Tag Archives: China

Akram Khan and Cross-Cultural Dance

Akram Khan’s bahok came to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art Stage this past weekend, and it was a show we were eager to attend. Karina had been hearing all of the (well-deserved) hype at her internship at the MCA, and Tara is taking a Cultural Studies of Dance class at Northwestern and learning, among other things, about the problematics of authenticity in cultural representation and how a message is communicated to an audience. But even if we had just wandered into the show, we’re certain we would have been just as riveted throughout the entire entertaining and thought-provoking 75-minute show.

bahok, which means “carrier” in Bengali, premiered in Beijing in January 2008 and was voted “Best new vision of global interchange” by Dance Magazine before it embarked on a world tour in 2009. Akram Khan has been called one of the greatest young choreographers by the Dance Critics’ Circle, dance critics and fellow choreographers (including Tara’s flamenco instructor and Northwestern professor Joel Valentín-Martínez). With all the hype, you’d expect an overly abstract piece from the kind of choreographer who works on the too-buried-in-metaphors-to-understand kind of dances. Instead, the Londoner (his family is Bangladeshi) offers a simple but profound message set to an international score from composer and longtime collaborator Nitin Sawhney and, at times, humor in bahok.

(Below is a clip from one of our favorite numbers in the show.)

Set in an unidentified airport (though it really could be any transportation station), bahok explores what happens when people of different origins — China, Spain, Slovakia, India, South Korea, Taiwan and South Africa — are forced to interact and communicate with one another despite language barriers and cultural differences. The dancers in Khan’s company are from all the aforementioned countries, which brings another level of nuance to the work.

Total unison is rare in bahok. Instead, Khan plays with levels and shadows in his choreography. Dancers fly across the floor and lift each other in the air, showing their differences even when all move at the same time. Stage lighting gives the work even more dimension, leaving some dancers in the dark while others are featured in “monologues.”

While language is used in the show (a big electronic departures sign serves at times as the subtitle screen, other times to display cryptic messages), it does not aid in communication. Characters retreat into their own memories, describing their childhoods in a way no one else can understand, or they unsuccessfully attempt to answer simple questions for a customs official. Movement is the only way characters can explain their feelings and communicate who they are to one another. In portions of the show where only one or a few are dancing in the spotlight, each expresses an individual personality on stage, whether it be obsessive paper collecting or a private dance with a father’s shoe.

(Learn a few bahok moves in the MCA’s informative promotional video, below.)

The work, ultimately, is honest. Khan understands that a transportation station is both a void and transient space, and though his characters overlap and spend a long time waiting together in the same space, they never completely accept or understand one another. They exclude each other, they ignore each other, they bicker with one another (but without a cliché dance fight scene). Even when all embrace in one scene toward the end, the most eccentric character is left out and must force her way into the huddle. All are from different places and going different places, but inevitably they end up getting to know each other, whether or not that’s their intention.

Moreover, they are all from somewhere and going somewhere, all the while carrying (hence, “bahok”) memories, aspirations and experiences. It’s a theme that resonates with us especially now, as we (and our friends) conclude our final months at college, which perhaps is an equally adequate representation of transient space, and figure out where we’re going. The final image on the train schedule board is a play on words that sums up the piece: Replace the ‘M’ in “HOME” with a ‘P’ and you see “HOPE.”

How’s that for a representation of the world as it is today? Bravo, Akram Khan, for not only revealing a new perspective on human nature that’s highly relevant in today’s ever-transient society, but also for teaching the world another — better — way to communicate: dance.

Check Akram Khan’s calendar to see if the tour’s headed your way; we both agree you don’t want to miss this. And lastly, check out Nitin Sawhnye’s music, because the score was sublime. (We want the soundtrack!)

Tara and Karina for TKGO

Chicago Dishes a Shanghai Favorite

Xiao Long Bao is a special kind of steamed dumpling you’ll only find on dim sum menus in Shanghai. It’s made of a thinner, chewier dough shell and filled with soup and a ball of pork (like what you’d find in a wonton), and is served with vinegar and hot sauce. Traditionally, it’s eaten all in one bite, but if you’re having trouble you can bite off the top of the dumpling, suck out the soup, and then put the rest in your mouth.


Xiao Long Bao at Lao Shanghai in Chicago


So where can you find these delicious Shanghai-style soup dumplings in Chicago’s (frozen) Chinatown?

I grabbed my friend Chenault, who spent over two months eating Xiao Long Bao in Shanghai this summer, and we set off to satisfy the craving.

The Contenders:

Phoenix Restaurant has long been applauded as one of Chicago Chinatown’s best — just ask anyone in the dim sum lines for Saturday and Sunday brunch (…when it’s not frigid outside). You’ll find a solid portion of guests in the large dining room are speaking Mandarin or Cantonese — always a sign of authenticity — but you won’t be lost speaking English to your waiter or describing the dish you want.

Lao Shanghai is a part of a Chicago Chinatown chain — on your way there, you’ll pass sister restaurants Lao Beijing and Lao Sze Chuan. The majority of the clientele are white, and most of the menu seems to try to introduce Shanghai dishes to people who’ve never been to China. But Time Out Chicago is a fan, and the food is good albeit much higher priced than most in Chinatown. The place is small but quiet, and you’ll dine atop white tablecloths.

The Bao:

On paper, Lao Shanghai offers more authentic Xiao Long Bao: The dumpling shell was thinner, and it was accompanied by the traditional vinegar dipping sauce. An order of eight will cost you $4.95.


Inside Xiao Long Bao at Lao Shanghai in Chicago


At Phoenix, the dumpling shell is a little thicker than it should be, and the accompanying sauces are just soy sauce and hot sauce. But the taste was more authentic: The broth and meat had the right combination of spices to bring Chenault straight back to her days in Shanghai. Lastly, the temperature — burning hot — was also authentic. And we can’t read the dim sum sheet, but grabbing whatever you want off the dim sum carts will leave you satisfied for $15 or less.

The Verdict:

While Lao Shanghai had a lot of the authentic touches, taste is everything — and in that respect, Phoenix had all the spices down. Chenault and I will be returning to weekend dim sum at Phoenix, and we will continue to flag down the first waitress who leaves the kitchen announcing she has Xiao Long Bao.

Tara for TKGO

Liu Canming, Fashion Designer

“The idea of fashion and how we interpret it is based on culture.”

That is how the Northwestern University host professor, Steven Fischer, opened the intimate, 20-person lecture with Chinese fashion designer Liu Canming last night. Liu stopped by the Kellogg School of Management to talk with a group of undergrads and grads (through a translator) about the literal world of fashion.

Fischer had organized a set of discussion prompts for the attendees and Liu, most of which centered upon the concept of culture — namely Chinese culture — and fashion. Although Liu is Chinese and lives and works in China, his designs are devoid of what many would envision as traditional Chinese or Oriental motifs. In fact, the first thing I thought upon opening his Fall/Winter 2009 lookbook was: Blair Waldorf. Seriously! Simple yet elegant designs on a muted palette with plaid, ruffles, detailed embroidery and high waists filled the pages. It was like we were back in New York City again. (See for yourself in our slideshow below.)

And that’s just it. Liu believes in a “fashion world,” rather than European fashion versus Chinese fashion or American. He supports designers who borrow from other cultures’ style traditions; in fact, he said he traveled to Africa as inspiration for his current line. And to further make his point, he used my embroidered, Mexican-inspired Tracy Feith for Target frock as an example. “See, those flowers are very Chinese, too, because the stitching is very detailed and the flowers look very realistic,” he said. Who knew!

Let’s just say we felt pretty cool after that one.

-Karina for TKGO