Dancing on the Edge: Impulses drive Ziyian Kwan to dance in classical Chinese garden

The artistic director of Dumb Instrument Dance created Dreaming of Koi with fellow dancer Rianne Svelnis and taiko artist Kage

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      Vancouver dancer Ziyian Kwan realizes that as a choreographer, she can be remarkably impulsive. That was on display in 2010 when she danced on four consecutive weekends outside the Gene Cafe at the intersection of Kingsway and Main Street to raise awareness about arts cutbacks.

      “I had an idea and went with it,” Kwan recently told the Straight by phone. “And it happened.”

      Last year, in a similar vein, she held a peaceful dance action outside the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. That time, she used her free-flowing and uninhibited movements to oppose anti-Asian hatred that had arisen during the pandemic. The protest reflected her view that art is “always political”.

      When Kwan’s nonprofit society, Dumb Instrument Dance, needed space last summer, she quickly decided to rent a pop-up space at 336 West Pender Street. Called Morrow, it includes a little gallery in the back, artists in residence, and a studio in the front.

      “We sell things,” she said. “We have events there. So, again, this was a very impulsive initiative that was in response to the community and the circumstances. And it’s just taken off in an unexpected way.”

      David Cooper

      Dance meets Mother Nature

      One of her more recent impulsive ideas was to stage a dance performance at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.

      Called Dreaming of Koi, it was created by Kwan and fellow dancer Rianne Svelnis and taiko artist Kage and will premiere at this July’s Dancing on the Edge festival. Dreaming of Koi is described as “a declaration of wonder for the flora and fauna that exists within and without”.

      According to Kwan, the audience will experience an intersection between themselves, the artists, and the natural environment in the spacious garden.

      “It’s such a sanctuary and an oasis,” Kwan said. “There are so many species there alongside the performers.”

      Kwan pointed out that ticket holders to the shows will also be able to see a new exhibit in the garden’s gallery, Rivers Have Mouths, which honours stories of relations between Indigenous people and Chinese pioneers.

      “It’s exciting to have something that has so much gravitas and meaning and history in the same space at the same time as we’re doing our small experiment,” Kwan said with a touch of modesty.

      David Cooper

      Kwan has been dancing for 35 years and choreographing shows for the past seven.

      As she has become more experienced as a choreographer, she’s striving to become more conscious about her impulses, as well as the choices that she’s making in response to what’s happening in the world.

      “I’ve been realizing a lot in the last year that art is a medicine,” Kwan said. “And we’re not going to get through any of the horrors that exist—whether they’re around the pandemic or around oppressions of people—without art.”