Gilded Serpent presents...

A Journey to Fuse the World

Aubre performs a solo

Aubre Hill’s Second Asia Tour and Greater China Visit

by Lisa Chen
Photo courtesy of Kelli Li & Hsiao-chiu Yao
posted January 14, 2013

In 2012, Aubre Hill, an American dancer based in Los Angeles,  returned to Taiwan for the second year running as a workshop teacher and performer.  There were good reasons why many sponsors would have avoided the challenge of bringing a workshop teacher back so quickly, but sponsor Kelli Li had a plan.

Is “Coming Soon” too soon?
Aubre Hill earned respect for her teaching and dancing styles at the 2011 events in Taiwan.  But when Kelli Li, the event sponsor, told me that she would sponsor Aubre Hill again in 2012 and with longer hours, I had my doubts about the feasibility of the project.

  • The first reason is that belly dance is relatively new in Taiwan.  Workshops that teach choreography have been the most common way to communicate dance skills to workshop attendees because choreographies are considered the easiest to learn.  Students who attended in 2011 might not be enthusiastic about coming back and learning choreographies from the same teacher.
  • The second reason is traditional Chinese respect for teachers.  It is part of our culture to value and respect our teachers.  We should not and would not ask or question our teacher on how she chooses to teach.  In addition,  traditional cultural values and folk customs have long regarded a superficial politeness and harmony as a great merit, which in turn discourages people from verbalizing  their true feelings or thoughts or constructive suggestions. This may be universal but it is particularly true in Eastern society.   Therefore, one could not be sure that positive word-of-mouth would mean good attendance during the second year.
  • The third reason is our ability to absorb new information rapidly and then move on.  Our island has experienced repeated colonial invasions. We adapted to the many changes and different cultures of  those colonial rulers over a period of  four centuries. As a result, we have developed an ability to be very open to new cultures and information and are willing to give them a try,  but we also put things away easily for newer material.  Belly dance in Taiwan has had its heyday in terms of popular attention and high curiosity. To develop this artistic transplant  into a rooted art form with serious interest and respect is another story.

But Kelli had a plan!

Because of the reasons listed above, bringing Aubre back so soon was a financial risk.  But Kelli’s approach to achieving success, based on collaborative planning between sponsor and artist, overcame these obstacles.  Kelli says that workshop instructors have professional knowledge, technique and experiences but they don’t know what workshop attendees really need without the sponsor providing background information or discussion in advance. “You really want to bring out the best neutral interest for the two parties.”  Kelli, who is both a dancer and  a professional event organizer, wanted Aubre back because “Aubre is very willing and open to discuss and be out of the box in terms of teaching approaches and content resulting in better learning results.”

Kelli has observed a new trend in the local community.  “More and more dancers and students realize the importance of technique, and they also realize that learning technique could be acquired in many different ways rather than just from others’ choreographies.” Kelli said. “They just don’t know how and where to find and learn about those techniques.”

That is why last year Kelli and Aubre worked out a “combo-style” workshop plan. Kelli thought bundling choreography and technique workshops together would be attractive to those who really want to move beyond choreography to technique, while also giving dancers who usually limit themselves to learning choreographies a chance to  experiment with the essence of technique within the safety of the choreography  they just learned.

The workshops went over very well. Teachers who attended recommended and encouraged their students to sign up for Aubre’s workshops this year.

2012 built on the successes of 2011 with more workshops, more locations,  concerts and a lecture.

This June, Aubre spent almost one month in the “Greater China” area,  teaching in Mainland China and Hong Kong as well as Taiwan. Her first stop on this tour was Taiwan, where she taught two weekend workshops and two weeklong workshops.

