Joshua Monten Dance Company Returns to China

Pro Helvetia Shanghai, Performing Arts
Game Theory ©️ OōEli

Joshua Monten Dance Company set foot on their largest international tour including stops in Shanghai (Theatre YOUNG) and Hangzhou (OōEli).

Last June, Joshua Monten Dance Company staged ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ in the Shanghai International Dance Center, marking the comeback of overseas troupes since the lifting of pandemic restrictions. From May to June 2024, they returned to China with two more interactive dance performances and two workshops — ‘Game Theory’ and ‘Romeo, Romeo, Romeo’.

‘Game Theory’ focuses on the spontaneous beauty of movements that arise in the flow of an intensely played game. Using ‘games’ as a thread, the performance connects many of Joshua Monten’s previous works, looking deeply at the notions of freedom and rules, ritual and surprise, adrenaline and flow.

‘Romeo, Romeo, Romeo’ interprets dancing as a mating ritual. With four Romeos (one of whom is performed by a woman) who struggle to impress the spectators with their courtship, the production explores the idea that gender is performative. To get the performance ready for China, the company has adapted the title into Mandarin and taught the dancers part of the script in the local language.

Romeo, Romeo, Romeo, Courtesy of Theatre YOUNG, photo by Wang Li
Game Theory ©️ OōEli

Questions from Pro Helvetia Shanghai:

Theater YOUNG is the largest stage you’ve ever used to present ‘Game Theory’ and ‘Romeo, Romeo, Romeo’. What kind of challenges did it bring to the choreography and how did you manage to adapt it to the local context (in terms of sound, lighting, translation, etc.)? Since this time, the two venues are not typical dance theaters. Did you notice any change in expectation or reaction from their audiences, and what are they?

That’s one of my biggest concerns when bringing a work to a new theater: how to adapt it to the space. In this case, it involved working with the dancers about how to fine-tune their performance style to reach all the way to the back of the theater. The use of breath and voice proved to be a particularly helpful tool. We also worked on new seating plan with the presenter, whereby the dancers were encouraged to go out into the audience and personally invite the spectators to sit as far front as possible.

Another big challenge was that this brand-new theater was full of state-of-the-art lighting equipment which was quite different from the material which we used when we created the piece.  Our technical team spent a lot of time modernizing our lighting plan to take advantage of this new equipment.

In terms of audience, we specifically try to create dance productions which speak to both dance connoisseurs and newcomers. And the audience that came was definitely open to experiencing something new. So it ended up being a good fit. 

Game Theory ©️ OōEli

Your company conducted several workshops in Shanghai and Hangzhou in 2023 and 2024, reaching a variety of age groups. What immediate feedback did you get from the audience? Were there any interesting exchanges?

The groups were a colorful mix of professional performers, visual artists, high school students, families, and newcomers. We were really impressed at everyone’s willingness to dive right in, to try new things out without fear of making fools of themselves.

The biggest thrill for us came from sharing our working methods, inviting the participants to create new material, and to then to see what they came up with.  Local artists with experience in clowning, Chinese classical dance, or with acting experience — they really surprised us with how they reinterpreted our basic material.

Someone told me after the final show that ‘this is exactly the sort of piece that needs to get shown in Shanghai.’ I unfortunately didn’t get to speak with him long enough to find out what exactly he meant. But I would be very happy to hear that local performers could take some inspiration with them after having seen our show. 

Game Theory workshop, Courtesy of Theatre YOUNG, photo by Ding Ding

You’ve brought ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ to China in 2023. It was one of the first Swiss shows to return to China since the pandemic. According to the dancers who came twice, what has changed the most from last year’s experience? How did the previous tour help facilitate the new shows in Shanghai/ Hangzhou this year?

I asked my dancers this same question. They said that the biggest change came from the fact that last year they were excluded from signing up for AliPay and WeChat. Thus they struggled with many basic activities. This year, they were able to install the apps, and suddenly so many things became possible, such as paying for food, taking a taxi, communicating with the presenters. Some of us rented bikes, which made it easier to visit local parks. We were astounded at the amount of cultural activities which take place there: dance clubs, sports clubs, music making, etc. On a few different occasions, members of the dance clubs saw us watching and then invited us to join in with them. I got to dance foxtrot with a few elderly Chinese ladies…

In terms of tour planning, we certainly learned a lot based on our experiences last year. Take care in providing clear information which the presenter can use to apply for performance permits. Call local embassies to check on their specific visa application policies. Spend time discussing with the presenter our exact technical needs and how to optimize the production for local audiences.

It’s also clear that many of the performing opportunities this year are based on contacts we made last year, including two performances in Beijing and eight in Hangzhou. Even as we were organizing this year’s tour we were able to make new contacts which may, in the future, bear fruit.

Romeo, Romeo, Romeo, Courtesy of Theatre YOUNG, photo by Wang Li

Questions from Theatre YOUNG:

How would you define yourself as a choreographer? What are the most important values and elements in your work?

Although I work in many different context (including choreography for opera productions, museums, etc.), the majority of my work belongs to the Tanztheater tradition, most famously represented by Pina Bausch.

I’m fascinated by the way that movement can be combined with emotions, characters, and theatrical situations. I love creating highly structured compositions out of ‘messy’ ingredients: anger, surprise, frustration, etc. I’m allergic to too much ‘seriousness’: I always like to include humor and irony in my work. And I love full-bodied, athletic, groovy, rhythmic dance movement.

Romeo, Romeo, Romeo ©️ OōEli

Questions from OōEli and Radius:

In your production, you seem to have a different way of handling how audience watch the show. What kind of interactions that you expect the audience to participate? 

Instead of just being passive consumers of a dance performance, I think that it can be thrilling for the audience to take a more active role. In my works, the audience is often very close to the performers. The dancers interact with them, and their reactions become part of the performance. This makes each performance a bit unpredictable, but it heightens the stakes of what they see. 

There are some animal-like movements choreographed in both pieces (like physical displays of animal courtship or animal competitions). Why did you choose ‘animal’ as one of the themes of your choreography? 

I believe that many animals experience the same emotions that we humans do. But they do not feel the same social pressure that we do to conceal these emotions. Thus they often express their feelings with a full-bodied physicality, which I find thrilling and beautiful, and which can be inspiring for our work as dancers.

I also believe that imitating animals is one of the most basic forms of dance. Our ancestors have been doing this for tens of thousands of years. In my work, I simply look for more contemporary ways to continue this long tradition.

About the dance company

The Swiss-American choreographer and dancer Joshua Monten studied literature and cultural anthropology at Duke University and founded his own dance company in 2012. The Joshua Monten Dance Company has subsequently given hundreds performances at festivals and theaters around the world. Joshua Monten regularly choreographs for theater, opera, ballet, museums and arts outreach programs.