PROFESSOR YIN MEI OF QUEENS COLLEGE
RECEIVES GUGGENHEIM FELLOWSHIP FOR CHOREOGRAPHY
-- Her Multimedia Dance Works Are Inspired by Her Chinese Heritage--
FLUSHING, NEW YORK, May 3, 2004 -- The work of choreographer Yin Mei has met with critical acclaim since 1995, when she launched her own dance troupe. But now the career of the Queens College faculty member is taking an enormous leap forward: She has just won a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
“This award is an incredible opportunity and a true honor,” says Yin Mei, one of only 185 North American honorees chosen this year from 3,268 applicants. Her fellowship, with its $38,000 grant, will subsidize research for the final portion of her theatrical trilogy, Nomad.
“We’re all delighted and proud,” says Susan Einhorn, chair of the department of drama, theatre, and dance at Queens College, where Yin Mei is an associate professor. “It’s great for the students and great for the college.”
A native of Shenyang, China, Yin Mei has, in her own words, “been famous from a young age.” She made her debut as a child in a local production of The White-Haired Girl, the only play authorized for presentation in her country during the ten-year Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966.
“It was a chaotic time,” recalls Yin Mei, whose parents, both professionals, were forced for a time to work as peasants. “Sometimes there was no school, because the teachers had been sent away. Instead, the workers made us memorize sayings of Chairman Mao.” As a member of the Little Red Guard, the young self-taught dancer volunteered herself for street performances. Soon she found herself in a professional company, which gave her access to training in both Chinese and western styles, including ballet.
At the end of the revolution, Yin Mei joined a company in Hong Kong. Her choreographic efforts resulted in scholarship offers, and she came to the United States to study. She earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in fine arts from New York University. Then she did some soul searching.
“I went through modern dance here, but I realized I would never become one of Martha Graham’s, or Paul Taylor’s, or Mark Morris’ dancers,” Yin Mei says. “I had a choice.” She staged a solo that got enthusiastic reviews from New York Times critic Jennifer Dunning, who noted the traditional Chinese elements in the piece. Yin Mei, oblivious until that moment to her creative heritage, decided to embrace it: She went to Beijing to study the martial arts and immerse herself in the I Ching, an ancient system of divination.
Yin Mei shares her cross-cultural perspective with students at Queens, where she has taught since 1992, winning two Queens College Foundation Innovative Teaching Awards (in 1996 and 2002) and two Queens College Presidential Research Awards (in 1994 and 1999). The three courses she is presenting this semester cover Traditional Chinese Dance, I Ching and the Art of Dance-Making, and Contemplative Practice and Modern Dance. She is also developing a year-long intensive course entitled “Intercultural Performance Lab,” which will bring all the strands of her multifaceted approach together—the aim being to give students the space to grow, not only as dancers, but as individuals. “I don’t treat dance alone as a high art,” she explains. “It’s not only about movement. Skill is easy; to become a full person with awareness—that’s hard.”
A similar attention to details informs Yin Mei’s pieces, which embrace music, poetry, visual arts, and other media. “I’m creating theater that involves all aspects of life,” she says.
Her first major work, Empty Tradition/City of Peonies, presented in 1998, was inspired by the flowers that were banned during the Cultural Revolution. Nomad: Tea, part one of her Nomad trilogy, focuses on the Japanese tea ceremony, with its emphasis on executing small tasks perfectly. Nomad: The River, the second part of the Nomad trilogy, takes its theme from two of Asia’s fabled rivers—the Ganges in India, and the Yellow River in China; the work is scheduled for a 2005 debut. Its sequel, Oracle Bones, will concern the earliest known Chinese texts, which were inscribed on animal bones and used to gain insight into the future.
“With the Guggenheim fellowship,” says Yin Mei, “I will go to China to do research into ancient Chinese sources of language and interpretive ritual. I’m a person looking back at traditions of worship and sacrifice as a means of creating contemporary dance.”