Profile in Global City Review
In ancient times, says Taiwan-native, dancer/choreographer Yienan Song, dance was a sacred ritual to heal the human body, mind and spirit.
“Dancing is making love with God,” she says. “My most beautiful dancing is done in the dream state, where I can fly, float, and defy gravity. In American Indian and many other cultures, sages speak of the ‘dream body,’ we are most alive when we are in the unconscious dream state. When we awaken, we are in fact less awake, more limited. Sometimes when I awake I don’t want to come back to the physical world, and so I try to keep on in that dream state as I begin my daily dance.”
Song is the founder and artistic director of Ancient of Days Dance Theater, a modern dance theater nourished by ancient wisdom. Its philosophy: Dance is a means to rebirth our mental, emotional, physical body and soul bodies. Says Song, “The rite becomes alive when the human heart expands, the dance becomes virtuous when all levels of existence integrate into wholeness. When the wind blows, energy flows, the whole humanity begins to dance, and the planet begins to heal.”
Song began her dance training at the age of five, studying both classical Chinese dance and ballet, and was a principal dancer and choreographer for a variety of Taiwan-based companies before a dance scholarship to the California Institute of the Arts brought her to the U.S. in 1983. After earning her M.F.A., Song moved to New York in 1986, and founded Ancient of Days Dance Theater the following year. Utilizing a wide variety of disciplines, from traditional Taiwanese to Martha Graham-style modern, Song has created a vocabulary of movement that transcends cultural and stylistic divides.
Song believes that the divine essence which inspires us shows different faces in different cultures and times, but comes from one source. “How we move shows how we communicate with ourselves and the Source,” she says. The awareness has let to an integration of dance and healing in her life and work. Song praises the natural, unrestrained movements of children and animals, “and you see how freely, how beautifully and gracefully they move.”
Like Isadora Duncan, Song believes she was dancing before she was born, in her mother’s womb. This woman, who is able to articulate through dance passionate expressions of strength, sexuality and sacred power, was a scrawny, introverted child, shunned by playmates. Dance lessons were prescribed to strengthen her weak limbs, and she quickly became a star performer with a succession of dance companies. Song’s prominent Taiwanese family, who expected her to become a doctor or lawyer, disapproved of her choice of career – “This profession is almost on the level of a concubine in the Far East, she explains.
Song grew up in an atmosphere of war: like other Taiwanese children, she was trained to shoot guns and be ever-ready to defend the country against imminent invasion from the mainland. Though she loves Taiwan, she remembers the climate there as “unhealthy,” with much of mainland China’s émigré intelligentsia making a self-segregated, homogenous population on the small, crowded island. “It put a constraint on the children, who were expected to bring back all the honor and glory of the lost regime.”
After several years of performing, the damaging strictures, both mental and physical, of classical dance spawned a spiritual crisis that send Song on her journey to America. She learned the choreographic language of the Martha Graham School, yet found that this was still not her language. Slowly she learned to rediscover dance as an expression of the soul, a manifestation of our connection to what she calls the “sacred consciousness.”
“This is the connection that the great dancers have all had. Nijinsky became the roles he played. This was not done from technique. When he was censured for simulating lovemaking against his lover’s veil in ‘Afternoon of a Fawn,’ he said, “It was not me who did it, it was the fawn.”
Dancing in that state is the antithesis of the “one, two, one two” command in ballet. “Technicians do the movement,” Song says. “True dancers are the movement. It’s the difference between conquering the movement and being it. When you do that, something changes. I always had that ability when I was little, but when I trained with the company, I forgot.
“The beauty of the American Indian way of religion and dance is that they make the physical world their dream. If you see people who are mentally retarded, or go to a mental institution, you see people moving without their defenses. Their body-language is very powerful, because it is direct and uncensored; you see people rocking and swaying, inner-connected.”
“Some people who come to my class meditate very deeply at the beginning, and let go of their conscious minds and the week’s worries. Then they can dance very beautifully. You can’t dance without forgetting. The body has its own natural intelligence, when you let it take over. And then when they open their eyes and start looking at other people and being conscious of people looking at them, the magic is gone.”
Dancing well requires this teaming of the dream-consciousness with technique. The danger, says Song, is in becoming trapped in technique.
“When people connect to the Source, to nature, she says, “They create their true dances.” Different cultures, she notes, have developed dances in accordance with their natural environments. In Hawaii the undulating swaying is that of the surrounding ocean; in Africa the dance’s low center of gravity and stomping movement underlines that culture’s deep earth connection; in the Scottish highlands the native dance is upward-oriented, as if the dancers wished to rise further still into the atmosphere.
“When you connect with this sacred energy, you can do anything,” Song declares. “There are yogis who are said to walk on water. It is not impossible. Water is made of life, we are made of life. We are one. If with every cell of your body you think like that, you can do magic. That’s what I mean by a dream body or dream consciousness – you can become free of the physical reality.”
Music, says Song, helps to awaken your dream body. Both her classes and staged performances are accompanied by sacred music, ranging from Christian hymns to classical works to Buddhist chants and African, Near Eastern and Far Easter rhythms.
Song’s classes are held at the Omega Dance Studio, deep in the crypt of St. John the Divine Cathedral in Morningside Heights, Manhattan. Taking her class is far more a spiritual ritual – and yes, healing – than of physical instruction. The room is thick with incense and lit with sacred candles; icons of Christian, Buddhist and other religious faiths adorn the walls and space, including a giant wooden cross in the “meditation corner.”
