Deep down, somewhere in the heart of the orchid-like construct we all know as the Oriental Art Center, a creative meeting between masters recently took place. Scotland’s leading choreographer and dance icon, Alan Greig, led a workshop with Jin Xing Dance Theatre, one of the most prominent dance companies in our city. Both performed at the recent Shanghai Dance Festival – the fourth one ever held.
Alan Greig was invited to this year’s Shanghai Dance Festival by his old friend Jin Xing, founder of both the fest and Jin Xing Dance Theatre. The two met in the late 1980s, when they both studied dance in New York. Back in the U.K., Alan Greig has grown famous for his extensive performing, choreographing and teaching. In 1990 he founded X Factor Dance Company, which has since had a great impact on the Scottish dance scene.
Shanghaiist got a long charming conversation with the Scottish choreographer, as well as an insight to the workshop.
How did this China trip come about?
Jin Xing and I knew each other in New York, in 1989, we were both students on scholarship with Alwin Nicolais, a well known American choreographer, and back in Scotland at the moment, there´s a desire for Scotland and China to try and form cultural links. So there was money from my government and I told them that I knew Jin Xing in Shanghai.
Originally I was supposed to just come and maybe watch the company and meet people. But Jin Xing said “I don´t need to talk to you, I know you. Just come over, we´re doing a performance, I want you to work with the company.” So I kind of jumped a funding stage. Jin Xing said, “Just come and perform and teach.” I was delighted.
Your performance here at the festival, “Into the light” was a selection of seven works from your 20 year long repertoire… and then two films. Tell us about the different samples!
You know I haven’t done a solo performance in 10 years, where I’m alone on stage for the whole show… and I’m 47. So at first when I was rehearsing, I thought I was gonna die! I was so out of breath [laughs]. I had to build up my stamina. And really that’s why the show has two films, it gave me a chance to get my breath.
I tried to choose pieces that showed diversity. The first one is contained in a spotlight, so it doesn’t really move, no spacial traveling. Then the “Drowning” one is very visual with the polythene river, the “Running up that hill”, is very humorous, the “Jealousy” one is bitter and jealous and the last piece is very kind of dancey… Celebratory. I tried to pick things that would create a diversity, so that is wasn’t all on one level. You need dynamics – lots of dynamics.
The second one, the “Sebastian” piece, is from a play by Tennessee Williams, “Suddenly Last Summer“.
When I saw the Sebastian piece, I came to think of a British mini series called Brideshead Revisited, from 1981, with Jeremy Irons. The story touches a homosexual relationship – although it´s all under the surface and it never gets mentioned. One of the lead characters name is actually Sebastian.
That’s exactly like in “Suddenly Last Summer.” They can´t mention it, they have to hint at it but it never gets said. And I like that – things are kind of buried, you have to hunt for things.
In the piece called “Drowning” you dance lying down under a several meters long plastic sheet, as if captured under a huge ocean wave.
“Drowning” was from a show based on dreams. You know when you dream that you’re in the sea, under the water – I was trying to capture that. And it’s nice to use props sometimes, it’s just nice to define the space in a different way. The way the waves come and the noise…
It was a huge hustle getting the polythene here, I had to fold it all up, and it was heavy, so they charged me 250 pounds to bring it, because it was excess baggage. I think it was worth it cause it does look really visual, but it was expensive!
Then the next one I call “Lady M”, cause it’s considered bad luck to say “Macbeth” in the theatre. That’s just a very simple idea, that I’m supposed to have my back towards the audience and I’m washing the blood from my hands. First you think that it’s real, that I’ve got my back to the audience. It creates a kind of strange illusion for people. You go “That´s not his back, that must be his front!”.
Was the main idea to play with visual effect?
Yes. And also I just love the character of Lady Macbeth, that she´s power hungry and then she´s guilty and her act kind of destroys her life. It´s a really strong story. Even if you don´t get the Shakespeare reference it’s visually really straight so i thought it would be a good solo to bring to China. Even if the meaning wasn’t understood, there was still something visual for people to read.
One association to that work could be to connect it to cross-dressing, to see it as gender-related. It´s of course related to the question of who is interpreting your pieces?
I think when you create things, it doesn’t matter how clear you think you´re being, that the audience always interpret it their own way. And I feel, as a choreographer, that’s fine with me. Some people might be bothered by this but I think if there´s a hundred people in the audience, someone’s gonna be bored, someone’s gonna think it’s the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen, someone’s not gonna understand it, someone’s gonna laugh…you know. You’re gonna get lots of different reactions.
