Thursday, June 24, 2010


The Promise "Bows" 6/25/2010

Ann Marie DeAngelo Visits China to Choreograph a New Musical

At the start of 2010 I never imagined that by the spring I would be working in the capital of Inner Mongolia, choreographing a musical for the Shanghai Expo. I guess there were signs - my astrology chart, for instance, indicated a "surprise" in April. But, China was never on my radar as a place to go or even see, except for Tibet in China? Never mind – the point is, I spent two months there (and I did see a Temple and some Tibetan monks). This blog is the start of a journal-thru-time, the day-by-day account of what it was like to choreograph the first original musical ever staged in China.

Monk at DaZhao

The musical was called The Promise – at least until the last minute, when the Chinese producers decided to rename it Heart of Love. Whatever the title, this show is a hybrid of opera, musical theater, eclectic dance, and indigenous folklore. Many, many wonderful things occurred in the process – and sometimes the not-so-good turned out to be equally as good as the good.

The Arrogance of American Audacity
Before I go on, I have to acknowledge that oddly permeating the whole experience was this unspoken.....subversive if you will, underlying attitude, a faux sense of superiority. The producer/director was American, so was the musical director, and so am I. Not that we had this attitude. But, I feel it like a low-grade malaise whenever I work in other cultures (particularly the Third World). It is something that we as Americans don’t even realize we possess, something maybe inherent in our cultural upbringing, something unkind and assuming........i.e. we are the biggest, the best, the most, the authority, the only way to go or do things, the thats-just-the-way-it-is kind of attitude - that, that we inadvertently feel every non-American must succumb to. It was there when I started a ballet company in Mexico. We’re smart and everyone else is stupid.

Why is that? But anyway....

Rehearsal schedule posted....
when there was one in advance
The Dancers
Dancers do not feel this. Dancers have a universal camaraderie that defies cultural differences and politics. I immediately felt connected to the dancers in our company – dancers whom I could not verbally communicate with, who lived in this obscure corner of the world, isolated from anything current or mainstream. From the onset we united and connected through a language known only to dancers, a sense of purpose realized only by the dance, a connection to the spirit that is unspoken, a larger-than-life purpose that we must share, and a willingness to go to whatever length it takes to do just that. We understood each other and knew it by feeling it, knew it by the dance vocabulary shared, new it by the completion of a step, knew it just with a look in the eye. I moved, they imitated me. I asked, they gave. They allowed themselves to be exploited - in a good way, in a way that in the end their potential was realized above and beyond what might have been expected.

In and of itself, the project was a big risk to undertake in China. It took these kids incredible courage to be open to new ideas, new ways of thinking and doing. With hearts on their sleeves and a childlike innocence our journey began – and from the first day we were family.

The 34 dancers I used were from The Mongolian Song & Dance Company. A smaller group of them comprised the contemporary dance ensemble, the ones I ended up spotlighting the most. They had backgrounds in classical ballet – I have no idea what pedagogy - but they were basically contemporary/modern dancers, with strong skills in Mongolian Folk/traditional dances. Some were better than others, with ballet technique the level of any principal dancer in the US. Others had more character-dance skills reminiscent of Russian Cossack dancers, where the men could out-jump any I’ve seen, and out-trick most ballet dancers. The woman ranged from a kind of lyric eroticism in their interpretations of folk-dance, mixed with those who had a better ability to tackle the most contemporary of American dance styles, e.g., jazz or hip hop. Oh, and the Chinese acrobats I got to work with were another layer of incredible all together.

Ann Marie in rehearsal in Hohhut (C. J., an American translator, is at the far left)

How I Worked with the Acrobats

Assembling what the acrobats had to do, and then putting it into a cohesive structure that would be able to fit into a dance within the context of the story, was a unique experience for me. The process went something like this:

1) I make a video of a routine they did, jumping and flipping through hoops at the end of long poll-like horse-catching hoops (they literally use these hoops to catch horses with in Mongolia).

2) I edit together a sequence of the best stunts into a phrase of 8 -8’s.

3) I show the lead acrobat the sequence on my laptop and ask him if he thinks they could condense the moves and the time-frame, later to be put to different music.

4) He communicates the idea; the acrobats practice it a few times and determine it is possible.

5) At the next rehearsal I put the sequence to the music. It would take them a few more times to be able to comfortably get it all in eight 8’s, but it worked beautifully and was still exciting as if they were doing their original routine.

