Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 209: Choreographing: Motion, Material, and Parallel Living — with NiNi Dongnier

Speakers: Kathy Feng, Am Johal, NiNi Dongnier

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Kathy Feng  0:03
Hello listeners! I’m Kathy Feng with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of Below the Radar, our host Am Johal is joined by NiNi Dongnier, an interdisciplinary choreographer and dancer, and Assistant Professor in Dance at SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts. Together they discuss NiNi’s training and artistic experiences across Inner Mongolia, Beijing, New York, and now Vancouver. Am and NiNi also talk about interdisciplinary collaboration and pedagogy. Enjoy the episode!  

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Am Johal  0:44 
Hello, welcome to Below the Radar, delighted that you can join us again this week. We have our special guest, NiNi Dongnier is with us today. Welcome NiNi.

NiNi Dongnier  0:54 
Thank you. Thank you, Am. Thank you for having me.

Am Johal  0:57 
Wonder if we can begin with you introducing yourself a little bit.

NiNi Dongnier  1:02 
Hmm. Ah. Hi, I'm Nini Dongnier, I am a choreographer and artist. And I'm currently teaching as an assistant professor at the SFU School of Contemporary Art. I was born in Inner Mongolia, but I live and work in Beijing, New York and just recently moved to Vancouver. So I'm a new person for Vancouver.

Am Johal  1:30 
Vancouver's a really small town compared to Beijing and New York.

NiNi Dongnier  1:34 
Yes. Very— I feel it is quiet, like you can calm down actually. Since I land here. You know, the moment I'm learning here in 2021. In October I feel like oh, actually, I can relax a little bit.

Am Johal  1:50 
Yeah. Yeah. But you also landed in the pandemic moment. So it was like particularly sleepy.

NiNi Dongnier  1:55 
Yeah, I remember that. It's 2021, October 6th to be very specific. Yeah, I still needed to quarantine for two weeks. And I get quarantined at Elspeth's house like a director of our school. Yeah.

Am Johal  2:12 
Yeah. Strange way to land into a faculty in a city. Wondering if you could talk a little bit about, you know, when did you begin dancing? Like, did you just as a baby start dancing around? And how did— how did it all start for you?

NiNi Dongnier  2:28 
Okay, really beginning of the beginning? Okay, I may have started dancing from my mom's body. In my mom's body because my mom is a choreographer, stage director, also dramaturge for the live performance. So I remember she has mentioned about while she’s pregnant and she's still doing like a practice and performing like until she had me, like six months. So if I say that earlier dancing I probably started dancing in her body. And what actually— how I started dancing is, I guess around seven or six. But before that I was always just hanging around as backstage because my mom had performance and directing shows. I'm very familiar with backstage of a theater. And I close my eyes and I can still remember the smell and the objects and all those props being stored behind the stage and how busy like dancers and performers are, they're walking around. And while I started dancing already at, I think seven, very naturally. My family have some friend, their children want to study dance with my mom. So my mom started to open some dance class in her company studio. And like five or four kids, and I was a little bit overweight at that time. And she said how about just joining us to move with other kids? That's how it started. And yeah, I would say my very first dance language with dance vocabulary or movement language coming from my mother. So she's my first teacher.

Am Johal  4:21 
And then at what point did you think I want to be a dancer or choreographer? Were you in your teenage years where you're thinking about doing this in a more serious way?

NiNi Dongnier  4:32 
I started my professional training in classical forms when I was almost 10 to 11. For dancers, they really want to, you know, like be a professional, dancer as a career. Actually, it's not too early. Some of them started training from nine, like professionally. I started from 11. 10 or 11. And I started training in classical ballet technique as well as Inner Mongolian dances, Mongolian dances, also, the Chinese dances, very strong form and very particular form. I started training those— so start from 11, I started my professional training but I enjoyed dance a lot in terms of like very early, like even when I was a student I feel like I like that kind of collective energy. I can share something or release something within a group but I think start from day one I never think I am a... I want to be a dancer dancer you know because I have another interest and dance is not everything for me. Yeah, it's as long as a practice, it’s the core of my practice but not saying. I never think and til today I'm not thinking like I am a dancer dancer.

Am Johal  6:03 
Wondering if you could speak to just in terms of like the cultural infrastructure of where you grew up in Inner Mongolia and where you continued your studies in Beijing? What are the kind of cultural and other supports around a dance that you had in terms of facilities, training, all of those kinds of things?

