By Cindy Sibilsky
“Spirit” refers to the invisible force that animates and breathes life into a person, feeling or object. The spirit of something or someone is its absolute essence in the purest form. Chinese-born choreographer Nuo An, along with her New York-based company and foundation, seek to tap into that unseen quality and portray those inner essences outwardly through her method of “Spiritual Dance.”
Nuo An (front) and dancers of Nuo Spiritual Dance Company (photos provided to bostonese.com).
“Spiritual Dance,” founded by Nuo An, is a hybrid form of expression which integrates aspects of ballet, modern, contemporary and folk dances and dance therapy with theatrics and storytelling. It is rooted in the principles of “Authentic Movement,” Eastern Meditation, Zen Taoist and Tai Chi, all imbued with love for oneself and others. She describes it as, “A new form of professional dance and universal spiritual expression, not limited to any culture or religion, which combines recognized dance forms such as ballet or contemporary with groundedness, freedom and fluidity.”
But to reach the high level of outward expression one will observe in Nuo An and her company’s Spiritual Dance, Nuo An believes one must first turn their exploration inward through Authentic Movement, developed by dance therapist Mary Starks Whitehouse, which incorporates movement to promote self-exploration and improved mental health. As a certified Dance Therapist who has spearheaded programs at Phoenix House and Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn, Nuo An describes the process:
“First, one must get to know themselves through Authentic Movement which is impulse-based and helps dancers to satisfy their own inner needs. Then, through meditation, one is cleansed of all personal emotions and distractions and is prepared to be filled like an empty cup or blank canvas. This is when a dancer is ready for the choreography to be set upon their bodies, so that they truly embody the spirit they are enacting. Before you can know another life or spirit, you must know yourself.”
Through the process of Spiritual Dance, Nuo An and her international company, Nuo An Spiritual Dance and Nuo Spiritual Art Foundation, presented an evening-length premiere of two new works, “Universal Emotions” and “Moving Through Tea,” as part of the Nuo An Spiritual Dance Series 2018 at Symphony Space in New York City in May.
The enchanting, transfixing performance personified the shared feelings present in every human heart and brought to life one of the most important and beloved beverages worldwide — tea — which bears even more cultural and culinary significance and pride to Asian nations, China especially.
“Moving Through Tea” has been in development since 2014 and, like any fine tea, it has finally reached the peak of its brewing period. Nuo An views this particular work as both her duty and mission as a dance artist from China. Immersing herself into the world of tea before she dared to embody it, Nuo An visited tea production sites in the Sichuan, Anhui and Yunnan provinces of China, met with Tea Scholar Dr. Dongmei Shen, and explored black tea “Heritage,” Xuanwen Ming (tea) and the Pu’er Tea Plantation of the Fei Yan family.
“Tea has sensations, feelings, stories. Different teas have unique personalities and their souls called out and spoke to me. I have dialogues with tea,” Nuo An explained as her inspiration for the three dances which breathe life into the famed Chinese Green, Black and Pu’er teas. “Green Tea” is fresh and vibrant, like a youthful teenage girl; “Black Tea” is sultry, bold and voluptuous, like a buxom woman in heels and red lipstick; and “Pu’er Tea” (the artist’s favorite) is earthy, mature, potent and powerful, like a wise woman living in the mountains, at one with nature.
For “Green Tea,” scenic designer Sidney Edwards created a “green tea river.” The sprightly dancers moved playfully, gracefully and delicately around it, evoking feelings of early spring, innocence and youthful beauty, while Wei Sun plucked the guzheng majestically, mesmerizing the audience with sounds of serenity. The costumes by Wentong Wang and Chunqi Han were like something out of a fairytale, with diaphanous silks and curved emerald-colored headpieces representing fresh new buds of life.
In “Black Tea,” a silken sheet of amber and white at first obscures the dancer’s bodies, only offering glimpses, as if one was peeking into a lady’s chamber or the Emperor’s concubines’ quarters. This symbolizes the ripening and fermentation process. The movements are sensual and alluring. The costumes are highly textured in warm, inviting colors and showcase one arm clad in the traditional Chinese dance and opera “water sleeves.” This is the richest piece musically with Yueyue Wang on Chinese drum, singers Xiaohan Chen and Yujia Chen and Lu Liu (also the music consultant) on pipa, creating an intoxicating sonic blend.
At the performance, Lu Liu was honored with the New York Arts Achievement Award from New York State Assembly Assistant Speaker, Felix W. Ortiz, for her contributions as an outstanding musical performer, director and producer. The award is given to esteemed artists at the top of their craft with extraordinary talents and ability in their field.
Of her collaboration with Nuo An on this project, Liu says: “It’s an incredibly innovative process to connect Western audiences with the history and heritage of Eastern cultures. For my pipa part, I used different skills to depict the four-phases of black tea: Knocking the pipa’s wooden surface starts the story of fresh tea dropping into the tea dryer and shaking/rolling in the machine (like the dancers shaking their shoulders/body). I strummed the strings with the same rhythm pattern as the Chinese drum to depict power and depth, then used the tremolo at the end to depict the character of black tea – both soft and mature.”
