When Xiao-Xiong Zhang, now 48, began dancing with the Australian Dance Theatre under Adelaide choreographer Leigh Warren, Warren never suspected Zhang would inspire one of his most personal and experimental works yet.
Aussie Theatre’s Paige Mulholland recently spoke with choreographer Leigh Warren about his latest work Not According to Plan which is part of this year’s OzAsia Festival in Adelaide.
Although, according to Warren, Zhang initially struck him as an excellent dancer when they first met in 1987, it was not until years later that he truly understood Zhang and was inspired by his life story.
“[Originally] I had no idea of the whole story… with such an enormous story, you can’t always tell everything all at once, so it took me twenty years to find out that whole story, and I thought it was very worthwhile telling,” said Warren.
Zhang’s story is a topical one with the current political refugee controversy; it is a story with drama and emotion that lends itself perfectly to dance. After spending his early years in war-torn Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Zhang was sent to China, alone, to attend school and university. He did not see his parents or family until they were reunited in Australia twelve years later. Facing linguistic and cultural isolation in both China and Australia, Zhang chose to express himself through dance, and it was dance that eventually enabled him to make friends and build relationships.
“He wanted to be a dancer all along, so it’s a celebration of triumph really … that he has become the person that he was really meant to be, coming from a place where he was really very isolated to having a family – a dance family.“ said Warren.
In order to better understand Zhang’s story and culture Warren followed him to Taiwan in April of this year, in what Warren said was an unprecedented move. Warren defines himself during this trip as “the ultimate tourist”, making daily pilgrimages to Chinese history museums and visiting the National University of Arts, where Zhang is resident choreographer.
“I’ve never had that kind of space or that time…you just absorb everything about Taiwanese culture that you can absorb,” said Warren.
Warren found the vibrancy and energy of Taiwan to be inspiring, calling the country “a really well kept secret”.
Since returning from Taiwan, Warren and Zhang have been focusing on collaboration. In addition to Not According to Plan’s cast, which includes Zhang along with dancers Aidan Munn and Bec Jones, the project is a product of collaborations with artist and furniture designer Khai Liew, fashion designer Alistair Trung and poet/composer Jerome Kugan. While Warren said it was a challenge ensuring that nothing was lost in translation, the collaboration has been an enriching one.
“I think part of the success of our collaboration is that each of us has great respect for the other.” said Warren.
Although Warren has been choreographing for more than 20 years with companies around the world, he still feels that this new project is unique.
“I’ve never done a portrait of anybody I knew before, nothing that’s so personal or autobiographical,” said the choreographer, whose previous works include Shimmer, Quick Brown Fox and Petroglyphs – Signs of Life.
Despite having commitments at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts following the Adelaide run of Not According to Plan, Warren still hopes the show will gather attention and success in Adelaide and will be given an opportunity to tour. As yet, no formal touring plans have been made.
But regardless of whether the show continues after its Adelaide run, Warren is grateful to have the opportunity to participate in the OzAsia Festival.
“I think OzAsia is a really important and wonderful festival,” he said.
“It’s a place to discover how interesting and diverse Asia is and how much we have in common – how much we really can learn from each other.”