Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Amy Wilkinson, Dancer

(Journal Entry May 12)

When was the last time you were really and truly a beginner at something? As dancers who've been working at our craft - many of us for over 20 years - it is rare to find ourselves learning a new discipline as genuine students exploring how the body works - its strangeness, its awkward limitations, its possibilities. All of us are teachers as well as performers and it is not often we see our work with a fresh perspective.

And yet nothing strengthens art or gives it more life and vibrancy than bringing new forces to bear upon it.

Today in our first traditional Chinese folk dance class with the students at Nanjing Normal University I began to see how the experience of traveling to China will impact CDI's artistic vision and work in the future. Together we watched with great fascination and awe, the incredible precision and subtlety with which the dancers performed their classical pieces - each complete with unique costuming and music. There was charm, beauty, delicacy, and strength in each of the pieces - and the unison movement (something CDI generally eschews in favor of more layered and complex movement patterns) was stunning. Following the demonstration, we were invited to learn our favorite section of movement. And while we couldn't often understand the words being spoken - physical meanings started to become clear. Together, with much fumbling on our part and much patience on theirs, we translated the steps. More than that, we began to connect with these individuals who we've travelled half the world to see. And this made us feel ALIVE.

The following excerpt, sent by someone dear to me at the start of this trip, has now increased in relevance in light of what the dancers encountered today in the studio:

"Only the walker who sets out toward ultimate things is a pilgrim. In this lies the terrible difference between tourist and pilgrim. The tourist travels just as far, sometimes with great zeal and courage, gathering up acquisitions (a string of adventures, a wondrous tale or two) and returns the same person as the one who departed...The pilgrim is different. The pilgrim resolves that the one who returns will not be the same person as the one who set out. Pilgrimage is a passage for the reckless and subtle. The pilgrim - and the metaphor comes to us from distant times - must be prepared to shed the husk of personality or even the body like a worn out coat." - Andrew Schelling, Meeting the Buddha

We will continue our endeavors with as much wisdom, good will, and courage as we possess - Wish us luck!

Amy Wilkinson, Dancer

(Journal Entry May 13)


A word on Chinese cooking: They serve enormous amounts of food here. Those of you who know me as a bottomless pit when it comes to culinary delights might be surprised to learn that the Chinese can out eat me pound for pound breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There are at least 9 courses (tonight's dinner was about 20) for every meal, and we have learned that the dining experience does not end until the watermelon hits the table.

Some things I've had while here: fried duck, duck hearts, duck blood soup, black tea-dyed eggs, mung bean crackers, dumplings and gelatins of all shapes and colors, blueberry potato chips, and more veggies than I've had in the past five years. There are eels, squid, scallops, chicken and fish served flattened with heads intact, and yesterday I watched Jamie pop the head off a shrimp prior to eating it - forgetting about the little legs that were still attached. Tonight we were served the most incredible smelling tofu dish any of us has ever encountered, the detailed description of which I will leave to my dear colleagues accompanying me on this journey.

Like many things Chinese, there is a level of detail and precision that goes into every dish. Far beyond the ingredients and combination of flavors, there is an attention to presentation that is incredibly artistic. Many things come in rice paper like little exquisitely wrapped Christmas presents; many are served with orchid flowers on the plate, or in huge ceramic soup turrines. The meals are beautiful actually. And they spin merry-go-round style on enormous lazy susans. Some tables seating upwards of twenty people.

The food in any place says a lot about culture, and in China where there is an emphasis on tradition, there is also a kind of nationalistic pride in the cuisine. Team CDI has been adventurous and enthusiastic about exploring this aspect of our host country. Now, if we could only get ice cold beer...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Jorge Quintero, Dancer

(Journal Entry May 8)

Next stop the silk mill! I knew that silk was made from the cocoons of certain caterpillars, but the process is much more intricate than I expected. The caterpillars take 30 days to develop into moths, but the process is stunted because the cocoons need to be preserved. So before they hatch, the cocoons are boiled and soaked, and the protein fibers are unravelled to create silk thread. Sometimes the cocoons have two worms in them, twin moths. It happens naturally in nature, the Chinese don't mess with genetics to produce twin moths. They just allow nature to produce them. This occurrence provides much bigger cocoons. The cocoons are soaked, then a lady opens the cocoons in half, and then stretches them over an arched holder. The fibers are allowed to dry and then the now stretched cocoons are pulled in four different directions to make a duvet insert.