I think if you expect one reaction, then you’re lost as a choreographer. The one thing I wouldn’t like is if someone is bored from beginning to end. Like, “Spotlight-boring..Polythene-boring…” As long as they´re interested in what I’m doing, that´s very important to me.
Tell us about the “Running up that hill” piece.
It’s like a pastiche of a Kate Bush song called “Running Up That Hill”, but it´s really not the same tune, and the man who sings it just makes up his own words. So it´s sort of a parody of the song. I went on Youtube and I watched all her old songs, like “Wow”, “Babuschka”, “Wuthering Hights”, and she´s so over the top, sort of.. almost possessed! And totally committed. I just love it. I thought, “I must parody.”
It´s funny because it was Kate Bush who got me into dance. I didn’t start dancing til I was 19. I never thought I could be a dancer because I started so old. But it all just happened very quickly. I was 19, 20 when I started and by 21 I was down in London and training. It’s been my life ever since then and it’s thanks to Kate Bush.
The second film was like a potpourri of different X Factor performances.
I made it with a filmmaker called Brian English. We just looked at lots of different X Factor performances, because he films all the performances for me. I thought, as I´m doing a solo it would be very interesting for the audience to actually see what the company looks like, because there isn´t the money to bring the whole company over.
So that was actually made specifically for this China trip?
Made specially for this performance yes. It´s also on – oh you can´t get Youtube here though…It´s also on Youtube.
And the last piece?
The last one is called “Dead letters”. It’s the oldest piece in the show, it´s like my signature piece, I choreographed that one in 1995. I’ve performed it a million times, so it´s really in my body. I feel it kind of shows me in my work and how I move. It was a tape cassette that I found years and years ago in New York, and it´s all these strange little stories. It´s called “Cinema for the head”, so you listen to it and it tells you all these strange stories: Judy Garland and Napoleon, and dinosaurs.
You had some help on stage from Jin Xing´s dancers. How was that?
I really liked the fact that although it was a solo show, I had the four local dancers from Jin Xings company. I felt that it added another layer. They helped me with my costumes, they helped me create the shape for “Running up that hill”, they operated the polythene. I felt that they were really part of the show, and it made me feel much more confident on stage. Because it´s quite hard when you´re doing a solo, you´re very exposed.
How much time did you have to rehearse together?
Two days and we really gelled quite quickly with each other. They were very very easy to work with. I had worked everything out that I wanted them to do, so I just really taught them, but they were so supportive.
I thought the reaction from the audience was really good. I mean, it was a very British show, it has a lot of British words in it. Then the “Running up that hill” is in Scottish, and you have to know who Kate Bush is or you really dont get the joke. But all the Chinese dancers laughed at it, so I think they got the visual joke. It seemed quite positive, the reaction from people to the show.
How do you get inspired? From what we’ve seen, it seems that you pick, you take, you get inspired by lots of things around you?
Yea, lots of things. A lot of visual things like movies and TV shows, books and plays, sometimes music and a painting, things like that. Personal stories too. I´m more influenced by outside stimuli rather than by another dance, by another choreographer.
To find the movements I always start from improvisation. I go in the studio and I improvise from working with dancers, getting them to improvise. I choose what I like and then develop it. I can’t imagine standing in front of a mirror and just somehow ideas come out. It wouldn’t be inventive. You would end up just reproducing steps from a dance class. I think when you improvise, you dig into something new or deeper. That´s ideally what you´re trying to do.
You never visualize a dance in your head, and then create it?
Sometimes yes like Lady M, the idea came to me, I was in a bath and just suddenly thought, “if the wig was over the face, and then you, so it looks like she´s facing that way”, the idea just came to me in the bath. Eureka!
And yea, I think Nicolais, the man that I studied with, worked a lot with space and I think that´s influenced my work. Though he was very abstract, he hated drama, so he wouldn’t like Jealousy, or the drowning – too dramatic.
That´s something I´ve wanted to ask you about, the theatrical part of it.
I think I’m a frustrated actor [laughs]. I do sometimes act in my show, I create characters, and do little monologues in the show. But I didn’t bring them to China, because I felt, maybe people just wouldn’t understand. I really like theatre, theatrical imagery. I like some abstract dance, I like Trisha Brown. Maybe about half an hour of Merce Cunningham is enough… [laughs]
Sometimes you have dialogue and theatrics, but even if you don´t have dialogue, lots of your work seem to have a narrative – you can see some sort of character, you can see props. What are your thoughts about crossing genres between dance and theater?
