Willy Tsao

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52 years old, choreographer

Willy Tsao is the godfather of modern dance in China. His influence has been vast, yet his humility runs deep: having established three companies in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Beijing, he argues that it was all a matter of luck. “Things came naturally,” he says humbly. “Before me there were people who spent twice the amount of effort as me, but maybe did not make it work because the time was not right. It just happened that I was there in the right place, at the right time.”

Tsao’s career has mirrored the rise of Hong Kong, and then the meteoric rise of China. As a young man in 1979 he followed his dream to set up a modern dance company in Hong Kong, and with initial funding from his wealthy mother and a team of dance enthusiasts, he formed the City Contemporary Dance Company. He says that it was the perfect time to establish the company: not only was there a need for a new voice in dance; the government was equally starting to invest in the arts. “In the early eighties, Hong Kong started to have this awareness of what it means to be Hong Kong Chinese. At the same time, the government started to realise that instead of just promoting colonialism, they should start investing in local artists.”

Tsao drew acclaim for the pioneering work that CCDC was doing in Hong Kong, and by 1986, as Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door policy was sweeping through Southern China, he caught the attention of the powers that be on the mainland; he was invited to the country to introduce modern dance. “Since I’m Hong Kong Chinese with an understanding of Western culture, I became the very natural person to be invited. I just went without thinking anything.”

He was invited to teach at the Beijing Dance Academy and the Guangdong Dance Academy, and by the early nineties, he had convinced the authorities to set up the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, where he served as artistic director. By 1999, he was also the artistic director of the newly formed Beijing Modern Dance Company.  

In the years leading up to 1997, when many Hongkongers were starting to question their uncertain futures, Tsao was already firmly established in China. “It never dawned on me that I had to prepare for 1997,” he admits. “When I was first invited in 1987 to teach in Guangdong, for me it was natural. I consider myself like water that will go where it is needed. You can’t control it, you just go.”

Despite moving like water, it hasn’t necessarily been an easy ride. Tsao has had to introduce the individualistic ethics of modern dance into a land where freedom of expression has never come naturally. He admits that there has been a huge amount of resistance. “Modern dance to me is about a personal voice, I have to convince the people that this is something important, but also how does it become part of their Chinese culture? In China I am now saying modern dance is not a Western art form. It is a voice of any society when it comes to a modern era. Any artist, when they come of age, they have their own voice.”

He points out that the voice emerging from China is markedly different from Western modern dance. There is a collectivism, he says: “I never see this kind of thing in the West. If you have a Martha Graham company, everyone works around Martha Graham, and if a dancer says ‘I want to do something else’, they have to break away from the company and build another group around them. Modern dance is so individual. But in China, these dancers can have a very different perspective and yet when they get together it’s much easier for them to submit themselves or lay down their own thoughts and work with each other. I think this is because collectivism happens there. Is there a way that this individualism and collectivism can work together and create something new in the form of modern dance?”

Despite his achievements, Tsao says that the highlight of his career was back in 1979. “The first day we had our studio, on the rooftop of the building, I got there, I stretched on the floor, feeling the air, the sunshine, the birds, and I thought ‘oh, I’ve fulfilled my dream, I don’t need anything more’.” Clare Morin


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