The silk mill was amazing to visit. They have a showroom exhibiting the different items such as painting, duvets, bed sheets, curtains, and home decorations and you can buy them there very cheap. The Chinese government guards the process by which silk is made very carefully. It is a tradition that is passed from generation to generation. Apparently the workers who make the silk get paid very good wages to do so.

The cocoons also provided an idea for a piece, or at least an image to put in a piece. Two dancers all in a cocoon. The cocoon stretches creating distinguished shapes. Just before the cocoon hatches, the life of the twin moths are extinguished so that the fibers can be used to make something beautiful. This is a metaphor for life. Sometimes something more beautiful comes from a place one never thought of.

Erin Polanshek, Dancer

(Journal Entry May 13)

I have to write about our experience today. It was amazing and just what I had hoped this trip would be.

Yesterday we noticed most of the kids being really excited about jazz and hip hop so we decided that would be our focus in class today. When we came in and Venetia told them what we would be doing, they started screaming and cheering with excitement. Jamie started with the warm-up. they did really well and clapped after every combination. They all love Jamie's energy. The have a really hard time with parallel and grounded work. Also sequencing through their bodies. Next Steph did a classical jazz combo. They picked it up quickly and could quickly do it alone. I went next and contrasted to Steph's classical combo with a west coast one. I'm so glad that I got the opportunity to do that, it was awesome. After the first four counts they began screaming and clapping. I threw it at them quickly and some of the really grabbed onto it. You could tell they were so happy to be free and themselves. There were some that really stood out and just took it all in. Garrett was next with hip hop. We got them all pumped up and screaming and hollering. You could tell how much they loved to let go.

After class they couldn't stop smiling and when Venetia said, "I hope you had a good time," a girl jumped out of the crowd and yelled "I am so happy!!" like she couldn't stop the words from coming out of her mouth. Like her soul was so full of happiness that it just burst out. When they were dismissed all of the teachers were rushed with hugs, kisses and girls that wouldn't stop holding our hands and arms. One at a time I think I think I was hugged by every girl. Pictures were taken and it made our hearts so happy. That two hours made the whole trip worth it :)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Jamie Farrell, Dancer

(Journal Entry May 11)

We woke up early to a wonderful carb-stuffed breakfast. Then we walked to the music/dance department for a welcome meeting. As we approached the facility, there was a huge sign being hung welcoming us. There were also other signs announcing our arrival.

The meeting was again awkward, but important topics got talked that needed to be. It was here that we enjoyed dragon fruit in little spiky crusts with a seed in the center. Mmmm so good!! We took a short tour of the dance studios while students were in class. We went to check out the theater. It will be great for our show. The dancers were getting ansy so they began dancing outside while we were waiting for the techies to finish gathering info.

We enjoyed a regular Chinese style lunch that was so hard to eat since it was so hot. We observed Chinese National Folk Dance class, which was basically a performance of four (Korean, Russian, South East China, China) dances. It was so great to see the variety. At the end, CDI joined to learn a portion of our favorite, the Korean dance. It was so hard to learn not knowing if they were saying "yes" or "no", "do this" or "don't do that." The isolations and details were the hardest to pick up. The students were so excited to see us trying their style and I found it to be exhilarating.

(Journal Entry May 12)

We watched a Classical Dance class which started with a barre like a contemporary ballet class. It was so beautiful to watch; they all looked so perfect in unison. They did a short in-studio performance of folk dances. We joined them to learn a few tricks with the red sparkly flower props. It was so hard for me, but I also have zero hand-eye coordination. The students were so helpful in teaching us about paying attention to detail and technique. It was interesting to see that there was no room for interpretation for creating new movement. Chinese tradition is set and there is no room for adding your own flavor.

