Martiality, Not Fighting: A Daoist Martial Art Becomes a Political Statement

Martiality Not Fighting follows a young Chinese dancer performing the role of conscientious objector. He moves through the pedestrian and the abstract to deliberate the question “to fight or not to fight.” The choreography utilizes iconic images and gestures of martiality as well as combining postmodern dance and the martial arts culture of "Ba Gua Zhang." With spiraling energy, everchanging spatial interplays and physical exchanges, the choreography deconstructs the external martial art expressions of fighting. At its cinematic core, Martiality Not Fighting implies forsaking violence in recognition of vital exchange and kinetic empathy.
Martiality, Not Fighting

Shot in Guangzhou, a large Chinese coastal city with a history of dance tradition, fiilmmaker Marianne Kim captures the militant choreography of Cheng-Chieh Yu. The history seeps into this piece, which was filmed in a canning factory.  “It was a dance built on martial movement forms and their cultural resonance,” Yu says. “I have long had an interest in the tension between actual martial arts applications and their kinesthetic movement forms.”

The dancers perform variations on BaGuaZhang, a dance form created by Daoist monks. In BGZ there is an interest in a deflecting force that is centered around circular movements. In many ways, it's like Tai Chi, where energy is channeled in to movment.  "Martiality, Not Fighting" illustrates this circular deflecting restraint and recontextualizes it under a military context through its use of a historical building that was involved in conflicts between workers and Red Guards.

“In China certain martial arts have historic intonations of nationalism, and military culture, so a commission in the there allowed me to choreograph in a social context that could reciprocated with my understanding of these inculcations of identity in movement,” says Yu.

In the piece, various dancers show their flags, identifying their allegiances, and intertwining their bodies in what feels like the dance between international entities. After all, what is global conflict other than a dance, a choreographed movement of armies across borders and the world, the clash of bodies against bodies in a fight for dominance. Who will lead, and who will follow? 

Below Yu and Kim discuss the stories behind making "Martiality, Not Fighting."

In China, certain martial arts have historic intonations of nationalism, and military culture, so a commission the there allowed me to choreograph in a social context that could reciprocated with my understanding of these inculcations of identity in movement.
Cheng-Chieh Yu

What first sparked the idea to make Martiality, Not Fighting?

Marianne Kim: Martiality, Not Fighting started as an evening-length concert stage piece created by Cheng-Chieh.  After the success of the stage work, Raymond Wong, the producer of Jumping Frames International Dance Video Festival out of Hong Kong, commissioned a screendance version of the work. We knew from the start that we didn’t have the time, resources, or desire to restage the entire work for the screen. We really had no idea where we were going to start but we did know the goal was to translate the core ideas within the original stage work into something uniquely for the screen.
Cheng-Chieh Yu: The 70 minute dance was commissioned in 2010-2011 by Siu-Fai Pun, then the artistic director of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company. It was a dance built on martial movement forms and their cultural resonance. I have long had an interest in the tension between actual martial arts applications and their kinesthetic movement forms. In China, certain martial arts have historic intonations of nationalism, and military culture, so a commission the there allowed me to choreograph in a social context that could reciprocated with my understanding of these inculcations of identity in movement. I was so excited to see if I could show notions of individual choice, in terms of negotiating nationalism and militarization.

Martiality Not Fighting
Still from Martiality, Not Fighting

To those unfamiliar, how would you describe “Ba Gua Zhang?” 

CC: BaGuaZhang (BGZ), a Chinese martial art form related to Tai Chi Quan. The form was developed from Daoist monks, who did walking meditation/prayer in circular patterns. Today, the form retains this essence, and also a philosophical relationship to the I-Ching/the Book of Changes.
Like Tai Chi Quan, the internal martial practice, BaGuaZhang honors a deflecting energy when encountering willful force. Spiraling energy is its essential principle for “going around” and penetrating.  Yielding and leading incoming force into emptiness; borrowing opponent’s energy for a counter attack. Musing on BaGuaZhang’s dialectic martial principles inspires these contemporary dance explorations. 

How would you compare dance and martial arts?

CC:  Well, martial arts and dance involve complex movement cultures everywhere, and with diverse perspectives and functions.  In the case of Martiality Not Fighting, BaGuaZhang practice, and philosophical principles were infused in the dance.  In company classes and rehearsals I focused on how BGZ’s movement forms might be internalized and re-rendered through movement studies.  In part, it was very much my interest of going against the external display, the beat-down hype predominant in many popular Martial Arts forms. Rather, I turned the focus inward in search of its personal, internal and alternative values. My method uses transformative phrasing where intersections happen with BaGuaZhang and the dance vocabularies of Release Technique and Contact Improvisation. 


What does your collaboration look like?

MK: There is a lot of trust when we work together. Cheng-Chieh takes care of mostly everything in front of the camera and I take care of mostly everything behind the camera. We are very confident of each other’s abilities so there is very little scrutiny over one’s choices. We may discuss overall strategies at the end of the day over a beer and a foot massage, but when we are on set with a bunch of folks asking us what to do we avoid the hemming and hawing and shoot from the hip. We both can work fast and think on our feet, which was invaluable during the filming of MNF. Countless times Cheng-Chieh had to adapt choreography on the spot to accommodate the camera or location. On set we needed rapid-fire telepathy so we could problem solve and keep the production moving. We had a great compatible rhythm during production. Post-production was the time for slower conversations and deeper deliberations. I left Guangzhou after filming and made an initial 19 minute version. It then went back and forth between Cheng-Chieh and I for several months. The final version is the result of a lot of bravery and humility on both our parts. We had to give up a lot of footage we were attached to and make some bold choices. We had to cut away half the video for the sake of a cleaner and coherent story. At the end of the day there were no fights, stink eye, or teeth gnashing.
Just a lot of “fuck it….let’s try it.”
CC: Marianne and I have worked together since 2001. Over the years we have performed in each other’s stage and media works, and have continued to support each other’s artistic growth.  We both hold full time teaching jobs, and maneuver in a transnational creative world on our own, and also together as female dance/media artists.  Being a dancer/choreographer herself Marianne has an unfathomable kinetic understanding on movement and body in frames, which is so very rare to encounter.  We work as double lenses, framing within framing, my choreographic eyes through her camera eyes.  Our trust is mutual because of our shared embodied history. 

