July 2013, Taikang Road Shanghai, I buzz down the sidewalk on Ho-Ho my electric Scooter, a cheap Chinese copy of a vesper that nonetheless for a tenth of the price, does me just fine during my three month placement as an International Creative Entrepreneurs (ICE) Fellow.
I am in Shanghai working with Liu Yan from Xindanwei (xindanwei.com) China's first co-working space. Through ICE I have licence to enter a new life - momentarily, voluntarily, I am leaving my all-encompassing world of dance - my best friend, my healer, my religion, my savoir, my lover, my entire life. For over 40 years dance has fed, nourished and saved me, taken me around the world to live and work in 8 countries, taught me to follow my heart and insist on a life in pursuit of nothing less than fulfilment of a deep burning endless passion....to dance.
But 40 plus years later and dance has become my burn out partner, my partner in crime, in bitterness, resentment and exhaustion, an opaque world clouded by gender bias and funding bids, and severed by the rift between those on the art makers side of the fence and those choosing who gets to make the art and in what conditions. I no longer like my lover. I am bruised and burnt. With a well of tears buried deep in my gut, I spend two years trying to find an alternative career and eventually land myself, thanks to the wonderful ICE initiative, in a steamy summer in Shanghai with time to reflect and test my skills in a theatre-less world.
With movement still the underlying force in my life, driving me, feeding me, propelling me forward, I run furiously for one hour a day at the gym. I look away as I walk past the gym's empty dance studio. What had been both my heroine and my heroin, is now my nemesis. But movement still drives me, and as I seek my thrills perched on Ho-Ho, scooting thorough the streets of a clammy summered Shanghai, I recognize that I cannot escape this fact. With a teenage rebellion I turn my back on dance to seek my freedom, ease, twists and turns with Ho-Ho. Ho Ho is my new religion.
Back to the sidewalk. I seek to park in a rumble of bikes and scooters that are desperately and unsuccessfully trying to claim a respectable level of order. A parking attendant tries to stop me docking at my park of choice. I ask her why. She offers no excuse other than showing me she has a uniform. I ask again. She still offers nothing. This is a 'parking attendant', one of the Chinese Government's many 'jobs' doled out to keep unemployment levels invisible. She has a uniform. Therefore no reason should need to be explained as to why I cannot park my bike there. 'There' where there IS a parking space! But she has a uniform and a 'job' to do.
We share dissatisfactions that turn into raised voices and, as I know what is coming, I feel a power surging through my veins. This is movement. A thrilling dance of boiling blood. We escalate into a high shrilled belting yell of the likes that could not be indulged publicly without arrest in most parts of the world. But China? Seriously, people yelling in the street? Yes, and no one bats an eyelid. But just in case, I look around for a cop even though I have come to learn that cops in China have little concern for order. The parking attendant and I catch eyes, lock in a mildly confrontational stare and then laugh together with abandon. I leave my bike where it apparently, for no reason, should NOT be. I wander into the gorgeous Liuli restaurant to meet Alex, a Chinese up-and-coming App designer, to discuss a project.
I explain to Alex why I am late and add an off the cuff statement – 'This place is crazy, lawless'. His cheeky eyes glisten as he declares , 'Welcome to the Jungle'. In four words Alex has summed up my 4 years of experience coming and going from China. Or as Mike, my roommate in downtown Shanghai calls it – 'This is the Wild Wild West'. Who knew this country was so wild, so irreverent and offered such a deep degree of personal freedoms. Certainly not I.
In 4 years, this is my eighth trip to China, having visited for various cultural exchange activities. I have gotten under the skin of this place but nowhere near as deeply as China has penetrated me. China is in my bones, and bites at my heart strings loudly, bolding and passionately.
Janis Claxton Dance - Chaos & Contingency
Choreography: Janis Claxton ~ Photo: Roy Campbell-Moore
As a choreographer I have worked in a multitude of situations in China from lying for 4 hours in a hole in the floor of 798 Art Space, to choreographing for one of China's foremost modern dance companies and performing in a Perspex box in 40 degree heat outside the award winning UK Pavilion at Shanghai Expo. I have created opportunities for artists from Scotland to work in China and vice versa. I am an advocate for cultural exchange and collaborations and I am an artist who is not at all deterred by the term 'cultural diplomacy'. In fact I embrace it. I am interested in long term sustainable cultural exchange and have manifested this where dancers from both cultures work together for months at a time.