Victor led a class at 2 PM that was so hard. It was a great 2 hour class! Hope I can incorporate some of the ways he puts movements together into my classes. From the beginning they are constantly changing facings, levels, etc. Everything is blended to feel more like choreography than exercising.

Erin Polanshek, Dancer

(Journal Entry May 10)

We arrived in Nanajing, a welcomed change. It is hilly and green, and seems to be a lot cleaner than Shanghai. The water smells and tastes better. We arrived after a long day of traveling and then had 45 minutes to clean up for dinner. Our hosts welcomed us and the dinning room was beautiful. The food is up and down for me. It is all hot which is hard to eat when its 85 degrees outside. It seems like you have the same stuff for breakfast, lunch and dinner... but I'm hanging in there.

(Journal Entry May 11)

We just got back from checking out the theater. I think it will be perfect. The floor is the only thing we worry about because it is so sticky. The space is great! We are soon off to watch and then take class. We are all excited to get moving. The sitting and waiting are getting to all of us and we are ready to do what we came here for!

(Journal Entry May 11)

The first day of the residency! It was an easy day today. Meeting, checking out the theater, lunch, and then observed, took class and rehearsed. It's very interesting to have translators and to really just not be able to communicate with someone. The professors hardly know any English but the students are pretty fluent. They surprised us at first with how well they knew English.

At 2 PM they performed different types of folk dances from different areas. One from a district close to Russia, one from Korea, one from southeastern China, and ...? They were all so beautiful. Graceful unison that seemed simple until you tried to learn it... new isolations are hard to learn and this was no exception. A lot of the movement was so small that when they actually did a level or formation change it was really exciting and surprising. Everything was so specific and detailed. I wonder what they thought of our rehearsal? Our pieces must look so chaotic and crazy in comparison. They students are extremely sweet and helpful. You can just tell they are so excited to have us here. I'm really looking forward to getting to interact with them more tomorrow and take class with them. Victor is teaching tomorrow and they will be learning part of "Gospel". We watched their Chinese classical dance class today, which is very similar to ballet. They were great. Good movers and pretty strong technically. I think they will really be able to keep up.

Official Dinner with our hosts in Nanjing

Jamie Farrell, Dancer

(Journal Entry May 10, Nanjing)

After getting lost once again on the road, we arrived at a fabulous restaurant and a half hour late for lunch. We went to Dr. Sun Yat-sen's Mausoleum where we embarked on a steamy, sweaty journey up over 200 stairs to his place of burial. After another 45 minute trek, we checked into our hotel and met our guide, Maria. That night we were invited to a welcome dinner with the head of the dance department, the dean of music school, and some dance teachers.

This "event" proved to be very awkward. While we have been in China for a few days, we have not come close to communicating with them unguided...and able to ask questions. We first sat down at a round table set to seat 20 with a 6 ft lazy susan in the center. As I looked around the table, all the Americans were seated silently with hands clasped in their laps, waiting to be prompted on the next respectful step. At first it was interesting to hear questions or statements, hear the translation, hear the response and hear the translation again. But that soon got to be a long process to sit through. While its necessary...but long. I didn't enjoy the meal this night. It was funny to deal the student waitresses circling the table and serving us portions. Previously we have been using and used to the self-serve method. But this was slightly different with only some dishes in the center. If you were paying attention you could politely accept or refuse the offering. However, if you happened to be engaged in a conversation with your back to the waitress, you would have a pile of goodies left on your plate when you continued eating. Apparently in Chinese culture, wine is offered sip by sip. As indulgent as we are, this didn't sit well with us wine lovers. The waitresses literally had to run around the table to refill our glasses every minute. It's also rude to eat all the food from your plate or drink all of your beverage, as its a gesture that the host has not given you enough. So... this was a weird balance of trying not to be rude but ask for more... After dinner, we headed to the rooms to shower up and unpack while we waited for Venetia to finish a meeting to talk about the next day's responsibilities.