I just think for me it´s far more interesting to be a character on stage, to show emotions, because I think those are universal – the fact that I can come to China and people still recognize something. I think one of the criticisms of modern dance is that audiences come and they don´t quite get it and it leaves them a little bit frustrated. So I’m not trying to be obvious but I do want them to go away with something. I want them to connect to my performance, and I think emotion and theatricality can help.
The Israeli piece just before yours, “Solo Colores” by Arkadi Zaides, was kind of abstract. What did you think about that?
I just saw it in rehearsal so I didn’t see her do it full out. Yes it was quite a challenging piece, it didn’t compromise for the audience I guess. I didn’t really get it myself – I didn´t really understand why suddenly at the end, Prince came on. It seemed added on to me. I felt you´d established this abstract sound, suddenly you got this very emotional – I call it an anthem – you know like “Puurple Rain”, it´s like an anthem song or something, and I didn’t like it at all.
But I thought she was a very beautiful performer. I think deliberately the choreographer didn´t try and sweeten it up for the audience at all and that´s a choice. I would call it post modern. And it´s always a little bit cold I think, post modernism.
She seemed to just be suffering, through the whole piece.
All the time [laughs]. So maybe yeah, it was a redemption or.. Well, I don´t like Prince. It´s not music that I listen to. It´s not on my Ipod. Speaking of which I dropped my Ipod in the bath..
Here, in the hotel. I was so stupid. I had it, I put it just here, and I filled the bath up, and it fell in. It was only in for four seconds, and I dried it out and the music still plays. It’s good because I need it for my workshop but you can not really read the screen.
Speaking of which..the workshop?
Yes, it went too quick, I’ve only had a week with[Jin Xing’s] the company, and they´re beautiful beautiful dancers. There’s about 15 of them, male and female, and they´re very fluid athletic dancers. They have done some improvisation, but not a lot of it, so I’ve been trying to introduce them to the concept of improvisation as a tool for discovering choreography.
I think dancers who improvise have got more sensitivity on stage. It makes you aware of space, of time, of other people. It makes you use your focus. For me, I couldn;t have dancers that don´t improvise, I need them to improvise, and then I´m like “I hated all of that, except that one lift” and I might take that lift and I develop something from it.
I’ve also been working with them on composition as well this week. So I’ve been setting them on choreographic tasks and it´s been so much fun. They were three-hour sessions and they just fly passed. It´s a beautiful studio, it´s very isolated, it´s very big, it has no natural light, so you´re in your kind of own world. There´s no distractions, very focused, intense.
Has it been an open workshop, or only for Jin Xings company?
It was specifically for Jin Xing´s company, but a few other people have come in because, I guess, maybe there aren’t that many workshops happening in Shanghai. It’s fine.
And how about Jin Xing, is she taking part as well?
She´s been watching and helping me to translate. That´s quite a strange experience. I´ve only done that once before when I was in Hong Kong and taught workshops there. Sometimes you wonder if they got the concept of what you´re saying… but it seems they are doing what I´ve asked so obviously it´s working [laughs]. It´s a strange feeling, you just wish you could speak Chinese and explain yourself.
When it comes to style. Do you consider yourself having a specific style, just when it comes to the movements as such. Do you see yourself as part of some specific school?
Um, not specific. I obviously see myself as modern dance. It´s not classical at all, and it could be described as dance theatre – it´s dance and it´s theatre or it´s physical theatre. I let other people define it. I would define myself just as dance, just as modern dance.
It’s hard to explain to people. So many people in Scotland, even though we´ve toured endlessly for 20 years, still haven´t heard of modern dance. It´s very hard to explain it, cause really, there are so many styles, you know. It could be men it suits and they are throwing themselves viciously against the wall and that´s modern dance, and then Merce Cunningham’s dances come, and they´re in leotards and it´s all placed, developpées, tilts, and that is modern dance too.
I think that’s one of the problems with it. There´s so many variations. I think you have a concept of ballet. You know the girl, and she´s up on her toes, she´s a swan..”Oh yes, I´ve seen that”. But you don´t really have a concept of contemporary dance, “Is it Nicolais, is it Cunningham, is it Petronio, is it Pina Bausch?” Well it´s all of these things and they´re all different. That´s what makes it rich also.
Speaking of style and comparisons, I associated your work to a choreographer called Mark Morris. I think it was the theatrical style and the humor… but also because he often plays with gender roles and LGBT-related issues.
Yea, the last show we did was called “Query” and it was specifically dealing with gender issues. It came from a novel by Gore Vidal, called “Myra Breckinridge.” In the novel a man has a sex change, and becomes a woman and then the man and the woman fight internally for control of the body.
