An American dance company and a Chinese troupe collaborate to explore cultural differences and similarities. | Dance | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

An American dance company and a Chinese troupe collaborate to explore cultural differences and similarities.

Dance may be a universal language, but it is spoken around the globe with as many accents as there are dancers. Differences in movement, interpretations of what dance is and more all influence how dance is spoken.

For choreographer Margaret Jenkins, an invitation to teach in China in 2004 led to a cross-continental exploration of dance, and how individual cultures shape its expression.

On Oct. 24, at the Byham Theater, the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and the Guangdong Modern Dance Company perform Other Suns (trilogy), a new work based on those explorations. The show is presented by the Pittsburgh Dance Council.

Formerly a dancer with Twyla Tharp's original dance company, Jenkins founded her San Francisco-based company in 1970. She employed a choreographic style she describes as ferocious, virtuosic and quite nuanced -- all elements she brings to Other Suns.

While in China, Jenkins also visited two other Chinese modern dance companies. She says she chose to create Other Suns with the Guangdong province company because of its like-minded approach.

"The dancers in Guangdong seemed to have an appetite for working in the way that I like to work, which is very collaboratively with the dancers," says Jenkins by phone from San Francisco.

Jenkins prefers to work with her dancers to create movement, rather than just teaching them set choreography. Other Suns was built in that way, says Jenkins, with the dancers from both companies playing an integral part in the creative process.

"Where I launched the piece from was to investigate the ways in which symmetry and asymmetry, as well as fragility and one's sense of humanity, exist in both of our cultures," says Jenkins. "Looking at the different ways one might perceive those differences and how we might articulate them in a physical language." 

Work began in 2008. Other Suns premiered in its complete form as a 90-minute trilogy in September, at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. It visits Pittsburgh as part of a U.S. tour.

Its first section addresses how Jenkins views American culture and how we interact with one another and get from one place to another -- both literally and figuratively. It is danced by eight members of her company.

The second section, danced by seven members of Guangdong Modern, reflects the troupe's affinity for symmetry and uniformity. It was choreographed by Guangdong's executive artistic director, Liu Qi, with direction from Jenkins. The work's final section shines a light on how the two dance companies and cultures worked together. 

Seen on video, the choreography of an excerpt of Other Suns' final section comes across as Jenkin's described it to me: driving and technically demanding. It was also beautifully crafted, with unexpected juxtapositions of movement and visual elements.

The work is set to music by Chinese composer Bun-Ching Lam and Jenkins' longtime collaborator, composer Paul Dresher. Meanwhile, lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols deploys 107 hanging lights, strip lights and fluorescents in the work. The goal, says Jenkins, was to create atmospheres that one might experience in these two different parts of the world.

"I hope what we have done," she says, "is to make a work that asks an audience to reflect on what is different about these two cultures, and what is universal about being in the world."


Margaret Jenkins Dance Company & Guangdong Modern Dance Company perform Other Suns (trilogy) 8 p.m. Sat., Oct. 24 Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. $19.50-40. 412-456-6666 or

click to enlarge Collaborative approach: Other Suns (trilogy)
Collaborative approach: Other Suns (trilogy)

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