Keith Elliott, Company Manager

The Ponds Edge…
Tong Li Water Town

Watching the multi colored array of coy (Koi) aimlessly meander in the meditation pond, I started to think how wonderful life may be for these brightly colored jewels of the pond. They move with grace and beauty within the water occasionally creating a ripple as they pierce the surface. Upon further observation, I realized they do move with an odd sense of purpose. Was it to find food, join a group of other Coy or head to the cooler depths of the pond? Always slow and methodical in their movement, their direction would change with a flick of their tail fin. They would head to the opposite side of the pond and change direction once again because the ponds edge was their limit.

I momentarily pondered the fact that unlike Coy, we do not have a “Ponds Edge” to stunt our movement. We are presented with a multitude of possibilities in life and although we may change direction, there are no limits or boundaries to what we can do or accomplish. How lucky are we to have unlimited possibilities?

We all too often have moments of self imposed boundaries (perhaps fear or comfort level) but the potential for growth exists if only we choose to expand beyond the ponds edge.

A Way Of Life… …Tong Li Water Town

Experiencing Water Town for the first time was amazing at best. A brisk walk along the river and one Rickshaw ride later, I quickly settled into the traditions of this town’s simple way of life. It was tranquil at every corner and bridge crossing that lined the river. Serenity seemed to be in abundance here and something that I enjoyed taping into if only for one day. Even the eyes of the vendors along the street emulated the peacefulness that surrounded this village.

Is this unflustered life style something worth incorporating into my Western approach to living? Heck yeah…bring it on! The journey to discover a quieter way of life will be a challenge for me but I will simply think about the smiles of the Water Town villagers and the happiness they possessed.

I will often consider the time spent in Water Town as my mind’s eye “quiet place” when things start to bustle once again.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Shanghai, Yuyuan Garden

Jacob Snodgrass, Tech Crew

(Journal Entry May 6)

So it begins...14 hours on a plane. It's not totally packed but its crowded enough. I suppose I should get use to it. My calves are like rocks. It'll be great to get some room to stretch them. But white businessmen are blocking up the open spaces.

I'm thinking about my tiny amount of travel experiences. I think my favorite part is seeing people that don't look like me. My preconceived ideas about this trip involve crowds – lots of them. I also anticipate that things will be dirty and grimy, at least in Beijing. But I also expect walls of smiling faces. I fear that the formality of Chinese culture may be a little odd for me, and that it may delay personal connections with individuals. But this is the culture that advanced European learning out of the Dark Ages through one Papal meeting, so I'm fully expecting to be amazed.

(Journal Entry May 8)

Tear down and build new: The Shanghai construction model.

A constant din of jackhammers, cranes, and construction workers yelling over their machines. Something that I can only assume never fully goes away for both geographic and construction unions' sake. I do love the volume of bicycles and motorbikes in use here. There is, however, so much vehicular traffic it makes Chicago rush hour seem like nothing...

But now as I watch dawn break over the Huangpu river there is magic to this place as it comes alive. The lights of the skyline of Pudong were also fairly amazing last night, but in the daylight most of the new buildings are simply skyscrapers like you would see anywhere else.

The sunrise over Shanghai is exactly the way I pictured; a fiery orange ball, rays shrouded by haze. The tankers and freighters lining up on the Huangpu. Wow it gets hot here fast. It's only 7 AM and already its humid and sweaty. The sun turns almost white in the morning haze. I do hope that I wake up early every morning as this by far is my favorite time of the day here. I guess we will see as I enter into our first full day. Site-seeing here we come!

The garden was a wonderful sanctuary. It was so cool and pleasant. The dust of Shanghai stayed outside of its dragon guarded walls. The light plays through wooden panels and bounces off the ponds to create a sense of tranquility. I could have spent the whole day relaxing and exploring the winding pathways...

The silk factory was an interesting and educational experience. I now know that I wish to eat friend silk worm. But where to find it?

(Journal Entry May 8)

Victor and I must make an unusual pair walking amongst the primarily Han population. I believe that as many pictures as we have taken there were at least as many taken of us. I appreciate the mutual fascination.