I found that very fascinating to look at: What is gender, what is male and what is female – it´s in my work quite a lot: that kind of sexual imagery and issues. But we try to do it in a humorous way, rather than battering the audience.
I think it´s the biggest compliment, that maybe after a show the audience talk to each other and have discussions, argue. “Why did he wear a dress… Why would a man wear a dress?”
Have you had any strong reactions like that?
I did a show years ago, called “Sexual” and it was about sexual addiction, when gay men go into cruising areas, parks, and then it becomes very addictive for some and they can´t stop. I did a show about that, and it didn’t compromise. Every single show at least one person walked out, stormed out. Someone described it to me, saying “it´s not entertainment, it´s controversial theatre, it´s controversy that you´re showing”. I think the last show, “Query”, was quite controversial, but they’re one of few. In the other shows I try to be more inclusive and entertaining but every now and again, I do a piece that is sort of stirs people up. I think it´s good to do that.
And you toured to New York with “Query”?
We toured. It was made in collaboration with a New York Company. We toured it in Scotland, and then we had performances in the Cunningham Studios in New York. It was great because, like coming here, it was just so refreshing for me. I’ve been working in Scotland for twenty years now, it gets..we go to Glasgow, Inverness, Aberdeen, it´s the same. It´s so nice to go “Oh my god, we´re going to New York, we´re going to China!” Even London is like, “It´s not Scotland!” You´re so glad to get out of Scotland.
Although to me…
Yes, other people, they all want to come to Scotland…[laughs].
You say you get inspiration from a lot of things…Looking at your work you get the feeling that it´s filled with lots of symbols, references and associations. You told me before that everyone does their own interpretation, but do you have an aim for people to understand all those references.? Or do you feel you do it for your own sake?
With some of them shows, I want the audience to get the references. Others, you just have to interpret it yourself. For example there’s one with the finger – it means something to me but I´m not sure I would tell the audience what it was. It´s a sort of private thing. But then other references, like the washing of the hands [in Lady M], I want you to get that, and make that association; that it´s somebody being guilty. So it depends. I think it´s a lot of layers in the works.
And different people, maybe see it in different layers..
Yes. My main concern is not that people understand every gesture, and every step. I mean, if you développé your leg, it doesn´t mean anything. It just visually looks good that you´ve got a high leg. That´s all it means.
But it doesn´t bother me if they have another interpretation. I think I´m more bothered that they they would feel bored, that they´re “uuh I just couldn´t wait for the spotlight to go off, it felt sooo long.”. “I just couldn´t wait for you to get that wig off, it was so annoying”. You know, that would disturb me. Because I´m trying to communicate with you. So if you´re bored I feel I’ve not done my job properly.
Let´s speak about this festival. How many of the other dance performances did you have time to see?
I only managed to see the Israeli piece, that was on with us, and I saw Jin Xings solo performance, which I really liked. But yeah, I didn’t get to see the other things, which is a shame.
I think the idea of [the festival] is a great; it´s trying to really build something in Shanghai that doesn´t exist yet. And, in a way, somewhere like Edinburgh – it´s very cultural, it´s very established, we have the Edinburgh Fringe, The Edinburgh festival, the Jazz festival, The Brew Festival – To do a dance festival in Scotland isn´t really that unusual, so I think to do it somewhere where it doesn´t exist is really pioneering and exciting.
[The scene] feels like it´s in its early days; the audience is still discovering it. Hopefully, in ten years time it might be as famous as The Edinburgh Festival. It could be on peoples calendars, like “Oh, Shanghai Dance Festival, we want to go there”. I think it´s exciting that one day it could be a known festival, that people want to come to and talk about.
Although, when you speak about this and China, and what Jin Xing is trying to do, and just the climate here, when it comes to trying to establish something like this and to do something on your own, that´s not part of the government – that seems almost impossible. You have to take all these ways around things.
Yes, and I think if anyone can do it, it´s Jin Xing. She´s very strong. She´s, without getting political, she´s very… on her own path and very determined.
Have you heard the story of the name of the festival? They couln´t even name it “festival” in Chinese. It´s only called “Shanghai Dance” in Chinese. Because when they were gonna name it, they got “no” – some words are apparently owned by the government, so they could not use “festival”, or “week”, or “season”. They could only name it “Shanghai Dance”.
So it´s only in English that it´s the Shanghai Dance Festival.
Wow! It´s crazy.
Just a thing like that, it´s ridiculous, actually.
Yea. No, let´s hope that it will grow.
Yea, I hope so.
All photos by Kirsti Jönson, except the three dance portraits of Alan Greig that come from X Factor Dance Company´s webgallery.