Winter 1999. There was a tense atmosphere in the small theater, which belonged to the Beijing People's Art Theater. It was just before the world premiere of Report on Giving Birth by choreographer and dancer Wen Hui, a production by her Living Dance Studio, independent of the government, which was showing a work for the first time in the center of the capital. Admission was free, the theater was packed, there was no seating, and the audience was free to move around. The stage area was covered with colorful bed sheets. A white, large, padded bedspread hung in the room. A woman in an everyday dress was already sitting at the dining table, narrating to herself, while a man was sleeping »on stage« under the bedspread, as if he were at home. The first image we encountered was so familiar, as if taken from our daily lives. Everyone was extremely excited because everything looked different from what we were used to in the theater.
After more than 20 years now, I can still remember that evening, the impressive images and the pain evoked by the movements and the narrations, mostly spoken in dialect. The hanging bedspread, sewn together from small blankets, serves as a projection surface interwoven with the play, giving it an extra level of documentary (storytelling). The mothers of the performers were projected onto it, recounting their experiences of pregnancy, birth and motherhood, material that had emerged from Wen Hui's numerous conversations with them. Filmmaker Wu Wenguang interviewed the dancers present during the performance with a video camera and transferred their faces live onto the bedspread. The use of materials from everyday life - a typical feature of Wen Hui's works - was extraordinary at the time. The padded quilts and used sheets that Wen Hui had collected from house to house from residents, acted as silent witnesses to the times. They were folded and unfolded, carried as luggage or a child on the women's bodies, or became a part of their bodies. All this familiarity, however, far exceeded the everyday, evoking personal memories and poetic images among the audience members.
Living Dance Studio
Wen Hui is a pioneer in documentary (dance) theater in China. In addition to her work for the stage, she makes documentary films, designs installations, and curates artistic projects. She was born in 1960 in the city of Kunming in the southwestern province of Yunnan. There she began classical dance training at the age of 13. She was never allowed to perform as a solo dancer because of her height - small and petite - and always stood at the far edge of group dances. These were formative experiences in a rigid system. In the 1980s, Wen Hui studied choreography, a newly established subject at the Beijing Dance Academy. After graduating in 1989, she was assigned a position as a choreographer with the State Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble. In 1994, Wen Hui spent six months in New York, which broadened her horizons about dance and art and provided a decisive impetus for her artistic development. Back in Beijing, she and her artistic partner, documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang, founded the Living Dance Studio to bring dance down to earth and art into contact with society. The desire was to »show life as life itself« and thus distance themselves from both state
ideology and commercial manipulation. In 1995, Wen Hui had the opportunity to watch Pina Bausch's dance group rehearse in Wuppertal. She was deeply impressed by the creative human atmosphere Pina Bausch had created there and the free individual expression of the dancers. The choreographer said goodbye to learned dogmas such as expressivity and virtuosity and developed a special sense for stories, body language and materials from the real world. The studio's first performance, 100 Verbs, was based on everyday verbs from about ten participants from different professions and marked a turning point in Wen Hui's creative process. Since then, she has worked equally with amateurs, professional performers, and artists from all disciplines in her productions. Her later trilogy Report on Giving Birth, Report on the Body (2002) and Report on 37,8˚C (2005) combined documentary material with artistic means and shaped the style of Living Dance Studio. Since these three reports, Wen Hui's works have been featured by many international festivals.
