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Why Modern Dance? And Why Me?

I am not a dancer. Let me correct myself. I am no longer a dancer. After a passionate affair with modern dance and hip hop in my adolescence, I have stopped moving my body to the beat. I do occasionally swing and pirouette, but this is more a once-a-month phenomenon—short-lived, yet potent. But dance as a form of art has never really left me. In fact, it’s become a sanctuary.

I grew up watching modern dance. When my friends went fishing or camping with their family, I spent my weekend evenings at a concert hall, watching my mom’s company put on her work. When I left the nest of my parents into another quarantine at Phillips Academy Andover, I found myself in dance studios and performance halls. From time to time, I ventured out of the small town. Sometimes I explored Harvard Square, other times Newbury Street, as many students opened their eyes to consumerism as a way of creating one’s identity. But the trips I made solely on my own was to the Wang Theater. I used to save money for a few months to see the Alvin Ailey company perform. Frankly, I often found it hard to stay focused throughout the show. After all, my mind was occupied by SATs, AP exams, and college applications. Nevertheless, I somehow managed to end up in a dance theater with much keenness.

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This ritual continued when I moved to England. Going to Sadler’s Wells on my own became one of my prized pastime activities. Like my research rituals of going to Christie’s after the British Library, this felt sacred. These trips were meant to be done alone. The moment I took my seat and the lights went off, I was lost in an intense and intimate dialogue with the dancers and the choreographer. Examining each turn, surveying the dancers’ physical and facial muscles, I was on a quest to figure out the motive of the choreographer. What was he or she trying to convey? Why these moves? Why this music and these props?

In retrospect, I was trying to make my way back to my past, to my childhood, to my mother. Modern dance was a sanctuary, a space of familiarity, in which I felt at home. It was, after all, my mother’s life. But curiously, and perhaps more importantly, it was training me to be a historian. Just like primary sources and secondary literature that frame historians’ argument, the body unfolds the dilemma, thought-process, and meaning of the choreographer whilst the carefully chosen music and stage props guide the viewer into a path of comprehension.

But it also deals with time. From its inception, modern dance was a reaction to its time. Whether rebelling against the rigidity of ballet or pushing the comfort zone of the audience, modern dance simultaneously rips the mold of tradition, whilst also breaking the norms of the present. As the body paints a story in the three-dimensional canvas called stage, it also takes the audience to a different temporal dimension. A cumulative time unfurling the many years of creative anguish; the moment of the spectacle; and the zeitgeist the choreographer is commenting on or critiquing. One should be alert and aware of these layers of time.

With the advancement of technology and the allure of sensationalism, the boundary between performance art and modern dance has become thinner. There is a slight problem with this. Whilst performance art is meant to leave the audience in contemplation, it often deserts them in the state of befuddlement that often leads to disappointment. As many choreographers began to use gimmicks like nudity, modern dance has also lent itself to ridicule.

However, the artists reviewed in these pages adroitly walk on this thin wall between modern dance and performance art. What makes their balance steady is their meticulous thought, hours of reflection, and innovative collaborations. With this in mind, I invite you to piece together the various strands of time expressed through movement.

Up next New York, 2007 Akram Khan’s Xenos
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