A stylized moon rises over five dancers, all dressed in white, moving together on an equally white stage. There’s a reserve and a quiet grace to the women as they move and breathe in unison, yet also an unmistakable strength.
None of this gifted group of young dancers—Stéphanie Cyr, Eowynn Enquist, Sarah Formosa, Daria Mikhaylyuk, and Eden Solomon—is supposed to be a stand-in for local choreographer Wen Wei Wang’s late mother. But in his new work Ying Yun, named for and dedicated to her, they capture something akin to her essence.
“She was the most beautiful, powerful human being in my life,” the Chinese-born artist tells the Straight, on a rehearsal break in the lobby of the Scotiabank Dance Centre. “I wanted to bring the kind of power I remember with women, and the emotional control. So each dancer showcases who she is as a woman, as an individual, and as a human being.”
Wang recalls his mother as a tireless supporter of his career in dance, even when his teacher father disagreed with his choice. Long before coming to Canada and starting a dance journey that would take him from Ballet BC to his own eastern-inflected choreography, Wang grew up amid China’s Cultural Revolution, immersed in the rigours of regional and army-run dance companies. When he travelled to army bases and factories to perform, he would come home late each night to find her waiting.
“Cooking oil was really expensive—there was, like, a half-pound for my whole family for a month,” says Wang, who has talked in past interviews about how hungry he remembers being during those times. “But she would take a little bit and she would dab it like this to take the makeup off,” he explains, miming the way she would gently wipe it away.
Her ardent support for his artistic life may have come from the fact Ying Yun, a strong singer, never had the chance to pursue the arts. Her own mother died when she was one, and she was raised by a grandmother who couldn’t afford to send her to school. It was only at 12, after public education became free, that she first set foot in a classroom, and she went on to teachers’ college.
“I have that visual of her, of that kind of control,” he explains. “Mom was really quiet; she didn’t say much. But she was a beautiful singer—an artist herself, but she couldn’t have that life.”
Four years ago, Wang returned to his home city of Xi’an to be with her as she was dying from ovarian cancer, and the experience was traumatic. “She passed away at 75, and she went through chemo,” he relates. “That was my first real dealing with death.”
He’s in a better place now, ready to honour not just her spirit, but women in general at a pivotal time in history—when everything from #MeToo to women’s marches is bringing females to the forefront. To create the work, Wang explored his emotional connection to his mother, shared stories with his all-female cast, and integrated subtle elements of tai chi—including intentional breathing.
Interestingly, Ying Yun comes directly after Wang’s pummelling all-male piece, Dialogue, for six dancers. At the same time that he’s creating Ying Yun, he’s also preparing Dialogue to go out on the road. So he finds himself rehearsing with guys all day, and women from late afternoon into the evening.
“You know, everybody says women talk a lot, but the ladies are really quiet and just working,” he says, laughing. “It’s the boys who are always talking and arguing and making jokes.”
It’s a busy time for Wang, who not only is building this new work for his own Wen Wei Dance, but has recently become artistic director of Ballet Edmonton (formerly Citie Ballet). He is shepherding the small company to the next level, launching regular three-show seasons, securing its first Canada Council grant, and taking it in a firmly contemporary direction. This means ample back-and-forth between the two provinces, creating new work there, as well as here on the West Coast for Wen Wei Dance—the latter an outlet for his more personal choreographic voice and for his melding of eastern and western ideas.
Wang agrees it’s the most prolific time in his career—a career he might never have had without the support of his mother in China.
“It’s kind of crazy. But I’m more confident in a way,” he allows. “When we’re young, we want to be the best. But now I don’t compare myself. I let it happen and not try to please anyone.”
Wen Wei Dance presents Ying Yun at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from Tuesday to next Saturday (February 19 to 23) as part of the Vancouver International Dance Showcase.