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Kinesthetic City: Dance and Movement in Chinese Urban Spaces by SanSan Kwan (review)
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SanSan Kwan’s Kinesthetic City is a welcome addition to the fields of sinology, dance studies, and urban studies, especially at a time when these areas are being re-examined and even contested. This engaging book draws upon Kwan’s auto-ethnographic experience as a movement practitioner who traveled to various sinophone cities, observing the kinesthesia and bodily movements of dancers and people on the streets. She pinpoints five urban spaces for the three main chapters, flanked by a preface, an introduction, and an epilogue. In Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, New York, and Los Angeles, she draws upon concert dance and pedestrian movement examples in relation to the respective Chinese urban spaces at critical historical junctures, using her own awareness as a flâneuse walking, biking, or driving through these cities as her points of reference. Kwan writes: “Putting kinesthesia and movement analysis together to understand recent formations of Chineseness relies fundamentally on a theory that moving bodies, space, time and community identity are interrelated processes that can, in fact, be studied through choreography as both subject and method” (xxxv).

In the Preface, Kwan analyzes Shanghai Tango (2005), by transgendered female choreographer Jin Xing, as an embodiment of the feminine aspect of a city that emphasizes commerce and culture, both associated with the feminine (xxx). Then in the first chapter, she reveals how Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s three signature works, Legacy (premiered in 1978), Nine Songs (1993), and Moon Water (1998), are ways of choreographing nationalism when, paradoxically, Taiwan is a nation-state that is not formally recognized by China. Chapter Two draws upon two vastly different ‘case studies’ from Hong Kong. The first is a full-length concert dance piece choreographed by Helen Lai for City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), which addresses the issue of the then-looming 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China by the British. Titled Revolutionary Pekinese Opera: Millenium Mix, Kwan highlights the jaggedness of the work and juxtaposes it with her other example from Hong Kong, the banned-in-China Falun Gong religious mass protests (which often take place in meditative stillness in public outdoor spaces). Kwan argues that the effective use of stillness, incorporated in both Lai’s concert dance piece and the Falun Gong outdoor sit-ins, countered the speed and “liquidity” of Hong Kong at the crucial time of the political handover.

Chapter Three is perhaps closest to Kwan’s heart, since she lived in New York’s Chinatown neighborhood (2001-2003), where the company founded by H. T. Chen is based. Kwan danced with Chen and Dancers from 1994 until 1996. Aptly choosing the 9/11 attack as a crucial point in American history, she analyzes Chen’s post-9/11 ritual piece Apple Dreams, which premiered in 2007 at the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center, located adjacent to the site of the former World Trade Center. Apple Dreams is loosely based on Victor Turner’s model for social drama “as a way a society experiences and recuperates from traumatic events” (98). For the Epilogue, Kwan takes us to the ‘ethnoburbs’ of Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley, where the more affluent recent sinophone immigrants from China and Taiwan choose to live. Interestingly enough, Kwan’s dance analysis this time is centered on Hood, Veil, Shoes (premiered in 2007, Taipei) by Los Angeles-based choreographer Cheng-chieh Yu from Taiwan. The piece was created with the Sun Shier (literally meaning “thirty” in Mandarin Chinese) Dance Theatre of Taiwan during Yu’s visit to Taipei after having been away since 1989. The work is based on Yu’s culture shock at seeing the busy Taipei traffic, filled with mopeds, cars, and pedestrians.

In the past few decades, with the economic and political rise of China, the topic of Chineseness has been hotly debated. This debate has been especially spearheaded by various critical scholars mainly from the already problematic field of Asian-American studies.

Like the views of some of these scholars, Kwan’s discussion of the Chinese transnational imaginary also aims to decenter Chineseness from nation-state and ethnicity. In her Introduction (12-4), Kwan addresses Chineseness as one of the core themes throughout her book, interwoven with...

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