Ignored No Extra: Si-lan Chen, Whose Dances Encompassed Worlds

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It was in Moscow that Chen met the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, who was within the Soviet Union to movie “Black and White,” about race relations within the American South. The 2 started a flirtatious friendship (Hughes’s archives are crammed with letters to her), although Chen mentions him in her memoir solely in passing, writing that “Langston had been a sailor and walked like one.” She additionally included a poem he wrote about her: “I’m so unhappy/Over half a kiss/That with half a pencil/I write this.”

Chen later met Jay Leyda, an American movie pupil who was learning with the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. They fell in love and honeymooned in Leningrad earlier than transferring in 1937 to New York Metropolis, the place Leyda was employed as an assistant movie curator on the Museum of Fashionable Artwork. Due to the Chinese language Exclusion Act, Chen needed to depart the US each six months and reapply for re-entry.

In New York, Chen joined the socialist New Dance Theater and finalized her repertoire, which included dances celebrating the poor and working-class of China (a beggar lady, a “rickshaw coolie”) and condemning bourgeois sorts (“a jingoistic American girl” and “that very ‘arty’ kind of artist,” as she wrote in her notes). She additionally launched American audiences to dances from Soviet Central Asia.

Throughout the Second Sino-Japanese Conflict (1937-45), she went on tour throughout the US to boost cash for the China Assist Council. An article about Chen ran in The New York Publish with the headline, “Chinese language Woman to Struggle Japs with Dance of Propaganda.”

Regardless of her efforts to steer conversations towards the struggles going through the poor, reporters, present promoters and colleagues continued to sexualize and exoticize her. A flier for a 1938 efficiency hosted by the American League for Peace and Democracy learn, “Spend ‘A Night time in China’ with Si-lan Chen, Unique Danseuse.” John Martin of The New York Instances mentioned of her New York debut that yr: “She presents a sexy look, with a trig little determine and a vigorous and animated face. Her motion is crisp and good and certain, with one thing of the attribute readability and precision of her race.”

Chen returned to now Communist-controlled China in 1959. Invigorated by what she described as a “new China, a socialist China,” she choreographed a ballet known as “Hu-tung” (“Lane”), which celebrated Beijing’s road tradition, with an emphasis on the video games she noticed youngsters enjoying exterior. It was accompanied by Bizet’s piano suite “Jeux d’Enfants.”

However the Chinese language authorities reprimanded Chen for her alternative of Western music — criticism that annoyed her as a result of it was exactly this borrowing from and mixing of cultures that was on the coronary heart of her philosophy of dance. Additional, it was how she understood her function on this planet as a mixed-race socialist dedicated to constructing worldwide solidarity.

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