At night we went out on a boat cruise on the Huangpu. A truly touristy thing to do for sure, but I do love getting out on the water anywhere I go. The Pudong skyline is technologically amazing. the towers and the lights were something not easily put into words or justified by my photos. On the boat I got to talk to a young Chinese woman named "Gracie" who was a middle school English teacher from a smaller town west of Nanjing. She asked me about Chicago and we discussed the differences between Shanghai and the other cities we'll be traveling to. She told me that she was seeing Shanghai for the first time as well.

It's interesting to me how willing the women are to approach me and ask questions. The men seem less bold. Often times it will begin with asking if it is OK to take a photo with me. I really enjoy the fact that as of right now there are at least six photos of me in this country.

Garrett Jones, Dancer

(Journal Entry May 6)

We have lift off!! Today about two hours ago we took off to China. Everything at O'Hare went OK. I did have a mini freakout because I was the first person there and I didn't find anyone else until we almost boarded. Just the flight is already different from anything I've done before. When I looked at the people waiting to get on the plane, I kept thinking how our roles are reversed. I am the stranger going to a different place and they are just going home.

(Journal Entry May 7)

Finally we get here! Actually the flight was not that bad. I think no one should have to sit for that long. When we arrived, a crew boarded and screened everyone for swine flu....REALLY?!!!

Shanghai is beautiful!! it is very urban and growing!! There is construction everywhere. Shanghai has some type of world expo coming here so it looks like they are remaking the whole city. To me it seems that the Chinese care alot about appearance to the rest of the world.

Once we've checked in all of us went to get something to eat. This will be my struggle. Out of the ten dishes brought out, I believe I tried four. What can I say... I'm a picky eater.

(Journal Entry May 8)

The sunrise is so early here!! The sun came up at 4:30 AM. I've been awake since 3:00 AM. My body is still getting used to the time change.

I've been doing a lot of people watching while we have been visiting around. People here seem very Western, or at least they dress that way. Style here is not quite Jap-Punk, and more like Chicago with little differences. They have the same type of stores so I guess it is not surprising.

Poor Amy... I know my insomnia is keeping her awake!!

We have just gone to the museum, and guess what... its a museum. There were alot of nice things but the most interesting thing was a paradox I found. The exhibits were not very well lit until you walked up to them. Once you were up close the lights would brighten to show the exhibit.

These people do not like to waste.

Victor Ramirez Pages, Dancer

(Journal Entry May 9)

Everything becomes more interesting at 5:30 in the morning. Walking by Nanjing Road you get the real life and breath of the Chinese people. So many people practicing Tai Chi on the street in People's Square! After this walk is a beautiful park, where the breath becomes even more intense and real because of the intersection with the older generations. Walking further into the woods you see everyone doing their own morning workout. But it's not just excercising your body, it seems to be also about making your spirit and soul ready for the rest of the day; capturing new energy, fresh air massaging your body, yelling to let it all out.

A few minutes after watching this tradition, I found an outdoor gym. They let Jacob and myself share with them. You can tell that it was something different for them to have a Westerner there, but they offered us what they have. I am so grateful for that. Personally, there are a few great moments in my life that become really important – this visit to the People's Square has become one of them.

Shanghai, 6 AM

Michael Hugos, Board Chairman

The Business of Art

Beneath the Chinese characters on a sign outside the business school at the Nanjing Normal University (NNU) there were these words in English:

A head for business,

A heart for the world.

The International Dance Learning project is here to focus on that second line yet its connection to the first line is unmistakable.

We were officially welcomed this morning to the Music School at NNU by its dean, Professor Yu Zizheng. In his remarks, he said he was interested in strengthening the exchange program between his university and Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) where CDI’s artistic director is a professor in the Music Department and head of the dance program there. One of the ways he wanted to do this is to include his colleagues in the NNU business school and arrange for exchanges of students and professors with NEIU business school.

As a business person myself who is devoted to the arts, this idea got my attention. Art and business might seem like opposites (and perhaps they are) but I think they need each other and each grows stronger when combined with the other.

The words on the sign outside the business school here bring to mind a famous essay by Thomas Jefferson titled “A Dialog Between My Head and My Heart”. Thomas Jefferson put it so well, let me quote a couple of passages from that essay:

HEAD – You must learn to look forward before you take a step which may interest our peace. Everything in this world is a matter of calculations… The art of life is the art of avoiding pain and he is the best pilot who steers clearest of the rocks and shoals with which he is beset.

