The program was quite intense and in many ways opened windows into the Western world. Apart from academic studies consistent with university standards, we did a lot of physical work. Daily dance classes were essential. Different local and visiting choreographers came to talk to us. We saw a number of videos of the works of such choreographers as Martha Graham, George Balanchine and Maurice Béjart. The choreographic process included assignments to be completed, viewed and discussed. Subjects for dance were mostly about Chinese life, love stories, army heroism and peasant liberation, in line with the political climate of China. The window to the West was only open a crack when we got down to Chinese themes. Academic subjects included history of dance, English (which most of us did not like), writing, film and music (piano).
In April 1990, Grant Strate was invited to teach and choreograph a work for the Beijing Dance Academy, which existed only a few blocks from the PLA Academy. I invited him to come to our school and he taught some classes and showed videotapes he had brought with him. I was particularly impressed by the work Stomping Ground by Jirí Kylián. Grant was also asked by our director at the academy to look at some of the students' choreography and to give comments. He was in a difficult spot because everyone was waiting to be congratulated, but he managed to speak truthfully, mentioning cultural differences between the West and China, without offending anyone. He spoke about “abstraction”, which was difficult for us to understand. He also tried to explain the meaning of “modern dance” when asked for a definition. Everyone wanted an exact answer. He said it was more of a philosophy than a technique – that was also difficult for us to understand.
I spoke to Grant about my real interest in studying modern dance. He invited me to come to Canada to attend the Summer Dance Intensive at the Centre for the Arts at Simon Fraser University (SFU). As he was the director of the Centre for the Arts, he could send me an official invitation to attend. This letter proved to be my gateway to the West.
It was a long story. How I got there …
CA: I'd like to hear it.
WWW: It was very diffcult to leave China. In order to do this, I had to quit the PLA Art Academy before graduation. Had I finished the course, I would have been legally obligated to work within China for five years as everything had been paid for by the government. I returned to Lanzhou and asked the director of my company for permission to leave the country. His answer was no, but he was sympathetic to my request. China was just beginning to open its borders and somehow I eventually received the green light. This meant I had to quit my job and lose all the benefits that went with it.
So I returned to Xi'an, to my parents' home. I became freelance. My parents were shocked. My father wouldn't even talk to me for quite a while.
It took me about half a year to make all these changes and then I had to apply for a passport. In China at the time, nobody had passports. It took another half year to obtain my passport in the spring of 1991. The SFU course was to begin in June, so there was very little time to get a student visa from Canada. Through Grant's contacts I was invited by the Canadian Ambassador and his wife Eva to their home to have dinner. When I walked in near the door, the guard at the gate said, “You're not supposed to be here.” Then I saw a blonde, tall, beautiful woman – she was waving at me and the soldier had to let me in.
I went into their place, to this beautiful apartment. Eva helped me finish the visa application form. Then she said, “Will you dance for us? We want to know how you dance.” I said, “Okay, put on some music, whatever you choose.” Eva put on a piece by Bach – and I danced. Afterward she said, “You are a fine dancer.”
After a week, I received my student visa. When I went through customs at the airport, they had to check and double-check my visa – it took half an hour. Finally I arrived – that is how I came back to Canada in 1991, with $200 and two pieces of luggage.
Recently, I was on an airplane to Toronto when I watched the movie Argo (a film about the Canadian ambassador sheltering American diplomatic staff in Iran), and during the scene at the airport, just before they get into safe airspace, I was crying. That tension – you feel it … “Ah. You're safe. You're free.” I felt that relief.
CA: It's hard for us to imagine. Finally you arrived … there you are in Vancouver … what was it like for you, that first Summer Intensive at Simon Fraser?
WWW: I arrived in Vancouver on June 2nd. Grant met me at the airport and invited me to stay at his house until I was able to find my own place. On my second day in Canada, I went to an audition for the Judith Marcuse Dance Company. It was at the Dance Gallery, which was familiar territory. I was surprised when Judith approached me after the audition and asked me if I would be interested in joining her group. I said, “Of course!” How perfect … her rehearsals started in August, so I was able to finish the Summer Intensive.
My first class at SFU was with Peggy Baker. I had never before seen a female dancer with such a strong, muscular, beautiful and long body. The first exercise at the barre had me standing in a parallel position that pained my hips. After so much Russian ballet training, it was hard to turn parallel. But I enjoyed her class. I was very excited to be moving in this way, because everything was new and fresh to me.