The weekend workshops were targeted at the general public, with the subjects chosen after feedback (via questionnaires) from attendees at the 2011 workshops, Kelli’s observations of the local community, and Kelli’s discussions with Aubre.  (The top three workshops from 2011 were Layering Gone Wild, The Geometry of Hipwork,  and Drum Solo; the top three workshops in 2012 were Layering Gone Wild, Abs for Every Bellydancer, and Dynamic Drum Solos.)  Kelli said that Aubre is very generous about sharing her decade of dancing and teaching experience to make workshops richer in terms of content and atmosphere.

Weeklong workshops are not new in Taiwan, and they are increasingly popular with professional dancers and committed artists who want longer hours and more material. Working together through such long hours facilitates a trusting relationship and  instructor and attendees get to know each other better. And, as Kelli observes, the attendees get to know each other well and it is becomes organic to have those local dancers and students exchanging and co-working together.

In 2012 Aubre taught two different styles at the weeklong workshops. The afternoon session was fusion choreography with a femme fatale theme. The evening session was raks sharqi choreography.  Each session ran for two hours and for five days.  In the first hour of each session Aubre focused on technique, polishing of steps and movements, and background knowledge and information.  (For example, at the raks sharqi session, Aubre talked about the specific aesthetics of raks sharqi and saidi as a cultural concept as well as an artistic expression.)  In the second hour, Aubre led workshop attendees to integrate what they just learned with the choreography.

During Aubre’s stay in Taiwan, she also gave a lecture on the history of bellydance, including the origin of tribal belly dance and belly dance fusion.  Lecture-style courses are common in the global bellydance communities. For Taiwan, this was probably the very first formal one.

Fuse the World! – A Collective Effort for an Amazing Evening

One unique feature for the weeklong workshop sessions in 2012 was an audition for the event performances; a new idea here. Since most bellydance performance events in Taiwan are troupe recitals or joint recitals, it is assumed that all performers are either troupe members or students taught by the troupes.

aubre and
Aubre and Hsiao-chiu Yao

This audition was open to those who attended weeklong workshops. I asked Hsiao-chiu YAO, a professional belly dancer and instructor, as well as a beautiful and proud new mom, about the audition. She signed up for both weeklong workshops as the set-up gift after giving birth to a cute baby boy. Hsiao-chiu said that weeklong workshop attendees could decide if they want to attend this audition. They were arranged into several groups to dance the choreography in turns. Those who applied for audition performed first and those who preferred not to later. Hsiao-chiu said that Aubre’s teaching truly inspired her especially after giving birth and breast-feeding her son. She enjoyed both workshops as well as both choreographies very much so that she wanted to dance in front of Aubre as a way of gratitude expression. She was not nervous when auditioning and she felt so honored to be able to dance in front of Aubre.

A stage production cannot consist of only two choreographies. Kelli said that she didn’t picture a grand-scale bellydance performance but rather something different. Since Aubre is well known as a bellydancer fluent in different  fusion styles, it was quite reasonable to present a stage production with both dance and music fusion. That’s how “Fuse the World” evolved.

It was truly out-of-box thinking. Instead of having a conventional Middle East band, Kelli talked to several musician friends ( including percussionist Alex Wu, cello artist Jun-lien Yeh, and traditional Chinese string instrument Pipa artist Yi-ren Chao) about live music. Those young musicians were very excited at working together with dancers  on non-conventional music pieces.

In addition to fusion with music, there were also dancers from other dance forms such as Jazz, Modern dance and Ballroom dance. Kelli said that since the local bellydance community is so interested in fusion bellydance styles, it would be helpful for this community to watch some examples of dance forms they want to fuse with as reference.

Even the audience was assorted. Unlike conventional belly dance stage productions or performance events here, with the majority of the audience coming from the local bellydance community, this event attracted people who had never seen bellydance before. Kelli even persuaded some corporations to sponsor this event by purchasing tickets for employees to enjoy an evening of music and dance.

Three Regional Flavors for One Universal Drink

Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mainland China not only are geographically very close to each other, but they also connect with each other historically and culturally. This Greater China area is  developing rapidly in terms of global economics. There are also  artistic and cultural exchanges and conversations in this region. Bellydance is no exception to this.

