For the first time in its history, international guests from China joined the International Folk Dance Ensemble on stage for their annual Christmas concert and a life-changing cultural exchange
Dancers and musicians from Minzu University of China (MUC) engaged in a cultural exchange with the BYU International Folk Dance Ensemble (IFDE), culminating in a collaborative dance work titled “Encounter.” Weeks before their arrival, the Chinese students were still in the visa approval process and the performance was at stake, but everything came together in time for the longest-running BYU Christmas concert, “Christmas Around the World.”
Department of Dance professor Jiamin Huang had a preceding working relationship with the MUC College of Dance. Huang and IFDE artistic director, Jeanette Geslison, worked together to pursue the collaborative dance project and extended an invitation to MUC last year.
The goal for “Encounter” was to bring the East and the West together. Geslison said, “This project not only brings East and West together in a display of traditional dance expression true to each ethnic identity, but also allows students and audience members to engage in discovering and bridging the aesthetic of the two.”
In May 2017, Huang and Geslison traveled to Beijing and spent a week with the Minzu College of Dance. During that time, they worked with 20 of their dancers and two faculty members to collaborate and to set the choreography for “Encounter.”
The IFDE has been rehearsing and preparing on their end throughout fall semester. IFDE and MUC finally met together during the last week of November to combine the Encounter piece. These final rehearsals were held during the week of performances.
Before they arrived, however, the Chinese visitors encountered a stumbling block. In mid-October, the Minzu students were denied their applications for a United States B-Visa and were told to re-apply for P3-Visa status.
“A few weeks ago we were scrambling,” said Geslison. “Time was our crucial competitor, and I hired an immigration service in Washington, DC to help expedite the P-Visa process. All previous visiting Chinese students to BYU campus came on B-Visas. Things have changed.”
Dancer Alli Moon, a dance education major and two-year member of IFDE, shared her experience with the visa issue. “When Jeanette told us that there were some issues with the visas, our whole group became very somber and we decided to pray for them at the beginning of every single one of our practices, sometimes at the end too. We also decided to do a team fast to help the group by asking for Heavenly Father’s hand to help them come. Actually, it was around the time we fasted that they ended up getting approved. That was a testimony-builder for sure. They’re meant to be here.”
This is dance major McCall McClellan’s first year in IFDE. She said the ensemble felt worried because the visa issue threatened the whole “East meets West” theme of the concert.
“We had other teams start learning other dances. I know the Tier II team learned a Serbian piece just in case the Minzu students couldn’t make it, so we would have something to put in the show. But we would have had to
change the theme and it would’ve been completely different. We were so worried. We really wanted them to come. When we found out their visas had been approved and when they actually came, it felt surreal.”
The Minzu students arrived on Nov. 27 and were greeted with a welcome party. In addition to rehearsals, the Chinese students and faculty also traveled to Salt Lake City for some sightseeing and had some free time to explore Provo and Orem. The Chinese students and faculty also presented a lecture demonstration and masterclass on folk, modern and Chinese classical dance.
“They showed us what their typical daily schedule is like,” said McClellan. “They explained to us that they are a university composed of students who are from minority China. That is what they represent. We’ve seen their performance material for the concert, but it was amazing to watch other performances. I especially loved seeing the class warm up — what they do to warm up their hands. It’s cool to see that they’re not as different from us as we think. They have technique classes just like we do.”
Moon shared that the lecture demonstration blew her away. She admired how much the Chinese students knew about their culture and where they came from. She learned a lot from their knowledge of folk dance and the different ethnic backgrounds they represented, calling the dancers beautiful and stunning.
“After the lecture demonstration, I ended up getting in a circle with a bunch of the Minzu girls,” said Moon. “The interpreter wandered over and I got to ask them so many questions. I got to actually have a conversation with them, which is something we haven’t had in rehearsals because it’s so time sensitive. It was nice to have that chance to talk.”
Dance major M. Ken Nukaya has been on IFDE for three years. He said, “Even though they can’t speak English and I can’t speak Chinese, we still have a fun time. Even though we come from completely different sides of the world and have completely different cultures, we still value dance and they value dance. It’s this beautiful art that connects people around the world.”
Nukaya said he was impressed with the energy the Minzu dancers and musicians brought with them. He said he knew they were going to be good, but once he actually watched them perform, he thought to himself, “Oh my gosh, I actually get to dance with them.”
“There is one part in the show when we are interacting with them on stage and we take a selfie,” said Nukaya. “Even though we can’t really understand each other’s languages, we understood each other. I love that we could bond over a selfie. Sincerely, the theme of the show ‘East meets West’ is so accurate. This collaboration and conglomeration of these cultures coming together and sparking this interaction is so beautiful and amazing.”
Moon said she has learned that there are many different ways other than talking to connect with another person. “You can connect through having fun, through dancing, through laughing and through teaching each other. We’re learning from and with each other. There are some moves my partner has to ask me to show him the footwork for, and I have to ask him how to do the Chinese moves correctly for other parts, and it all works out. I am so impressed with their choreography and how fast they have picked up the American choreography as well.”
Carissa Moser has been a member for IFDE for three years and is currently the club president. As Geslison’s assistant, she had the unique opportunity to work behind the scenes in preparation for their Chinese visitors.
“I enjoy seeing them showcase what they do,” said Moser. “There’s one part of ‘Encounter’ when we scoot to the side and look at our partner a couple of times and my partner and I always make faces at each other. It always brings a smile to my face.”
“Encounter” is the final number of the concert and combines American clogging with Chinese Tibetan folk dance. The BYU and MUC dancers and musicians all join together to personify the theme of the concert. The two dance groups partner off with a member of the opposite gender and country to celebrate life, art and love during the dance number.
Nukaya said this experience has made him grateful for the IFDE program. “Because of this program, I have the opportunity to be a part of a face of what this ensemble stands for,” said Nukaya. “And what we stand for is being an ambassador to other countries and keeping open arms towards them. I’m so glad to have met these people, to have formed relationships with them and to perform with them.”
After months of rehearsing separately and leaving gaps in spaces and wait time during music, McClellan said it was incredible to finally bring “Encounter” together as a piece. The dancers from both ensembles did not know what the other ensemble would be doing during those gaps.
“The piece has really been brought together amazingly and that has been a really neat experience,” said McClellan. “Anytime I have experiences like this, I’m always reminded that the world is a lot bigger than Provo, Utah, and that there are a lot of really talented people in the world. It’s inspiring to
me that there is all this talent in the world and it makes me want to go see it and explore it.”