The finale in the series “Moving Through Tea” was Pu’er, where a giant, gnarled tree graced the stage. The costumes are heavily fringed and fly with motion, inspiring associations with native tribes and primal cultures. Indeed, Pu’er is the “oldest tea” as it is fermented and ages well — the older the tea, the better. This dance transports one to an ancient forest where Nuo An herself presides over the nature like a wise woman. Here, the dancers truly embody the spirit of all of the flora and fauna of such a place, becoming birds, monkeys or deer, and finally mirroring the shape of the fallen tree with their own bodies. Composer and singer Xiaoming Tian utilizes his voice to bring the authentic sounds of ancient and modern Chinese music: “I try to use the full range of my voice and vocal techniques, from falsetto to bass and throat singing, to depict the figures and action. I approach it like a film score, reacting to and inspired by the dancers,” he recounted.
As for her impetus to portray “Universal Emotions,” Nuo An sees it as her mission and duty from her dance therapy background. “I want to show the inside of real human beings. We can be dark, we can be light and we have to accept our wholeness.” Through her new dance style, Spiritual Dance, Nuo An combines art and therapy to demonstrate to audiences that, “We are all the same.”
In “Love,” the male and female dancers were clad in flowing white gowns with a Grecian style and an otherworldly presence reminiscent of temple practices or rituals honoring and celebrating divine and spiritual love more than love of a romantic nature. Their gestures were rounded and soft, while the ethereal music “Spiritual Ascension” complemented the movement beautifully.
For “Sadness,” the dancers were veiled and appeared to be lost souls or ghosts, existing in a constant state of grief. Obscuring the face forces one to focus on the subtleties of their mournful gestures, right down to their toes. While they embodied the pain of loneliness, there was a sliver of hope in the moments the concealed figures came together, offering the comfort of human interaction.
“Joy” explores the simplicity of utter glee a child feels when at play. In this piece, Nuo An, later joined by other dancers, personifies youthful enchantment and charm as she engages with her big red balloon as if it were the answer to all of life’s problems and mysteries. She also performs a Chinese silks dance with equal parts elegance and jubilance. The lighthearted sounds of Andy Lin on viola and Julie Lee on flute contributed to the gaiety.
But the piece which most resonated with the audience in New York was “Anxiety.” It is truly terrifying! For the costuming, the anxious person wore a simple dancer’s clothes and the spirit of the emotion was covered head-to-toe in a menacing red bodysuit blocking the face or any sign of human kindness. The anxiety spirit held its victim and their sense of well-being totally captive like a puppeteer as aggressive, dissonant electronic music shattered the nerves and reminded one just how crippling and relentless anxiety can be for us all.
Such universality is the very heart of Nuo An’s mission and purpose in sharing and developing this new art form, particularly for Western audiences. Hailing from the Hunan Province of China, Nuo An graduated from the Beijing Dance Academy and the Pratt Institute’s Dance Therapy Program in New York. For over a decade, Nuo An explored various forms of experimental dance and dance theory to create what ultimately became Spiritual Dance, which was originally developed in China and has been further refined in the U.S.
As member of the United Nations Council on International Dance (CID), a frequent world-traveler, and universal spirit herself, this is Nuo An’s intention and also her impetus to further develop the work in the U.S. “I love American people because they are so open and their hearts are broad,” she asserts, “I am Chinese but my art is universal. This is why I wanted to develop and share Spiritual Dance with America people and work with American dancers. I want to share the soul and essences of other lives (like tea and emotions) with all people and to open their eyes and hearts to seeing differently and look at the spiritual nature of all things.”
Nuo An, her company and Spiritual Dance are indeed universal, though it is notable that she is Chinese and focusing on meaningful cultural exchange worldwide but specifically between China and the U.S. China’s significance in the world cannot be understated or underestimated. And, as a Chinese-born, globally-shaped artist she greatly honors her country of origin as well as her new home by the art she is creating and the ambitious purpose she proclaims with such determination and passion. Though these times can feel tense between nations, Nuo An’s work and mission promotes and celebrates our undeniable commonalities as human beings and even spiritual entities to unite all beings and cultures through the very essence of what lies at our core.
Dancers give curtain call after the May 11 performance at Peter Norton Symphony Space in Manhattan.
About the author
Cindy Sibilsky is a Broadway, Off Broadway, U.S. and international Producer, Tour Producer, Marketing/PR Director and a dance, theatre, film, music, arts & culture, culinary and travel writer/reviewer specializing in global cultural exchange and accessible, universally appealing entertainment. She is devoted to bringing the best shows and companies from around the world to modern audiences internationally or call attention to their work through featured reviews and in panel discussions. Her writing has been translated into Arabic, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese. She is a staff writer for StageBiz and Broadway World and writes for numerous outlets including several international publications in print and online. For more information on her company, InJoy Entertainment: www.injoyentertainment.com