Cultural significance of dance in China explored in new U-M Library collection | Arts & Culture

Cultural significance of dance in China explored in new U-M Library collection

Cultural significance of dance in China explored in new U-M Library collection

Emily Wilcox, U-M assistant professor of Asian languages and cultures, and Liangyi Fu, U-M Chinese studies librarian, look at a program page featuring the Uyghur-style drum dance. Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.

Dance has been an important aspect of Chinese life since ancient times. A new collection at the University of Michigan Library provides a unique resource for the study of Chinese dance and its integral and shifting role in Chinese history, culture and politics.

Among the collection’s highlights is the “Pioneers of Chinese Dance Digital Archive,” a collection of more than 1,500 photographs from the private holdings of Chinese dancers whose careers spanned the 1930s through the 2000s and who had a major impact on the history of Chinese dance.

The digital images were collected by Emily Wilcox, a U-M assistant professor of Asian languages and cultures who specializes in Chinese dance and performance, in the course of her research.

In fact, the idea for a collection centered around Chinese dance was born in a 2013 lunch meeting between Wilcox and Chinese Studies Librarian Liangyu Fu, at the time both newcomers to the university. Fu saw the opportunity to create a unique specialty area within the Asia Library’s already very strong Chinese studies collection. Wilcox welcomed the establishment of a permanent home for the materials she had collected over 10 years of research in the field, which also include audiotapes of oral histories from more than 300 hours of conversations with leading dancers and choreographers.

“This generation of artists is aging, so it was urgent to capture their stories,” Wilcox said.

This Chinese dance drama, Magic Lotus Lantern 宝莲灯, was adapted from “Splitting the Mountain to Save Mother” 劈山救母, a popular story from Chinese folk literature. It was premiered in 1957 by the China Experimental Opera Theater and was one of the first full-length productions using the new Chinese movement vocabulary known as “Chinese classical dance” 中国古典舞. The twisted stance and sword shown here (right) are both common elements used in Chinese opera and martial arts. Contributor: Fang Bonian 方 伯年 _(b. 1936). Image courtesy the University of Michigan Library “Pioneers of Dance” collection.
Shu Qiao 舒巧 _(b. 1933) was one of the first prominent female choreographers of Chinese classical and contemporary dance drama. Originally from Zhejiang and of Han background, Shu joined the Xin’an Traveling Troupe in 1944, at age eleven. After 1949 she performed in what later became the Shanghai Opera and Dance Drama Theater. In 1951-52 Shu studied with the renowned Korean dancer Choi Seung-hee (최승희/崔承喜, 1911-1969) in Beijing, and in 1954, she was part of a tour of Chinese performers to India, Indonesia, and Burma. In 1957, Shu performed the dance work featured here, “Sword Dance” 剑舞, at the World Youth Festival in Moscow. In 1959, Shu starred as the revolutionary heroine Zhou Xiuying in the dance drama and film Dagger Society 小刀会. In 1986-1994, she was guest choreographer at the Hong Kong Dance Company. Contributor: Shu Qiao 舒巧 _(b. 1933). Image courtesy the University of Michigan Library “Pioneers of Dance” collection.
This is a publicity postcard for the female group dance “Milk Station Dance” 牛奶站舞, a new work created during the 1950s that glorified the labor of milkmaids in Mongol communities. It portrayed milkmaids as elegant, clean, and strong, overturning the idea that female physical laborers were unsuited for dance portrayal. A similar work titled “Milk Maid Dance” 挤奶员舞 _was adapted by Manchu choreographer Jia Zuoguang 贾 作光 _(1923-2017) and later recorded in a 1959 film. Selections from this and many other dances discussed in this exhibit can be viewed on the accompanying video. Contributor: Siqintariha 斯琴塔日哈 _(b. 1932). Image courtesy the University of Michigan Library “Pioneers of Dance” collection.
A sample of the University of Michigan Library’s “Pioneers of Dance” collection. Top row from left to right:: the book Teaching Method for Chinese Classic Dance, published in 1960; postcard set of Cambodian dance; the handbook Little Red Guard Dance; the book Dance Games; and the mimeograph manuscript Ode to the Red Flag. Bottom row from left to right:: the program of the Indian cultural delegation’s visit to China in 1955; the program of a Chinese dance tour to Venezuela, Colombia and Cuba in 1960; the British Ballet Rambert visit to China in 1957. Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.
The covers of a postcard set to commemorate works by Uday Shankar Company’s visit to China in 1957, which can be found in the University of Michigan Library’s “Pioneers of Dance” archive. Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.

The oldest dancer she interviewed was over 90 years old, but could still vividly recall dancing during the Second World War, when performances would be interrupted by Japanese bombs.

In addition to Wilcox’s materials, Fu acquired a range of resources that address the topic of Chinese dance from ancient times to the present, with a special focus on rare and unique materials from the early 20th century to the present.

Liangyi Fu, U-M Chinese studies librarian (left), and Emily Wilcox, U-M assistant professor of Asian languages and cultures (right), look at photos and artifacts from the “Pioneers of Dance” collection at the U-M Asia Library. Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.

Liangyi Fu, U-M Chinese studies librarian (left), and Emily Wilcox, U-M assistant professor of Asian languages and cultures (right), look at photos and artifacts from the “Pioneers of Dance” collection at the U-M Asia Library. Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.

The burgeoning collection was hugely enriched in 2016 by the acquisition of a trove of materials belonging to the late Chinese-American dancer, choreographer and professor Audrey Moo Hing Jung. Given to the library by her widower, Kenneth Stepman, Jung’s collection includes notebooks, diaries, slides, and films—97 Super 8mm reels—from her extended visit to China in 1975. This rich, multimedia collection offers a rare view into professional and street dance as well as the surrounding culture and society of that moment.

“The library has a long tradition of building special and unique collections in tandem with faculty and their research interests,” said Bryan Skib, associate university librarian for collections. “These collections draw faculty and visiting scholars to Michigan, and also create discovery opportunities for the entire university community and beyond.”

Skib says the library plans to digitize Jung’s collection and Wilcox’s audiotaped interviews.

The collection has already sparked interest from scholars around the globe, some of whom attended a recent conference, “Dancing East Asia: Critical Choreographies and their Corporeal Politics,” organized by Wilcox. The accompanying exhibition, “Chinese Dance: National Movements in a Revolutionary Age (1945-1965),” features materials from the collection.