The class in fact begins with a meditation session. Students sit on the floor in a semicircle, and are guided by Song’s hushed, soothing voice to clear their minds and become conscious of the various “chakras,” or energy centers within the body. Visualization and incantations are used to sweep out the extraneous worries of the mind before the body can begin its sacred rite of dance:
“We are all God’s children, and God is light, with every holy breath you take, this breath becomes your best friend. You can breathe in anger and judgment. Or you can breathe in flower, and ocean. If you concentrate on breathing in light, what happens? You begin to float.”
Her method is the antithesis of classical dance training, which emphasizes suffering and even punishment. “When you meditate,” she says, “visualize a lotus, and then your pelvis is not being strained and forced apart, as in ballet turnout, but opens naturally. All the tissue, bone and muscle, are as a flower opening up. Then you can move beautifully.”
From the state of meditation, students are encouraged to move spontaneously, in whatever way seems natural. For some, this could mean remaining prone, tapping the earth connection before beginning their own slow, rhythmic motions. Other students may stand nearly motionless, evolving a pose which expresses their inner state more strongly than motion could.
Once students have begun to freely articulate their own language of movement, Song begins the technique phase of the class, which varies week to week. One session might emphasize feeling the fluidity of waves in the arms and shoulder joints, in order to project that effect externally. In another, students practice dramatic Martha Graham-type movements, utilizing visualization to smoothly and painlessly sink to and rise from the floor.
In the third phase of the class, students combine these building blocks of technique with their own autonomous instinctive movements to create their own dances. After taking two or three classes, one discovers that there is no such thing as a “clumsy” dancer; the secret to feeling natural and confident on the floor is simply a matter of learning to tap into our own unknown store of power and grace.
One leaves Song’s class transformed – calm, healed, centered, worries in some inaccessible limbo. Often one is sunk into a state of deep meditative thought, disinclined to activity, conversation, doing, serene in a state where simply “being” is enough. Many students joke that Song’s class, which asks only a $10 donation to support the Omega Dance Company, a liturgical dance theater under the auspices of the Cathedral – is the cheapest, fastest, and most effective therapy in New York.
Many of Song’s students, and even some who have performed with her company, are not professionally trained dancers. Those who have undergone the strenuous, physically punitive and frequently emotionally demoralizing regime of serious classical ballet training, she says, have a harder time in her class, because, “They have more to unlearn.”
It took many years for Song herself to recognize and unlearn many of the strictures that had impeded her dancing and her true spirit’s expression. As a girl dancing professionally in Taipei, the traditional dance of the alluringly painted, modest young girl – the concubine persona – was a sexual lure that was at first unwitting.
“When you are young, you don’t realize that this dance has been structured to lead men on. That is the traditional Chinese equation – the demure, passive young girl, who is a blank slate that the old men want to write on. In China, sexuality is all for the man. That’s why I left Chinese dance. The choreography is designed to make you a sexual object; you cover your face, you turn away, you are this beautiful, beautiful girl. After you’re seventeen, you’re too old. They teach you subtly this seduction; they don’t say this word, and you don’t even realize you’re doing it. Then these old, hungry men come backstage after the performance. In America the dancing is sexually open, and can be threatening to men. In China, it’s all beautiful, but it’s a lie.”
Dance, says Song, must incorporate the complicated, darker passions as well as the surface beauty of life. She likewise finds fault with some of the “new age” philosophy which first attracted her when she moved to California. “Too many of these people are looking for peace through illusion,” she says. “These people want to be in heaven so bad, but they don’t want to prepare. You must go to hell and realize – this is an illusion, it is not scary. In Buddhist religion, the kingdom of hell is also very beautiful – there is not so much the separation, there is the duality, the light and dark and interrelated. That is what’s wrong with some of the new-agers; they are looking for only light without learning from the dark.” Similarly, viewing Song’s staged performances, like taking her class, is an intense experience of both; one is moved at a deep, almost unconscious level. While open to interpretation, the dances generally represent a theme or story. One Ancient of Days dance, “Daughters & Sons from the Atlantis,” derived from the Greek myth, lovingly evokes the rhythms of the tides through the dancers’ circular, repetitive, push-and-pull movements. Dancing in alternating trios of men and w omen, company members surge back and forth like waves. Throughout, the dancers’ body language brings to mind the somnambulism of sleep, the state of dreams, and the effect on the audience is soothing and serene.“Weavers of Time” seems to begin in pre-history, a world in darkness as in the Old Testament. In depicting a panoramic evolution of civilization, Song fully integrates her many disciplines, making effective use of the distinctive poses of Eastern dance. Conversely to the aims of classical ballet, which seeks to create the illusion of freedom from gravity, company dancers seem to draw their energy from the earth. The dance succeeds best when consciousness predominates; a segment called “cycles” effectively conveys the depths of human despair in times of war through direct emotional essence, rather than the technique of the dancers’ movements.When Song herself takes center stage in her solo dances, then the real fruition of her creative and spiritual philosophy becomes apparent.In “When Passions Were Born,” Song has created a solo Dance of the Seven Veils, each veil symbolic of a stage in the world’s and woman’s life history. Backed by the rhythms of Eastern, Celtic and African percussion, the dance is striking for its fusion of sexual and sacred power. Anger, lust, rebellion and jealousy are raw emotions, structured into a powerful dance performed by Song, clad in filmy translucent yellow as she snakes across the stage with a seemingly supernatural fluidity of movement.