When you watch the women of the Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company move, it can be hard to know where to rest your eyes. That’s because in addition to the sensual swirls of movement they create onstage, they often use props such as silk ribbons, fans and other accessories to further their many talents.
And while audiences are sure to pick up on the Chinese elements the dancers bring to the forefront—especially when they’re utilizing those eye-catching, energy-extending props—their shows also incorporate many facets of Western ballet and modern dance, making for performances that are at once both ancient and contemporary.
When founder Lily Cai started the company more than 20 years ago, it was with the aim of merging the divergent dance styles to create a performance style that was open to many different types of choreography.
As a former dancer with the Shanghai Opera House, Cai started her dance company as a way to move away from the rigid guidelines she’d experienced during her years with the government-funded behemoth—which had two different departments (dance and opera) and more than 1,000 employees.
While she was with the opera house, it was being run by Russians, and dancers needed to learn Chinese classical, as well as foreign styles of dance, ballet and folk-ethnic dances. That was all well and good, but Cai recalls that they spent many years learning choreography that was never, ever used.
Another guideline that rankled Cai was that, despite their many years of study, dancers were forced to retire when they hit the age of 30.
Deciding she wanted to control her own destiny, in 1983 Cai left Shanghai and moved to the United States. It would be five years before she started her own company in San Francisco, but by the time she did in 1988, she knew exactly what she wanted to do.
First off, she chose dancers who were passionate about their craft as well as proficient. Secondly, she developed her own technique to improve the strength and stamina of the dancers. Drawing upon her history and culture, she uses the Chinese philosophy of Yin-Yang and the concepts of energy flow to further the talents of her performers. Meditation comes into play, as well.
When “Dynasties and Beyond” comes to the Mount Baker Theatre Dec. 1, audiences can see for themselves how Cai has used her heritage—and her own talents—to create a one-of-a-kind company. Even if you’re not sure where to aim your eyes, you can rest assured there’ll always be something interesting to see.
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