HEART – When nature assigned us the same habitation, she gave us over it a divided empire. To you she allotted the field of science; to me that of morals… Morals were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the uncertain combinations of the head.

Even in art there are the long negotiations to determine what will happen and when they will happen and by whom. Those negotiations have been going on for several months and today they came to their conclusion. This is the business of it all.

But for any negotiation to have meaning and depth it has to connect with the heart. A contract is only words; for those words to come alive they must have a heart. This is art; art gives life to business.

Businessmen negotiate and artists collaborate. Negotiation without collaboration has no chance of becoming reality. And collaboration without negotiation has no guidance to reach its destination.

Amy Wilkinson, Dancer

West meets the East!

Most of us woke up to a beautiful rosy sunrise yesterday at 4 O'Clock a.m. - those of us who hadn't woken up already at 1 O'Clock a.m. anyway. After a continental breakfast at the top of the hotel, which overlooks all of Shanghai, our tour guide picked us up and whisked us away for our first true day of exploring China. Our bus is called The Golden Dragon. There are lots of golden things here - the Golden Panther restaurant, The Golden Lion gate, bridge, bank, etc. It is making me a bit wistful for a Golden Nugget breakfast back in Chicago - but I digress.

Three words to describe Shanghai so far: Bustling, Eclectic (this one's Garrett's), and Whimsical. You see red paper lanterns, stone figures, and Chinese characters against grand modern architecture, extraordinarily vertical sky-scrapers lit-up like pop-rocks candy, little old ladies group exercising to Rihanna songs in the park, and Nike signs. Lots of Nike signs. There is always a background noise of construction, tires screeching, and horns honking.

It is a bit like the Chinese calligraphy we saw in the Shanghai museum (a mammoth structure built to resemble an ancient bronze cooking pot) some of it is elegant, some aggressive, some soft and feminine, some formal and inscrutable.

At first appearance, there is little to distinguish Shanghai as part of a Communist country. More than anything there is the general hustle of urban living. But then there are the little things that come up to remind us. We have internet access at our hotel and yet we are unable to pull up any of the live news feeds from the U.S. And today while exploring the alleyways and canals in Tong-li, the water village two hours outside of Shanghai, I found a stall carrying stacks of copies of Chairman Mao's Little Red Book.

I also found out that young and educated Chinese people do not like to talk about politics, particularly in public. As our tour guide described it, people are free to express what they like, however; saying something negative about the government or about the situation in Tibet, for example, can result in a "black mark" on your reputation which can haunt you if you ever attempt to get a government job. The wife of an ex-pat friend now living here said, "We don't care about politics, we just want to make sure we can have a good life".

These days, it seems this sentiment could be voiced by many Americans as well.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Amy Wilkinson, Dancer

Nee How from Shanghai! Or as the Shanghaians say - No-haw.

So after the usual travel snafus (I over packed my bag and had to unload stuff curbside at O'Hare) and being given the wrong boarding pass three times by our ticketing agent at check-in - CDI. made it onto the plane. Upon landing in Shanghai we were boarded by men and women, in biohazard suits with goggles and latex gloves rubber-banded at the wrists, who proceeded to individually screen us with laser thermometers for swine flu. It's not every day you are part of a global pandemic! Now however, we are safely installed in our lovely Shanghai hotel The Bund Riverside! Our rooms overlook the Huangpu River and the Pudong district with its gorgeous modern architecture crowned by the Oriental Pearl Tower. The city is extraordinary with 27 million people and construction absolutely everywhere as the country prepares for the World Expo in 2010.

Our 24 hours of strait traveling was concluded with a lovely dinner at the Yang Guang Hotel where the meal was served family style on a table sized lazy susan - in general the CDI dancers are planning to ward off jet-lag with Chinese beer, daily massages, dumplings, and pure excitement - so far so good!

More to come and love to all back home!

