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Dancing Cross-cultural Misunderstandings: The American Dance Festival in China’s New Era


This dissertation explores the embodiment of cross-cultural misunderstandings in a key transitional period in modern China—the late 1980s, during the country’s economic reformation and cultural opening to the West after the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). From 1987 to 1991, teachers from the American Dance Festival (ADF), at the invitation of the Guangdong (Canton) Dance School, trained the first group of professional modern dancers in China, known as the “Guangdong Modern Dance Experimental Program,” profoundly altering the history of Chinese modern dance in the New Era (1978–). Based on this program, China established its first modern dance company in 1992—the Guangdong Modern Dance Company. Under the guidance of ADF teachers, Chinese students created two new genres of Chinese modern dance that differed from the previous realism style. Some of the students later became internationally acclaimed artists—Shen Wei, Jin Xing, and Wang Mei.

Contesting existing accounts of the Guangdong program as a complete success in America’s and China’s dance histories, this dissertation instead argues that misunderstandings and miscommunications repeatedly occurred in both directions throughout this corporeal exchange. These misunderstandings and miscommunications revealed different conceptualizations of aesthetics, kinesthesia, pedagogy, individuality, freedom, tradition, and the modern. This research takes a microcosmic perspective to examine the program’s establishment, curriculum, and the reception of the dance it created as a case study to explore the macrocosmic transnational US–China relationship under globalization. Different political agendas nurtured the contradictory expectations of the ADF and the Guangdong Dance School. When the young Chinese traditional dancers changed their expertise and accepted a new dance system, differences in aesthetics, kinesthesia, pedagogy, and concepts of individuality and freedom created confusion among ADF teachers and Chinese students. Different understandings of Chineseness, the traditional, and the modern in the US and China shaped American and Chinese critics’ contrasting receptions of the pieces produced in the Guangdong program.

This dissertation is the first to take a cultural misinterpretation perspective to study dance in China, and the first to apply a critical dance studies lens to scrutinize cultural production in the context of US–China relations. By decoding these embodied misunderstandings, this dissertation aims to allow perspectives from the US and China to be heard in both countries and contribute to cross-cultural understandings on a global scale.

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