Several months ago when BYU’s Contemporary Dance Theatre (CDT) was invited to perform at the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Beijing, Nathan Balser, the CDT’s artistic director, was first elated but then a little overwhelmed.
“The invitation from China was for CDT to represent the whole dance department, which is tricky to do because we’re just one part of it,” said Balser, noting the department’s ballet, ballroom and world dance programs.
But Balser and his colleagues soon came to a solution.
“In response, we created and performed this concert wherein our dancers showcased all of these genres,” he said. CDT also invited a group of eight BYU students that specialize in clog dancing to help with this effort.
The resulting show, “Encounters,” explored the reactions that happen not only when artists respond to different genres but also, more importantly, when people reach out across social and cultural differences. The performance was featured as part of the “Spring Flowers and Autumn Fruits” festival (“Chun Hua Oiu Shi”) in Beijing on November 13.
Between the limited time to prepare and the wider than usual range of genres, CDT had its hands full in getting ready for the performance.
“Normally rehearsal takes place Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday mornings, but for this performance, we put in a lot of Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights as well,” Balser said. “In preparation, these dancers showed not only incredible talent but a great work ethic.”
CDT arrived in Beijing three days before the performance and was accompanied by Stephen Jones, Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications, Rodger Sorenson, Associate Dean, Marilyn Berrett, Chair of the Department of Dance, and other administrators and technicians.
The greatest challenge upon arrival involved preparing for the final number of their performance, a dance with members of the Beijing Dance Academy (BDA) choreographed by BYU Faculty Member Jiamin Huang. The two companies filled three days putting together the piece.
“The biggest challenge was the language barrier. A few of the Chinese dancers spoke a little English, and our company’s Chinese was very limited as well,” Balser said. “It took a lot of time and patience to be ready for the final dance, but this didn’t stop us from forming a strong bond with them. ”
While CDT was rehearsing, Jones, Sorenson and Berrett spent their time strengthening relationships with universities in Beijing. They visited Beijing Dance Academy, Minzu University and Beijing Normal University to meet with their respective presidents and artistic directors to establish future international collaborations.
After three days of rehearsal with the BDA, CDT was prepared to perform “Encounters.” Minutes before the company took stage, the show was almost derailed by a technical issue with one of the props.
“Despite that, I felt very confident in our dancers just prior to taking the stage. They were in a good place, and they knew what they were going to do that night,” Balser said.
With some prayers and some last minute jury-rigging, the show went off without a hitch, and the performance went on to receive very positive reviews. The NCPA said that BYU “further upgraded the scale and content of the festival, making it … become an international platform for arts education exchanges.”
Immediately after the final dance number, dancers from CDT and BDA circled up backstage, congratulating and expressing appreciation for each other.
“The friends I made with the dancers at Beijing Dance Academy were some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met,” said Sharlee Peay, a member of CDT. “Their big hearts, excitement, generosity and their capacity to love amazed me.”
In addition to gaining deeper cultural appreciation, the dancers were also moved by what the trip did for CDT as a whole.
“The company unity was very powerful. I saw our company family increase, and we wanted to love everyone and have them be a part of us,” expressed dancer Ashley Weimer.
For Balser, the artistic growth and the cross-cultural connections reaffirmed to him the need for international collaborations.
“It helped us all see how much BYU embraces all cultures, and we consider ourselves blessed to be able to have seen this first hand,” Balser said.
Chinese Itinerary (day by day)
CDT departed for the airport from Provo at 10:00 a.m. They flew from Salt Lake City to Seattle, and after a three-hour layover, departed for Beijing. CDT arrived in Beijing around 11:40 p.m., checked into the hotel, and tried to get to some sleep in preparation for the strenuous days ahead.
Monday, November 11
The BYU dancers met up with the BDA dancers in a small rehearsal hall at the NCPA early in the morning, where they rehearsed their cooperative dance until dinner. While the CDT was diligently rehearsing, the dean of the CFAC and the chair of the Department of Dance visited with presidents and artistic directors from BDA, Beijing Normal University and Minzu University to strengthen relationships and discuss possible future collaborations. Later that evening, the BYU dancers attended a BDA performance at the NCPA.
Tuesday, November 12
BYU rehearsed, this time on stage, for the dances they had been working on in Provo for several months. BDA and BYU also continued their rehearsal for their combined dance number for several more hours.
Wednesday, November 13
Prior to their big performance, a banquet was held at the NCPA. Dean Stephen Jones invited honored guests from the community, church leaders and university administrators. Food was served alongside a short presentation where the dean and Marilyn Berrett, Chair of the Department of Dance, spoke of the uniqueness of this opportunity.
At 7:30 p.m., after several more hours of practice, the BYU dancers took the stage to perform in front of 2,400 people at the NCPA. Their performance was received positively. Nathan Balser, director of CDT, said that Chinese audiences show their love for performances different than Americans typically do.
“The Chinese don’t clap nearly as much as Americans do. They are more verbal—there were many cheers and laughs, especially when we presented anything relating to their culture specifically,” said Balser. “We played some of their famous music and occasionally spoke in Chinese.
Thursday, November 14
After their exceptional performance, it became time for CDT to spend time experiencing other cultural aspects of China. The students and faculty spent the morning visiting the Forbidden City.
After a brief lunch, CDT continued their outreach by visiting Tsinghua University, where dancers from both universities performed three to four numbers. That evening, CDT members were treated to a Peking Duck dinner by Sheldon Poon, a fellow Latter-day Saint and Chinese businessman.
CDT ate breakfast quickly and subsequently spent the morning exploring the Great Wall of China, where they beheld the marvelous and ancient craftsmanship and the beautiful Chinese countryside.
Saturday, November 16
After a life-changing performance and an intense cultural immersion, CDT flew out of Beijing, landing in Salt Lake in the early afternoon. Their lives have been forever changed through this visit.