Shanghai Arrival

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Silvino da Silva, Director of Marketing

"When in Rome – do as the Romans!" These were the words spoken to us by our young and energetic guide in Shanghai, Alex, as we traveled from the airport to our hotel. How appropriate, I thought. How cool. Leave our Western crutches behind and take that leap of faith into the unknown. Immerse ourselves in the local.

We're here to explore and share ideas of culture. Not only the kind of culture that deals with the arts, but the culture that also embodies a people. Concepts of "us" and "them." How we think. How we act. How they think. How they act.

CDI has a dance in its repertoire called "Meetings Along the Edge" which will be performed when we have our concert in NanJing next week. In a great sense, that dance embodies the entire trip. It's choreographed without actual counts. Which means that while all the movements are set, the dance can alter slightly from performance to performance based on how the dancers interact with each other. A metaphor that explores the subtle and not-so-subtle nuances of cultural influences, leaving each slightly altered from this contact, "Meetings" used a fusion of Iranian music and a collaborative composition between Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass.

Just as each dancer is influenced by moments of contact from another dancer, I'm expecting that each one of us on this trip will also be influenced by this new outside contact. How could we not? Already I am seeing how we have started memorizing more and more of the language, using it in new (and probably to the dismay of the Chinese) innovative ways. Last night at dinner the only way that we could remember the name for "hot sauce" was to incorporate it into the children's nursery rhyme of "three blind mice." And, the phrase for "no, thank you" is strikingly similar to our own colorful phrase for when we think something is definitely not true – "bull shit."

We've been putting that last saying into action on a regular basis. Overly aggressive street vendors have discovered just how creative we can be with language-blending.

Ah, the sweet freedom of immersion!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Amy Wilkinson, Dancer

My condo looks like a cross between a burglary and a packing hurricane. Shoes. Laundry. “Definitely take” and “maybe take” piles here and there - travel documents and toiletries spread hither and yon. And of course there are a variety of packing conundrums to solve. For example: How do I pack my Q-tips so they don’t scatter all over my bag? Will 6 double A batteries be enough to last the trip? Where did I put my travel eye glasses? Do I bring ear plugs for my roommate in case I snore??? There are final bills to pay, plants to water, and friends to say goodbye to – many details and last minute preparations for a two week excursion abroad.

Underneath this superficial chaos is a thrill that runs like an electrical current. It is the thrill of adventure and of seeking the unknown. Travel, like art-making, requires you to experience each moment fully in a way that we are not often forced to in everyday life. While I am driving to work, let’s say, I am often thinking about picking up milk at the supermarket, or worrying as to whether or not I left the coffee maker on, or wondering if the gray hair I see in the rearview mirror is actually a figment of my imagination. There is no urgency to the experience of driving to work for the 10000th time – no need to soak up the sensory stimulation of sitting in familiar traffic in the city that is home. This changes when you travel. Every moment provides a new perspective, a new challenge, a new view. Nothing is mundane - Everything is exciting.

Dancers know the feeling of total commitment to the moment. It is one of the reasons we do what we do – surrendering to the experience of now. When a dancer does this the performance is magnetic.

With this trip C.D.I is combining dance and travel and therefore heightening the experience of both. My hope is that we will all be open to the adventure. China will undoubtedly be a place of great beauty and complexity and I think I speak for everyone when I say we're all so excited to embrace the opportunity to travel there. Next stop Shanghai dumplings!!

Michael Hugos, Board Chairman

Going to China for Art and Business

(excerpt from Michael Hugos' blog in CIO Magazine)

The what’s-next-after-the-meltdown world now taking shape comes in part from the mixing of China and America; the mixing of the world’s largest population with the world’s largest economy. China is the Yin to America’s Yang. We are opposites in so many ways, yet since China is perhaps the epitome of eastern culture and America is perhaps the epitome of western culture, it’s safe to imagine a future heavily influenced by a blend of the art, business, science and politics of these two countries.

Over the next three weeks I’ll be traveling in China for art and business. Art is what brings me to China this time, and business is what may bring me back next time.