In 2005, the studio moved into the Chao Chang Di Workstation in northeast Beijing, opened its own theater, and formed an almost family-like community. In this periphery, independent of the state system, numerous workshops, performances and meetings took place. In 2008, the Living Dance Studio took a new direction with the eight-hour performance Memory. Private memories, photographs and documentary footage of Wen Hui, Wu Wenguang and writer Feng Dehua (the narrator at the dinner table in Report on Giving Birth) from the Cultural Revolution period of 1966 to 1976 were the starting point for this very personal and physical stage documentary. Following from this, the studio launched the long-term project People's Memory Project (Minjian jiyi jihua) in 2009. It aimed to dig deeper into the country's society and history. The project invited people from different social classes to return to their respective places of origin with a video camera and research specific periods of recent Chinese history, periods that have never been processed. Wen Hui began making her own documentaries at that time. A series of documentaries and stage plays emerged from this folk memory project: Memory II: Hunger (2010), Memory on the Road (2011), Listening to Third Grandmother's Stories (2012), Memory III: Tombstone (2012). In 2014, Wen Hui's life took a hard turn. Due to rapidly rising rents in the real estate market, Living Dance Studio had to leave the Chao Chang Di Workstation and Wen Hui lost her theater. Since then, the artist has led a nomadic life, with Living Dance Studio traveling with her wherever she happens to be working creatively.
into historical consciousness
Back to the evening of Report on Giving Birth. I remember that after the premiere ended, many friends and audience members stayed in the theater for a long time, discussing excitedly, until the night porter had to close the gate. It was the time of artistic awakening in Beijing. This was slowed down and strangled again after a decade, and the small theater has already been demolished in the course of a municipal reconstruction. I find Report on Giving Birth exemplary of Wen Hui's interest in individual fates, her search for personal memories and her eye for concrete experiences of women. It is the people with their individual stories that reflect the history of the country, a history that is officially tabooed and in the collective consciousness is consigned to oblivion. A typical example is the production Memory II: Hunger, which Wen Hui worked on together with young people, most of whom were born in the 1980s. It negotiated the so-called »Three-Year Natural Disaster,« in reality the famine that occurred between 1959 and 1961, as a result of the land reform of the enacted »Great Leap Forward.« Wen Hui sent these young people back to their home villages to interview their grandparents and other old people who had witnessed this period. In the performance, these young people acted on stage and presented their interviews as important documents of the times.
The social imprints of the body
But Report on Giving Birth is also exemplary of Wen Hui's tireless exploration of the body and her quest to push the boundaries of dance. She finds that in the body, every life story has left its burn marks. On the occasion of her work on 100 Verbs, the choreographer expressed, »I don't think of it in terms of how you dance, but that you do it. I like to work with people. Their bodies are real. We don't emphasize body technique. Your life experience is your technique. I'm convinced where life leads, that's where our dance is.« With this awareness, Wen Hui brings together diverse people. Be it the migrant workers in Dance with Migrant Workers (2001), be it her third grandmother and her mother in Listening to Third Grandmother's Stories, be it the writer in Memory or the Czech engineer in Ordinary People, to name just a few examples. Wen Hui explores the body as if with a scalpel, layer by layer she makes visible the individual, the unique. For the eight-hour version of Memory, the choreographer went even further: she focused on her own body and examined the connection between body language and social conditioning. During the rehearsal process, she deliberately dispensed with a complex artistic form, choosing for herself only a single line and sequence of movement: moving forward, backward, breathing, walking. A memorized posture that reminded her of growing up as a woman. In the performance, Wen Hui stood on stage for eight hours, repeating this sequence as if in Zen. She says, »The human body can really outgrow itself. You go further with your body than with your brain.«
Fates of Women
2011. Wen Hui was in a deep life crisis. She took the Folk Memory Project as an opportunity to travel to her hometown in Yunnan Province to visit an 84-year-old woman in a remote mountain village called Da He Bian (Beside the Big River). She was the third aunt of Wen Hui's father and was called Third Grandmother. The artist wondered at the time why her father had never told her about this relative. After his death, when she decided to trace her own family history, she learned about the Third Grandmother, the last survivor of her generation. The artist felt a great urge to get to know this woman. In the solo performance I am 60, she recounts this unique encounter: »Third Grandmother got up at 7 a.m. and waited for me at the entrance to the village. As if she had been waiting for me at the end of a tunnel for 50 years, like her own granddaughter finally coming home. She told me her whole life story.« Wen Hui learned, to her amazement, that Third Grandmother had given her actual granddaughter exactly the same name Wen Hui had. She listened to Third Grandmother, lived, danced and rehearsed with her. Third Grandmother's tales ranged from her childhood in the affluent parental home, arranged marriage at a young age and divorce before the liberation or establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, to the great land reform thereafter and the expropriation of all family property, to her mother's traumatic suicide. Wen Hui learned about family secrets never heard before. But what moved her deeply was that Third Grandmother had retained her humor and openness despite all these unimaginable blows of fate.
