao is the artistic director and organizer of several festivals in China, where emerging dance artists are encouraged to show their work.
“I think contemporary dance in China is growing rapidly.
There are a lot of young students who are very interested in dance. Whenever we perform in big theaters, they are packed. The young people stay behind to ask questions and meet the performers, to take classes. It’s a growing thing in the major cities. In the smaller cities, there are a few choreographers doing experimental work.
That’s why we established the festivals, to have the young people come and share, show their work and have the opportunity to see other companies’ works,” he says.
Within the walls of his own company, Tsao is a mentor to many choreographers. Though he does choreograph an occasional piece for BeijingDance, the company’s repertoire consists mainly of works created by other artists.
“Most of the choreographers are from the company itself. Every year we have choreography workshops for the dancers; they are encouraged to create their own work. Some of them are very good and become more and more involved. Gradually they become major choreographers in the company,” says Tsao.
Although his own work is usually inspired by ancient Chinese literature, Tsao urges each artist to pursue his or her own choreographic expression.
Taking a step back from the day-to-day activities of a choreographer was difficult but necessary for Tsao, he explains. “Right now my basic aim is to be a kind of guardian of my three companies, to be above the everyday work, to look at things from a higher perspective and to see what is needed in the general development of contemporary dance in China. It puts me in a very detached position, but I’m also very involved.”
BeijingDance LDTX will perform at the Suzanne Dellal Center on February 14 and 15. For tickets, visit www.suzannedellal.org.il or call (03) 510-5656.