Art brings me to China because I’m chairman of the board of a Chicago contemporary dance company and the company artistic director has gotten a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to take the company to China. They will be in residence for a week at Nanjing Normal University where they’ll learn Chinese dance and teach American dance. The company is Concert Dance Inc. (CDI) and the artistic director of the company, Venetia Stifler, is also a professor in the Music and Dance department at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. The trip is part of an exchange program called the “International Dance Learning Project” sponsored by the two universities. The dancers and Venetia will be documenting their experiences with daily updates of pictures, video and essays posted to the company’s blog “CDI Travels to China”.

Doing Prep Work to Make the Most of this Opportunity

In addition to time in Nanjing, we’ll also spend several days in Shanghai where I'm scheduling some business meetings, and Beijing where I'll be the featured speaker at a seminar on agile supply chains. Everybody from the dancers to the tech crew and the marketing director and me has been getting ready and reading books on Chinese culture, etiquette and business customs to prepare ourselves. I’ve found out a few things that will be helpful.

One of the most important things is the pervasive influence of two concepts expressed in the words “mainzi” and “guanxi”. Mainzi is the concept of face or your personal prestige and standing in your community. Guanxi is the concept of your social and business network, the people you know and the favors you have done for them that entitle you to ask for favors in return. (Chinese words here are spelled in the Latin alphabet using the pinyin Romanization system of the People’s Republic of China.)

I also learned that the Chinese are very careful not to say anything in public that would cause a possible loss of face (mainzi). As a consequence, Chinese have many ways of saying yes, but they rarely come right out and say no because it would cause embarrassment and loss of face.

This is illustrated by the fact that in Chinese there aren't any words for "yes" or "no"; instead positive and negative replies are made in the context of the question being asked. A Chinese word close to yes is “shr” meaning “is” or “is definitely” (shr sounds like the Chicago pronunciation of the English word “sure”). A phrase close to no is “bu shr” meaning “is not” or “not definitely”; the word “bu” negates what follows. So when you make a suggestion that people like, they’ll reply with a variation of shr and offer specific steps to make your suggestion become a reality. When you make a suggestion people don’t like, they'll reply with a variation of bu shr; it will be non-committal or vague. This means they’re not very interested; they’ll think about it; and don't push your suggestion any further.

Venetia Stifler, Artistic Director

Approximately 36 hours and counting before lift off to Shanghai, China. At this moment I feel the need for a nap. After each project Venetia Stifler & CDI completes, I promise myself to never again do another. So how come I’m leading 17 people to China?

I’m doing it again because in my head it seemed exotic and fun. The Forbidden City and the Emperor’s Palace, The water City, the Great Wall, the Pearl market. The dancers and I are walking amidst crowded streets, crushed by people going in all directions. The smells of unfamiliar spices tickling our noses while we hunt for tasty morsels not available in the US. I imagine falling into a vat of pearls, losing myself in the other worldliness of it all.

A very dear friend of mine reminded me that once I arrive in China, I must absorb every single moment – stay calm and really see. I’ve thought about my friend’s advice because it’s the very thing I needed to hear. Artistic Directors sometime forget to stop worrying and just enjoy the ride. We’ve done all we can to be prepared for our teaching and performances and now its time to let go and let the experience unfold.

Yeah right!!!! The little voice in my head says. What if this happens? What if that happens? What if the Chinese think we’re crazy? What if they don’t like us? What if we loose the costumes? What if I say the wrong thing? I’ll ruin US–China relations for the next decade. I feel so responsible!!!!

Be quiet! I say to my little voice. Go take a nap.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Ruth Page Dance Series presents
CDI/Concert Dance Inc and The China Project
April 1-3, 2010 • 8 PM

“Striking…searing dance.” Chicago Tribune

The culmination of CDI’s cultural exchange to China in May 2009, The China Project will be the company’s performance presentation based on their two-week journey and exploration of the Chinese dance aesthetic. The China Project will allow CDI to perform and present its unique brand of American contemporary dance to an international audience, but also create the stepping stones of a new world premiere work being presented during the NEIU performances. Through travel logs of their experiences in China created by the dancers and artistic director, this new multi-media work will explore how the company’s perceptions and realities were affected by a 3000 year-old culture that remains unbroken.