Perhaps there are very few situations like a dance studio for getting to know each other so viscerally. Watching dancers moving, sweating, sharing, massaging, arguing, developing a new coded sign language and dealing as practically as possible with the gulf between east and west, is as thrilling to me as I feel necessary for cultural understandings in this fast changing environment where China is, at a daily rate, thrust into our lives.
Over my comings and goings to China, I have taught dance to 100s of Chinese from many walks of life, worked with Government organizations and institutions, independent artists and start-ups. I have travelled 10,000km around the country, most of that on trains, and visited 16 cities across 10 provinces.
Perhaps what entices me most (aside from the food!) is that so much of life in China is lived in the streets. From the playing of majong, to the drinking of tea, to the washing of clothes to the wearing of pyjamas, to the public dance clubs and the killing of one's dinner! - China's city streets are teaming with life and movement. A chaotic, unpredictable movement which is grounded in everyday necessities.
Nowhere is China's chaos and freedom more apparent than when trying to cross a busy city street. The further west I ventured the wilder this event became. Crossing a street in Chengdu needs to be experienced to be believed - over and over again. A golden rule; choose a local, one who looks happy and not like they are on a suicide mission, and walk as close to them as possible.
Whilst I revel in the ever surprising 'lawlessness' in the streets, and the constant change and movement at so many levels, my experience with China has not all been easy. There are numerous frustrating, often infuriating issues and differences. But I believe in the power of cultural exchange and hope it will enhance our world. I do not think this is easy or that it will get easier in a hurry.
I have stood in the middle of dancers from both sides, sometimes with a white flag and sometimes with a barricade. I look from a unique place as someone with an unexplainable passion for China and the Far East, and a long history in the West. I see a perspective and a potential that in the midst of a creative process the dancers I have worked with have not always been able to witness.
Dancers are extreme athletes and extreme athleticism takes extreme commitment and dedication that much of society cannot imagine. Whilst dancers, jump and turn, twist and roll and throw all of their physical and emotional energy into the task at hand, with the ultimate offering of their entire bodies, their only desire is to the best job. Cultural differences impeding this job are far from their concern. But as a cultural leader and someone with a passion for bringing worlds together, I feel a responsibility to stay in the chaos and commitment of the dance between East and West.
There is a nugget that I have had to wrestle with as I bring dancers together for projects. I have tried to walk away from both dance and cultural exchange through dance. But the nugget is potent and calls me to apply pressure, to push and squeeze, tug and pull, twist and rotate, throw and roll. I am drawn to a potency and a unique creativity that I have witnessed as the essence of this tangle of limbs and pressure of weight between dancers as they both collide and converge in the creative process.
Janis Claxton Dance - Chaos & Contingency
Choreography: Janis Claxton ~ Photo: Roy Campbell-Moore
Janis Claxton is a Choreographer, Producer, and Teacher with 30 years of international experience. Based in Scotland, she is Artistic Director and Co-Producer of the award winning contemporary dance company Janis Claxton Dance and Founder/Director of SC²ENE=Scotland China Cultural Exchange Network.
An ambassador for cultural exchange Janis has worked internationally for 30 years in numerous countries including the UK, China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the Netherlands for internationally renowned dance and theatre organizations.
Two passions currently drive her artistic work; taking dance to public spaces and cultural exchange with a focus on East and Southeast Asia, in particular China. Her 2008 Herald Angel Award winning work Enclosure 44 - Humans set inside an animal enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo and the 2011 recreation Enclosure 99 - Humans received over 50,000 viewers. www.janisclaxton.com/works/enclosure-99-humans . In 2013, her elegant and epic work Chaos & Contingency saw a cast of 8 glorious dancers from Scotland and China perform as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival in Scotland's most beautiful Museums to over 5000 audience members.
Since 2009 Janis has spent one third of her time in China having visited on 9 occasions having working on numerous cultural projects. In 2013 she became an ICE Fellow www.internationalcreativeentrepreneurs.com and in 2014 she is a recipient of Federation of Scottish Theatre's Producers Placement Bursary to work with Ping Pong Productions www.pingpongarts.org in Beijing. Janis shares Ping Pong Productions mission of "Bringing China and the world together through the performing arts" and intends to develop her new start-up SC²ENE to help other artists from the UK to experience China and bring more Chinese artists to the West.