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From T&T to Beijing: Dai Ailian

The Mother of Chinese modern dance
Sunday, June 1, 2014

Dai Ailian might not be a household name in Trinidad. But throughout China, she is known as the “Mother of Chinese modern dance.” Dai Ailian  was the Trinidad-born ballerina who devoted all her life to Chinese dance. She was born Eileen Isaac in 1916, to a third-generation Chinese family in Couva whose origins were in Xinhui, Guangdong Province. Her life story will be told at Napa on June 6 and 7 through a dance production titled Couva’s Lotus, presented by the Dai Ailian Foundation and Kith and Kin productions, in collaboration with the Chinese Embassy of T&T and the Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism.


The production is directed and choreographed by local icon of dance and founder of  her own eponymous dance company, Carol La Chapelle. The story of how Dai came to be one of China’s leading figures of dance is testimony to her own drive as well as, perhaps, the indomitable spirit that resides in every Trini. There is a list of firsts attached to her name: among them, she was co-founder of the National Ballet of China and the Beijing Dance Academy. She’s also said to have been the first person to bring western ballet to China in the 1940s. In an interview on the Chinese TV programme Up Close, two years before her death on February 9, 2006, Dai Ailian spoke about her desire and passion for dancing as well as her early training in ballet in T&T.
She said, “As far as I can remember, as a child when I heard music, I would dance...”


‘Jumping’ in T&T Carnival
Although she did not say exactly when her love for dance took root, she said Carnival shaped her experience of creative motion. “When I was a child, in the place where I was born—Couva, T&T—they have a Carnival...and they don’t call it dance, they call it jumping. “When I was small I began to learn ballet. I never thought of being a star or anything like that. I have always loved to dance and ballet has always been a pleasure to me,” she said. Dai wrote in her autobiography that as a child, she liked climbing trees, playing with boys and playing soccer, but she never liked playing dolls like most other girls. In middle school, she loved sports and was good at running, table tennis and swimming.

Growing up in a Chinese family in Trinidad, Dai said she had four dreams as a girl. The first was to become a singer. She then wanted to be a sailor in the navy—because there were many ships visiting the island, and she was interested in the life of a sailor and very curious about the world. Another dream was to be a musician, because she had started to play piano at seven. She even set her sights on becoming a painter. She did not think seriously about dancing as a career until she was 14, when her mother sent her to London to take some classes.


Facing challenges in London
But while in London, disaster struck when her father gambled away all the family’s money and could no longer support Eileen and her sisters, who were living in the UK. A sister returned to T&T; but Dai chose to stay in London. She did not have the money to pay for her classes, especially after her father went bankrupt; despite that, her teachers still tutored her. She did all sorts of jobs just to survive on her own, and in 1931 at the age of 14 won scholarships to study at the Jooss-Leeder Dance School at Dartington Hall, according to She received ballet training from such luminaries of ballet and modern dance as Anton Dolin, Dame Marie Rambert, Rudolf Laban and Mary Wigman.

Then while at the London dance school, Dai met her long-time love, an Austrian-British sculptor whom she never married but loved all her life, accompanying him for a year in London, according to the China Daily paper. Fascinated by the story of Yang Guifei, the favourite concubine of Emperor Xuanzong in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), she choreographed a solo performance called Yang Guifei in 1936 according to the stories and her own imagination, says the China Daily.


Turning point: to China
By chance, Dai read Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China, which helped her decide to move from the UK to China. In 1937 she travelled there, and became heavily involved in benefit concerts and studies of Chinese folk dances and operas, creating pieces based on folk traditions, such as The Drum of the Yao People. Dai migrated to Hong Kong in 1940 and soon fell in love with the noted painter Ye Qianyu, says China Daily. She choreographed, performed, and taught dance all over China, and was eventually named the principal of the Beijing Dance School when it was established in 1954.


Although trained in ballet, Dai deeply respected indigenous Chinese folk dances. She travelled throughout China to research ethnic dance traditions, to use as a basis for her own dance choreography. She recorded dances using Labanotation—a notation system for recording and analysing movement that was created by Rudolf Laban. She travelled many times to see the minorities in southwest China’s Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi and Sichuan areas, to learn the folk dances directly from the people there. She believed China should develop its own unique ballet style. Dai’s Dance of Lotus Flowers (based on a Shaanxi folk dance) and Flying Apsaras (inspired by the Dunhuang murals) were acclaimed both at home and abroad and won the gold prize at the World Youth Festival. By the 1990s, these two dances were hailed as 20th-century classics of Chinese dance.


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