Recently, I had the opportunity to see the New Star Chinese School’s Chinese Spring Festival Celebration. It was a series of performances – singing, dance, theater – based on elements of both ancient and contemporary Chinese culture.
As I watched a skit performed by school children about the origins of the New Year story speaking only in Mandarin, I was very aware that I was missing much of the message. I didn’t understand the spoken language, nor am I familiar with the visual imagery of the drums and dragon costumes. There are centuries of layers to this culture and I was pretty lost.
Then it occurred to me: is this what some people feel like when they watch modern or contemporary dance? The layers of history that help me understand and appreciate movements like a torso contraction, might be foreign to a person unfamiliar with the art form. My years of study and immersion in the contemporary dance culture as practiced by my company (I’ve danced with PTDT since 2009) give me a privileged place of understanding of our work.
But does it matter? Does it matter if I knew exactly what those kids were saying or what the drums and dragons were all about? I know that at the end of the skit, those kids were very pleased with their performance and that it took a lot of courage to get up on that stage in front of a couple hundred people to share the art that they had made. I also know that while I may not have made the same connections as the audience members who understood the language the children spoke, I still made a connection to those kids as performers and people who were telling a story.
Later, I realized that this is just what Judith Jamison was talking about in her interview on the PBS News Hour when she said, “All we want you to do to is get in the theater. You know, just get — there’s nothing like live performance. And you have to remember, there’s no test at the end of it. It’s like looking at a painting, you know? You look at a painting, you get something from it or you don’t get something. It moves you or it doesn’t move you, you know? There’s nobody strapping you in your seat and saying, you have got to get this.”
And even though I know I didn’t understand all of the performance I saw, I am certain that I am glad I went. So I encourage you to go see a performance and don’t worry if you don’t get it. You really don’t have to for the experience to have been worth while.