From 2011 to 2012, the artist went to that village three times and documented the most impressive moments with this woman. In the film Dance with Third Grandmother (2015), we see the two women from different generations approaching each other in dance, touching each other intimately and embracing. The younger one says to the older one, »Nainai (Grandmother in dialect), when we are sad, we dance. When we dance, we don't get sad anymore.«
In 2013, Wen Hui went to Da He Bian village for the fourth time and learned that Third Grandmother had already left for good. But for the »granddaughter finally coming home,« she never left. Her spirit has continued to act as a beacon for the artist since their first meeting. It gives her strength not to give up, also drives her to reflect deeply on the fixed structure and the miserable status of (Chinese) women in the patriarchal system. This encounter unfolded Wen Hui's versatile skills. She developed two documentary films about Third Grandmother and a stage work told from the perspective of three generations of women. Wen Hui's preoccupation with women's fates deepened further in 2015 in the performance Red. This year marked the 50th anniversary of the revolutionary model ballet The Red Women's Battalion, one of eight model dramas created by Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing for state propaganda during the Cultural Revolution. Against this historical background, however, the artist sought out the former dancers from the ballet and conducted interviews with contemporary witnesses. Finally, together with three other performers, she deconstructed the hierarchical stage performances, the melodramatic dance movements, the coded costumes and props in this model ballet. In the new production, she made visible the sacrificial role of women and the lie in the present.
I am 60
2020. Wen Hui turned 60 years old. She took the date as an opportunity to look back and reflect on her life thus far. This is how her most recent solo performance, also her very first, I am 60, was created and premiered in Weimar at the 2021 Arts Festival. For this performance, she was inspired by silent films of the time that focused on the unjust fate of women and their will to free themselves from it, which celebrated their golden age in Shanghai in the 1930s. Accompanied by the inner conversation with Third Grandmother, the artist reflects on her childhood and her mother, whose view of life strongly influenced her, and also on her life crisis as a woman and artist. Parallel to the autobiographical and making contact with the performer's body, we see historical photos and current statistics about the (precarious) condition of Chinese women in a male-dominated system. The issue of women's social status in Chinese society is currently gaining a particularly sad current status, after the outrageous photos and video sequences of a chained woman living in a village in Jiangsu Province and giving birth to eight children, which circulated on the Chinese internet in early February 2022. This woman had been kidnapped, raped and brutalized as a birthing machine. This event exposed one of the darkest sides of society.
In I am 60 Wen Hui makes impressive use of the performance method »linked drama«, which originated in Shanghai's silent film era and which she had already used in other stage works. Cinematic images function as a panorama and interact with the live performance. The projection serves as a threshold from the fictional to the real world, from the past to the present and vice versa. The interplay of live performance, video and audio creates an interrelated complete artwork. It is Wen Hui's most personal performance to date, simultaneously moving through the eras of Chinese (women's) history. A wonderful gift for herself on her birthday and for us viewers. In the film Dance with Third Grandmother, there is a poignant dialogue between Wen Hui and Third Grandmother as they dance:
W: Nainai, do you see me?
T: I see you.
W: I see you too. Nainai, where are you?
T: I am here. Wen Hu, do you see me?
W: My heart sees you.
T: I see you too.
Third Grandmother is omnipresent as a glowing lamp in this solo performance. Wen Hui passes the light on to us. She believes every life finds a time to fully unfold. I believe Wen Hui's life blossoms again at the age of 60.
Translated from German by Rose-Anne Clermont