Bellydance first came to Hong Kong about thirty years ago. Mey Jen Tilley,  a veteran dancer and instructor, taught foreign expatriate wives until a few years ago, when the bellydance boom attracted the attention of  the local society.  Nowadays belly dance has become a very popular  activity among Hong Kong residents.

About a decade ago, bellydance was introduced to Taiwan, and it arrived in mainland China a few years ago.  Among the three areas,  Taiwan seems most interested in developing a foreign art form into a local-rooted one.

After the very successful workshops and the much-applauded Fuse the World stage production at Taipei, Aubre and Kelli travelled to Shanghai, China for a weekend with Lulu Yuan and her troupe. Then they travelled to Hong Kong to participate in the International Dance Extravaganza 2012 organized by Suzette Ackermann. Aubre taught at both Shanghai and Hong Kong and shared the stage with Serkan Tutar and other outstanding dancers and musicians.

I asked Aubre her thoughts about teaching in the three different places afterwards. As an outsider without much knowledge on the three places, I thought Aubre would be an objective observer. Aubre said that certainly there are qualities that are shared by workshop attendees while each place possesses unique features. Most workshop attendees were very willing to commit to the procedure and contents of workshops and they tried very hard to do what the instructor asked for.

The adherence to and total trust of  teachers is common to workshop attendees from Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Aubre enjoyed her first visits to Shanghai and Hong Kong. At Shanghai Aubre observed that the majority of workshop attendees belonged to one local group or troupe and thus the atmosphere is very intimate, while Kelli noticed some dancers coming from other major cities like Beijing or provinces such as Guandong. The local attendees seemed to be paralyzed on the first day, Aubre recalled, because they had never before seen the techniques she taught in class; they had no idea who Bob Fosse was,  even though they signed up for a Bob Fosse Jazz fusion choreography workshop. Next day, attendees seem to be much more relaxed and open and they immediately embraced new knowledge by asking many questions.

Hong Kong, with a Western colonial history, presented a more familiar experience to Aubre. The workshop attendees were mostly a mixture of  professional instructors and advanced students, more prepared for fusion style bellydance than those in Shanghai. Also, with the advantage of English as the former governmental language, English-speaking foreigner instructors need not rely on a translator in workshops, making some aspects of the teaching more smooth and efficient.

I think that Aubre’s remark about local tastes for one global drink best describe her experiences and observations on bellydancers at the three workshop venues. Aubre ordered her favorite iced green tea latte with soy milk at all three places.. She found that  the soy milk at Taiwan tasted very different from the flavor in the States and she could adjust it by asking for half the amount of sugar. At Shanghai, the preferred local flavor was again totally different and the green tea latte was overly sweet. Upon arriving in Hong Kong, she finally had a very American-style green tea latte with soy milk. Belly dance has been introduced to the three places much as the global coffee brand has been, and it naturally has been fused with some local features and preferences.

Resources:

Workshop in Hong Kong
Group photo after workshop at Hong Kong

Taipai
Group photo after workshop with Aubre at Taipei
send names of individuals here

Shanghai
Teaching at Shanghai

Aubre gives a lecture

Aubre gave a lecture on the historical roots and history of bellydance at Taipei

Hong Kong show participants
Group photo after gala show, Hong Kong
L to R: unknown artist, Minga Lin, Christine Du, Jane Chung, Serkan Tutar, Kelli, Suzette Ackermann, Dickson Chueng, Anthony

Shanghai sponsor
Aubre, Kelli with Shanghai sponsor Jacky Lee and Lulu Yuan

Aubre performs a solo
Aubre performing at Fuse the World, June 10, 2012, Taipei (top photo also)

Aubre and Kelli duo

Aubre and Kelli performing at Fuse the World, June 10, 2012, Taipei

Aubre and Kelli Duo

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Ready for more?

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MaryEllen Donald