« Dancing in Shanghai »
Hrefna Hörn Leifsdóttir
Shanghai does not feel crowded. Not even the subway feels crowded. Neither does living on the 20th floor, above all these people. The city puts its mark on you with another kind of pressure than the one from other bodies.
First, there are the signs.
No leaning, no running, no smoking, no crossing, please stand to the side, please stand in line, please accept the security check, please report any suspicious activity.
People feel pressured to follow these rules. Because they are being watched all the time.
My apartment greets me with 4 security cameras. My friends counted 25 from their gate to the door. On the third day, the police knocked on our door to ask if we had all the papers needed for our stay. Out of 60 apartments the building contained, they knew which door led to us.
Across the street from the museum I worked in is a zebra crossing. There is a screen attached to the light pole that displays pictures of the j-walkers. Those who cross the street on a red light.
A way to shame the city’s inhabitants away from breaking rules that society sets. And a mild reminder for us foreigners of the use of facial recognition techniques that we’ve read about being used in other parts of the country, that allow for more aggressive restrictions of movement.
The museum is new. It’s a big David Chipperfield building standing by the riverbank of a formally industrial area. It’s an art-hub now and in the middle is the French-Chinese Centre Pompidou. Partly well known french institution and partly governmentally run.
A complicated mixture with political strings reaching far outside the museum walls.
I’m hired there to dance almost every day, for six weeks. Within the white walls and blurred windows that lead to the zebra-walking, I repeat tasks and loosely instructed, endured movements that often lead to some state of trance. Set up in sets of 5-20 minutes the movements evolve and change with the intensity of the music, the atmospheric lighting, and computer-generated voices that read texts and demands in Chinese and English. “Dear museum visitor” they are softer but similar to the ones on the train-platforms and in the supermarkets.
“Please step away, the door is closing.”
There is a long history of choreographed public dancing being practiced in China for health reasons. Results of which can be seen in public parks, at workplaces as they start their day and in schools. Every morning we woke up to the same soundtrack coming from the elementary school below our apartment. The entire school gathers to perform the daily choreography.
People seem to be encouraged to move, again as long as it happens within a certain frame.
One of the dancers who performed with me has gone through all levels of Communist dance education possible. His CV is filled with high grades and awards. It lists the different movements he can perform. One of them is Kung Fu.
Still when he is left to his own devices, told to improvise, Vogue-like movements shine through. Movements I suspect were not trained within the walls of the institution but rather in a more private, bedroom-like situation.
My bank of movements comes from dancing at parties. Dancing in different kinds of social settings has been a way for me to communicate, forget, digest, meditate, observe and learn from different environments. Therefore I was curious to dig under the layer of the Chinese society and see what the night had to offer. Working with me at the museum was a dancer who strongly identified with being a club kid. It was made clear to me that this identity played a big role in his and his friend’s lives by their appearance, how they talked about it, and what I could see through their social media.
Finally, on New Year it was time for me to go dancing with them.
The museum next door held a big party that all rivers seemed to lead to. It was in a former tank and the rounded interiors were lit up with lasers and projections paired with a top sound system.
The line up was partly familiar to me from Berlin, which made me think about how small the world was. Someone told me that the crowded room was partly filled up with club kids and partly with art kids, I looked around but had a hard time distinguishing between the two groups. Everyone seemed to wear expressive and expensive, carefully thought through outfits, and held their phones up high at any given moment. One act of entertainment after another entered the stage or rushed through the motionless dancefloor.
In between, the DJ’s played tracks that jumped so quickly between genres that it was hard to follow. Only me and three other club kids tried.
Then there was time for another entertainment, I understood we were supposed to passively observe. Indeed the whole nightclub was supposed to be observed and captured.
I reminded myself that after all, it was a museum party, and responded positively to the suggestion of heading to a real club.
It was after midnight, there had been no countdown, a new western year just arrived at some point and the booze was over. Thinking that more alcohol would loosen up the bodies around me I walked to the nearest convenience store and filled my purse.
After a long wait, we finally got a taxi that drove us to the other club, a raw, concrete building that could have been anywhere in the world. The rest of the crew seemed to be there, the gathering was another fashion show I had gotten used to by this point. They talked and pointed out the pro-regime cigarettes I had accidentally bought, but no-one was interested in the liquor in my purse.
I said I was sorry and zipped along while the conversation continued in Chinese. Then all of a sudden our plan was to enter the club we had been standing in front of without paying. The group rushed in and I followed, passing by the guard who was overwhelmed with the disobedience.
The rush of adrenaline sent me straight to the dancefloor where a handful of people jumped to an extremely fast beat. I lasted about a minute until I turned around towards the bar.
“The clubs are different here” a Norwegian business student told me and waved his hand when he noticed my confused face.
He ordered a drink in perfect Chinese and we watched the people around us. The bar was the first room of the small club, the walls were made out of raw concrete and the light was low. I could still see the faces of each individual in the lounge sofas and chairs. Everything looked like a club but felt strangely sober.
Once we had finished the drinks we went back outside where the rest of the crew had either returned to or remained at. It was time to eat, the night was over.
We walked across the street to have dumplings, there had been no plans of dancing.
Later, I got comments for my dancing at the earlier party, “oh I saw you in the story”, “I was like who was dancing, ah of course, the dancer”. The comments were neither judgemental nor very positive. They simply stated what had been observed. This way of dancing seemed to be an accepted activity, but not really usual or desired. And identifying with being a club kid had nothing to do with dancing.
During what was left of my stay, I continued dancing in the institution. People came to watch and some even stayed for hours. I think the piece was generally well accepted.
Overall it was a weird time though.
Being voluntarily observed inside an institution as a job, and automatically observed outside of it.
Lacking vocabulary when it comes to dancing, I will include a paragraph from a recently published article I stumbled on and can be found here:
“A dancing denotes one’s psychological state during, but not limited to, any physical activity, or indeed the course of a dance. Its essence is compositional, as derived from choreographic thinking, in organizing actions and possibilities. For example, one can feel a dancing when combining opposing actions, like smiling while saying something disturbing. It is also possible to be in a dancing while standing still, and realizing every possibility for motion.”
With this text in mind, each movement or facial expression acted outside of the performance, outside of the institution, became more performative than anything else.
Running up the stairs at the station, leaning against the door and dancing in the club became a performed resistance.
But then again, no matter how many times I crossed at the red light, my face never got displayed on those screens.
It did not really matter how I moved.
Whether I was inside or outside the institution, I was outside of the system.
Once I saw them display a picture of a tire though.
A tire of a speeding car passing by. It was really a face-like tire, with a stretched grin.
As long as I’d be gone before my visa ran out, I’d be fine.