- Kinesthetic City: Dance and Movement in Chinese Urban Spaces by SanSan Kwan
What is Chineseness, and how is it produced outside of China? How is movement constitutive of and generated by space and identity, and how can we learn about places through their choreographies? These are two of the guiding questions in SanSan Kwan’s much anticipated Kinesthetic City: Dance and Movement in Chinese Urban Spaces, the first English-language scholarly monograph on Chinese contemporary dance.
While Kwan’s book deals substantively with works by major Chinese contemporary dance companies—Jin Xing Dance Theatre of Shanghai, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, City Contemporary Dance Company of Hong Kong, and Chen and Dancers of New York—it is not primarily a study of dance works, companies, or choreographers, nor is it a study of contemporary dance in mainland China. Reflective of Kwan’s training as a scholar of performance studies, the book explores movement and choreography broadly conceived, inquiring into the relationship between movement, identity, and urban space. Kwan’s methodology combines kinesthesia (the body’s awareness of motion) with choreographic analysis to inquire into “how cities move” (p. 2); as such, the book gives nearly equal weight to analyses of concert dance works and of bodily experiences of moving in cities. The five cities that Kwan examines in the book are Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, New York, and Los Angeles (primarily the middle three); thus, the book has an impressively transnational scope that aims at “decentering mainland China as the source of Chinese identity” (p. 9).
Kinesthetic City is organized by geographical site, with the preface and [End Page 329] epilogue dealing with Shanghai and Los Angeles, respectively, and the three body chapters devoted to Taipei, Hong Kong, and New York’s Chinatown. An additional introductory chapter outlines the methodological approaches and thematic concerns that unite the book. A clear and consistent structure is one of Kinesthetic City’s strengths; apart from the introduction, each chapter, including the preface and epilogue, offers choreographic analysis of at least one major performance work (and, in chapter 2, one protest), as well as vivid kinesthetic descriptions of movement in the city spaces examined, helpful historical and conceptual frames relevant to the contents of the given chapter, and a concluding analysis that connects all of the pieces together and relates them back to the larger project. Forty-nine high-quality black-and-white photographs illustrate the book, and, reflecting its content, they depict both the city spaces and the dance works Kwan discusses. (The only exception is the Falun Gong protests discussed in chapter 2, which have no corresponding images.) These illustrations, combined with the book’s concise length and readability and Kwan’s care to provide basic background information for readers with little specialized knowledge of the regions examined, make the book appropriate for use in undergraduate or graduate classes, as well as for general readers.
Two important aspects of the book’s methodological intervention, which Kwan outlines in the introduction, are its commitment to diasporic and feminist agendas. In discussing her geographical focus on Taipei, Hong Kong, and New York, Kwan writes, “I do not include a site in mainland China [with the exception of Shanghai in the preface] because I am interested in the pressures that diasporic Chinese cities exert on a monolithic notion of Chineseness” (p. 9). Kwan proposes Shu-mei Shih’s idea of the “Sinophone Pacific” to describe her geographical focus, describing this as “a logic that reconceptualizes Chineseness away from terms of nationality or polity” (p. 9). Each of the cities included in her study, Kwan argues, “bears a contentious relationship to ‘Chineseness,’ the notion of what it means to be Chinese” (p. 1). Therefore, they allow her to examine “various kinds of Chineseness-es” (p. 127) produced in different Chinese urban spaces around the world at different times and by different communities. “What is revealed through the choreographies I study in these Chinese urban spaces is that Chineseness is a plural, contested, yet persistent idea” (p. 16).