October in Houston is just right for just about anything al fresco, including performances at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park. This month Dance of Asian America (DAA) will present its 11th Annual Splendid China, an exploration of Chinese culture through authentic and contemporary Chinese dance, at the outdoor venue.
Over its two performances, Splendid China is expected to draw a combined audience of at least 6,000 spectators. That’s nothing, however, in comparison to the 50,000 reached through the 50, or more, city-wide performances, educational programs and community events DAA extends to Houstonians every year. The 15-year old non-profit organization has been instrumental in preserving Chinese culture within the Greater Houston area, which now has a Chinese population over 86,000, and in opening the eyes of those less familiar to the lifestyles, customs, history, dialects and traditions of the people of China’s mainland and fifty-five other ethnic groups.
Janie Yao, DAA’s founder, came to the U.S. from China with her parents at age 7. Her mother, Mitsi Shen, is a well-respected former principal dancer and teacher in the Shanghai Dance Troupe. Shen made the decision to come to Houston in 1981 after working with former Houston Ballet artistic director, Ben Stevenson while he was teaching in China. Shen was enthralled by the grace of Houston Ballet’s dancers and even named her daughter after Janie Parker, a former principal dancer of the company. Yao trained with her mother and with Houston Ballet before earning a BFA in dance performance from Southern Methodist University and co-founding DAA. It has been Yao’s mission to break American stereotypes about Chinese dance and promote it as the living, evolving performing art form that it is.
“Chinese dance is no longer a ‘backyard folk dance,’” Yao asserts. “It is an international dance form that incorporates elements of ballet and various modern styles along with reflections of authentic cultural techniques from the various regions and ethnic groups of China.”
As in years past, the 2016 performance of Splendid China will feature award-winning dancers from China who prove this point. Zhang Yi Xiang, who has choreographed for China National Ballet Company, and Zhou Li Jun, who danced a leading role in the 2016 Beijing Chinese New Year Broadcast will perform. Among many other accolades, both dancers are medalists in the Beijing Dance Competition and the Tao Li Cup National Dance Competition. Each will dance a solo as well as two duets.
Though it may be difficult for a casual appreciator of Chinese dance to detect differences, you can expect to see a fresh take on Chinese dance alongside more traditional examples of the form within the collection of work on the Splendid China program.
Re-stagings of award-winning works from China will also be presented by the five companies of DAA’s professional dancer training program. The 2016-17 ensembles include 52 dancers ranging in age from 9-39 who come to the company through an annual open-to-the-public audition and become ambassadors for the Chinese culture in Houston and beyond.
“The youngest company dancers are required to have two years of professional ballet and Chinese dance training,” explains Yao, “but the majority of the dancers have received over 10 years of professional ballet and Chinese dance training from DAA’s local principal dancers and instructors as well as award-winning artists in China through our residency program.”
In addition, two local dance studios will each perform a dance piece in the production. Mitsi Dancing School is the academy founded over 30 years ago by Mitsi Shen. In 2013, students of the school reached a nation-wide audience performing the “Thousand Hands Goddess Dance” when they competed and entered quarter finals for America’s Got Talent television show. J&H Dance School is also a long-standing school serving the Bellaire and Katy communities. Both schools specialize in Chinese dance but include western forms like ballet and jazz dance in their curriculum as well.
Dance of Asian America will present Splendid China at 7:30pm on October 21 & 22 at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Free tickets for covered seating are available while they last at the Miller Outdoor Theatre box office the day of the performance. Seating, as always, is open on the hill. For more information call 281-373-3386 or visit www.danceaa.org.