Visit my photo gallery at for more shots of acrobats learning the 8 - 8's.

Chinese acrobat in “Catch the Girl”

The dancers’ work ethic was very different from what we in the West know. Remember the recent Olympics opening ceremonies - masses working together like clockwork? These dancers were used to rehearsing one gesture for weeks until everyone did it the exactly the same way. I witnessed a bit of that when I had their leader clean some of the choreography - and saw the way she pulled it apart, got each one to observe the other, sharing in correction. Hence part of the process of what becomes that synchronized precision dance characteristic of what comes out of China - of what we saw on the Olympics - and the power that comes from that kind of unison. And, what could never be done in the time (time is money), no patience or desire....even if we cared to do it.

End pose "Like a Horse"

My challenge then was how to put the dances together quickly, having never before seen these dancers, with no assistants who could share in the teachings; to rehearse as we do in the West; and help the dancers understand how to retain something foreign to them. The issue of doing things full-out and not marking them was a big one. Mostly because our translators did not understand what that meant, and couldn’t communicate it. Something that simple became a major challenge. I was able to acknowledge the limitations of the situation and decide to push the envelope anyway.

Our theater, where we performed at the Shanghai Expo 2010

The Dances Created

I think the biggest joy for me in the creative process is the process of discovery and integration, discovery steps that would become a vocabulary of movements. I am not a minimalist, and I rely on steps as a basis for expressing the essence of dance. In this process I would see someone do a step and then find a place to integrate that step in the context of the dance. Coming from a ballet background I have developed a lot of choreographic material over the years - like words, it can be reused and rearranged. In each situation - especially if I go into one without an assistant who is familiar with my work, or with a "sketch team" that is not my own - I draw on this wealth of material. However, dancers are dancers anywhere in the world and we share a common language regardless of a language barrier.

Exploitation is a good thing! In each different situation I look for what is unique to those particular dancers....what can they do that someone else can't; what potential do I see that can be realized; where are they open; where can I push or pull out of them. The dancers in Hohhut were some of the most open dancers I've ever worked with. The levels were varied - some not very high, and others equal to good dancers anywhere in the world. In the end, the dancers I was honored to have worked had their limits pushed and they grew from the experience.

One of the pleasures of working on this project was that I wasn't producing or directing, my only responsibility was to realize the vision of the director and do just one job: choreograph.

One dancer became my muse, and ended up being a kind of assistant. He didn't speak English, but he spoke dance. He was skilled in ballet, modern and character dances - had a great jump and also a lyric quality. He was able to adapt to new ways of moving quickly and I ended up spotlighting him the most. His name was Gouzhujia, but everyone called him Tsu for short. I could never pronounce it correctly, and only later found out I was calling him "cow"..... Ooops!

Tsu's Solo in Hong Yan
Tsu in Hong Yan

Discovery & Integration: working on material with the Men...

Left: Mongolian Welcome. Right: China Wonder (on the train to Shanghai)

The Process: Discovery & Integration - working with the women in the Mongolian Welcome dance

Ladies in Mongolian Welcome

Photos below: Like a Horse (Shanghai office scene)

Discovery & Integration - Men and Women in Mongolian Walk

Photos below: Mongolian Walk segment

Below: "Catch the Girl" from end of the piece when they all catch each other with horse lassos instead of the girl

Hair Parting Scene (Just One Time) with Tuoya and Female Danceres

A MUST listen!!! Check out this video of Homai singers - a kind of ancient Mongolian chant.

Singers: Chang Dian (and yes those guttural songs are coming from her!) Wen Li

Horsehead Fiddle: Fiddles & Dance segment in Mongolian Welcome

Horsehead Fiddle player

On a personal note.....The biggest success of all was that I never had to squat. Once I heard about the state of the public bathrooms in China, I was determined to never experience one!


I have added a few more random photos below, which include shots of Hohhut, my Beijing trip, and Shanghai. A couple are from David Caldwell's collection.
Enjoy browsing!


Store front in Hohhut (left); DaZhao Temple in Hohhut (center); Powerful Horse Symbol on building top (right)

Side Trip to Beijing

Left: Me on The Great Wall below (I am the red speck on it). Right: The Performing Arts Center

The "DONT'S" outside the Performing Arts Center


It's a city so big 5 NYC’s could fit comfortably inside of it.

Shanghai river skyline near Seagull Hotel (left); China Pavilion at Expo

Expo Logo...


China Diary Dance Photos

China Diary non-Dance Photos

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