The Fall 2014 semester has begun, inspiring me to reflect upon one of the best books I read over the summer: SanSan Kwan’s Kinesthetic City: Dance & Movement in Chinese Urban Spaces, published last year by Oxford University Press. This scholarly work explores Chinese diasporic identity by looking at both the physical experience of moving within specific urban areas and the formal choreography produced in these locales. It also considers the interrelationship between the two.
I went to grad school with SanSan, and remember reading earlier drafts of some of the chapters contained in this book back when we were students in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University in the late 90s. I was impressed back then with her ability to synthesize a range of material—aesthetic, political, theoretical—and I’m delighted to see how she’s advanced her arguments and analysis in the intervening years.
The book’s chapters focus on Taipei, Hong Kong, and New York City, along with an introduction that considers Shanghai and an epilogue devoted to Los Angeles. Each of these five cities has a different relationship to mainland China, and contains a significant population of ethnically Chinese persons who negotiate the ways in which they identify as Chinese. The notion of “Chineseness” is separated from simplistic notions of nationality or biology, and literally put in motion as the book examines a range of transnational sites.
One of the central ideas promoted by the book is that cities can be kinesthetically experienced. That is, the body’s awareness of motion can be used to gain an understanding of the way space is organized and utilized by the inhabitants in any given locale. There is a contrast, for example, between the urban flow of Taipei and the more structured, machine-like efficiency of motion found in Hong Kong. There are also different ways individuals interact with a city – biking in Shanghai, walking in New York’s Chinatown, and driving in Los Angeles. The author recognizes her own subjectivity in characterizing the movements of and within these cities, but also gives ample evidence to support her interpretations.
Moreover, she speaks to the specificity of historical moments and is not just giving generalized observations. Her chapter on Hong Kong, for instance, is set during and immediately after the fraught period when the sovereignty of the city was transferred from Great Britain to China in 1997. While officially ending the former’s colonial rule, the handover created a great amount of uncertainty about how the city’s inhabitants would be governed. Tensions were high, and the chapter’s discussion of Falun Gong protests around this time—characterized by silent marches through the street—shows how these acts of civil disobedience were a litmus test of the one country, two systems policy that was set in place. (Recent street demonstrations in Hong Kong regarding voting reforms show the continued strain placed upon this political arrangement.)
Each chapter includes a performance analysis of at least one formally choreographed dance piece. The look at Taipei is intertwined with an examination of how the dance company Cloud Gate reflects and even seeks to define the Chinese cultural identity of Taiwan as a whole. In the segment on New York City’s Chinatown, there is a discussion of the site-specific, post-9/11 dance piece Apple Dreams by Chen and Dancers, performed at the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center in March 2007.
SanSan used to be part of the Chen and Dancers ensemble, which she readily acknowledges and utilizes to share insights into the company’s work and aesthetics. In so many ways, it is her own experience as a dancer that has given her the kinesthetic awareness that makes her book even possible. She is attentive to the way her body moves in space and time. Even better, she is adept at describing both her personal experience and those she observes.
This is my favorite aspect of Kinesthetic City, as SanSan has a real gift for thick description. In her account of Hong Kong choreographer Helen Lai’s Revolutionary Pekinese Opera, which comments upon the destabilization affecting the city during the handover, she writes:
Later in the piece, dancers run up to rolled strips of Astroturf. They balance hesitantly, then fall, then run again. Falling, breaking down, and moving from unison to jaggedness become recurring motifs in this dance. In the penultimate section, the full cast bursts on stage tossing red ribbons in the air. At first they seem to replicate the traditional ribbon dance of so many Chinese celebrations. But their glee dissipates as dancers begin to fall out of rhythm, jumping and tossing erratically, smiling like automatons (82).
Not only does this give us a good idea of what the performance looked like, it also conveys the mood and energy of it. Such attention to detail makes the book not only an important work in the field of dance and performance studies scholarship, but also a pleasure to read.