Martiality Not Fighting
A Still from Martiality, Not Fighting

How does academia affect your art?

MK: Sometimes it feels like the best and worst elements of an intimate relationship. At best academia supports you and makes you feel safe even when you think you’re the crappiest artist on the planet. At worst it the heaviest ball and chain that traps, suffocates, and provokes irrational thoughts of why-did-I-take-this-job-I-could-have-been-an-artstar-I-could-have-been-a-somebody. The rest of the 364 days of year I am deeply grateful for the position I have at ASU. It is a research institution that demands rigorous production and impact. It keeps me on point and forces me to stay current for my students and for my own work. Life in the institution also brings great artist academics together in a hub of creativity and curiosity. Academia can feel like a bubble sometimes, but we also have many opportunities to out into the world and throw ourselves to the proverbial wolves. Frankly, I could have not done half the creative work I have made without the financial support of ASU. I’m very thankful.
CC: I savor the learning context and deep perspectives of my cohorts and students, as well as a basic financial grounding to support my creativity.  Working with students…the hybridity of physical embodiments, that inter-generational exchange is very stimulating. For me the teaching studio can inspire methods, which might feed into my own generative processes. Of course, time management is at a premium, as managing institutional requirements can limit one’s creative output, but the emphasis on dynamic research and critical thinking encourages one to build multiple sites of inquiry, and explore interdisciplinary work.

To those unfamiliar with the city, how would you describe Guangzhou? What were some memorable moments that you had while filming there?

MK: Guangzhou is a bustling cosmopolitan city. Our video obviously doesn’t show the modern city. Instead we sought out “ruin-porn” on the basis of needing large and small spaces with real background texture and to keep the piece out of contemporary time. I know a lot of screendances use old empty warehouses. It is a bit of a cliché now, but I felt the tattered landscape supported the feeling of being internally and externally trapped in a difficult place. What I remember most about the filming was the kindness and cooperation of the dancers. They had to dance in some ridiculously hot and dusty conditions as well as on concrete floors. They were the best of the best.  
CC: Re-Guangzhou, “The Sky  (heaven) is high, and the Emperor is far away” It is a major coastal city with a tradition of alterneity. It also has a distinct language dialect, Cantonese, shared with Hong Kong, (two hours away). It was historically China’s gateway to the West.  The 1st modern dance company in China was established in the early 90s with provincial support. (Guangdong Province).  The grass roots work achieved by the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, along with the economic and cultural openness of the city gives Guangzhou the most sophisticated Modern Dance audience in China.  The film location for MNF, back in 1950s was once the biggest can factory in Asia.  It was also major site of confrontation between the Red Guards and the workers during Culture Revolution.  One elderly friend told me story of being a Red Guard at the time.  She recalled her perspective as a Red Guard member, trying to convince the workers to join the revolution line in revolting against the factory and fight for the worker’s rights.     

Martiality Not Fighting
A still from Martiality, Not Fighting

In your film, the camera often moves with the dancers, swirling and spinning alongside them. What are you hoping to be the audience’s relationship to the dancers?

MK: Cheng-Chieh and I started creatively working together in 2001. I danced for her company Yu Dance Theatre for many years and created two other screendance shorts with her as the solo dancer. I feel that history gave me an intuitive sense of how to move the camera. Cheng-Chieh’s movement vocabulary is earthy and deep with surprising dramatic shifts of fluidity and flight. This embodied knowledge guided the camera movement. I wanted the camera to move between being an empathetic fellow dancer and a voyeur/witness.
CC: The connected relation between the camera and dancers reflects Marianne and my understanding of intention. In the film, major themes were built from duets. The primary one initiates the encounter with forearms in contact, both dancers in low squatting “Horse Stance”, they face off, meditating on their relationship, fight or flight energies, attractions etc. The swirling and spinning was in responding to the “Circle Walking” practice in BaGuaZhang, the practitioner walks around a tree in circle until one senses the tree in turn is chasing one back.

We hoped to evoke a sensory exchange between the subject/object positions of the audience/onlooker vs dancer/performer.  It is a mutual cycling of gazes both looking internally and externally at the same time.  The lens/camera movement references a 3rd party, an open entry point.

To fight or not to fight?
MK: …..that is the question. I think our hero, like Hamlet, is full of existential angst deliberating what it means to be a good soldier/worker/dancer. 
CC: The written character, “Martiality” in Mandarin is composed of two radicals: “Stop” and “Spear,” stating that in the implementation of violence, there is a reminder of its essential goal (drop down your spears), of actually not fighting. In my mind, that is the fundamental idea about these dance exchanges. I tried to acknowledge multiple entry points for the viewer to see this core of what lies in between “to fight and to not.” I think that that “in-betweenness” is an uncoerced separate state of being in motion.

Interview by Isabel Ochoa-Gold

Martiality Not Fighting
A still from Martiality Not Fighting

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