NiNi Dongnier  6:23 
Yeah, I was born in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, Hohhot is a capital of Inner Mongolia. Like 30% of population are Inner Mongolian and 70% are Han or another ethnic group and I think my experience for me it's... from my separate point I feel it's special because my mom— she's very active in the field of dance back home. And so I feel I get a lot of chance to go see shows and not only dance but a lot of folk music and my mom's friend they're a poet and because she creating— I mean at that period of time she creating a lot of work based on actually going to the even smaller town to finding even maybe for example, she creating a dance based on women's costume of Inner Mongolia in particular, like a subgroup of Inner Mongolia. So I have a lot of chance to actually have travel with my mom to see the folk dances and the folk music and the found poetry and as you know like Inner Mongolian, Mongolian have a very strong history in music and instrument and those things are my cultural influence and I wasn't in a Mongolian school to... you know I'm not a Mongolian speaker I'm speaking Mandarin so I went to Mandarin school so I would say yeah had normal education but I also have sort of like a family... like family time, like I learned a lot through how my mom work and witness how how she doing things and even something like you know we have where she visit— I remember she visited an old lady and she's like archive, like a live archive for the folk song but she wouldn't sing it for you because she's shy and like not willing to share it and I think just mostly because shy. And I think my mom started drinking a little bit hard liquor with her and my mom started moving a little bit and to be... so there are some unspeakable ways of like open up conversation, that's how I learned from my mom like how she work. Yeah. Then I, when I was 15, almost 16, I went to college in Beijing Dance Academy. And I moved to Beijing by myself. And I'm okay with that because I started to live in like in a more like a boarding school because my middle school, more of like our school. I have to live in there with a group of friends and. When I moved to Beijing I felt definitely less supported, but I'm okay with that. So I take my college in Beijing Dance Academy, that was very, very intensive training period of time I did study. I mean, my main course is constructed by still, all those classical forms, ballet techniques, and also in depth learning the different ethnic group of Chinese dance in a very particular way, and a stressful way. And yeah, I used to hate it. Because I feel too competitive. And I feel like I learned a lot of form, but now the form are my language. And I don't know what to do with a form. Except that's the thing I need to study, you know. So that's my college and, but I would say, I have a secret, like a parallel self study lie in parallel to my college time. I did a lot of self study, like where's that to, do lots of reading by myself. And I started to go into all the like, underground like random shows in Beijing, you know, like, like, secret things during the weekend. And I started an interest in more of like, started actually interest in theater, contemporary dance, and something else, you know, like even like visual arts. So yeah, so that's my— I feel like that's my actual interest in parallel with my stressful study.

Am Johal  11:12 
So at some point, you moved to New York, what was the context in which you moved there?

NiNi Dongnier  11:20  
Um, yeah, I think I started to have a drive that I want to know, you know, well I'll do a self study and I started learning lots of artists work. And I started with searching out Judson Theater, the group of artists and they're like a dancer, performers, composers, visual artists and a pedestrian people they're doing some experimental forms and really you know, it's those practice embedded in their life. They're not really wanting to make a big production, big show, but the practice is part of their life. So I really like being drawn into this kind of thing around that time. So I actually started looking for schools or like opportunity if I can go to New York. Then luckily Beijing Dance Academy that year, the first year, start to building kind of collaboration between a school called SUNY Purchase at upper state New York. It's a very good school that is giving education for people who want to be more of like a performance choreographer or dancer so. And I'm lucky to have my first mentor Carol Walker who thinks I'm good and she accepts me to be a visiting scholar like very— I'm not actually scholar more like practitioner but my position more like called visiting scholar, and she had me here in SUNY Purchase. So that's how I started and I really appreciate her in a way that even I'm under the SUNY Purchase framework, I did take class there but it also... I don't feel like I'm fulfillment in the school either. So she gave me a lot of freedom. Let me do my own thing in the city. So I visit a lot of artists studio, see a lot of show. I remember my first year in New York like, I see 156—I count in a very particular way—show within a year. Just live shows. And I did a lot of just like out a pure, like curiosity and interest I started to working with artists in the city. So that's how I moved to New York.

Am Johal  13:46 
Yeah, you've done a lot of collaborations with other artists and dancers and others, I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit to some of those collaborations and what your collaborative process looks like.

NiNi Dongnier  14:01 
I feel way of collaboration is changing, like, really depends on project. So I'm kind of re thinking or like, actually, the way of collaboration is changed. Maybe I think, the most recent, my collaboration is I have a group of friends, like we're five people, we start from three now we have five people, we are starting a collective called NUUM collective. So we are choreographer and creative technologist and sound artist. And recently, we have a friend working with machine learning. And we're forming a collective that creating some project we're interested at. So in this collective, I think kind of a utopia in a way that is different than all another collaboration. Because I think in another collaboration, even we're collaborate and still, because my role always like director or choreographer sort of have a main voice. And each person have their role to collaborate and contribute and be open to discussion. But for this particular collective, we try to sort of let everybody play every other role. It's very time consuming, but also is very valuable, utopia kind of experience for me, because five of us, everyone gonna join the choreographic process, and everyone touching on actually coding. Everyone designed the rule of interaction for the performance and with the codified rule of like, sketches we made by coding. And everyone gave their opinion about  the context, like how we frame the work. So it's extremely, like time consuming, also a very valuable fight. We're not always agreeing with each other. But for me, it's almost like I talk to my partner, I say it's very utopian in a way that it's like a study group, you know, we meet now over zoom, because the four of them right now they're in New York, and we meet over zoom, we have three or four hours of like a brainstorming and actually figure out what's actual... Like, sometimes more like grand ideas, sometimes a very particular idea, like even one movement or like one image, like how we're working on that. So yeah, it's different mode of collaboration, I would say but right now, this collaboration with NUUM collective it's very, it's my main collaboration right now.

Am Johal  16:49 
You did a project called Doppelgänger. Is that right? 

NiNi Dongnier  16:53 

Am Johal  16:54  
Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about that?

NiNi Dongnier  16:56 
Yeah. Yeah, the time is interesting, actually premiered that work... So you know, I landed in Vancouver, I have a two weeks of residency. And two days later, I fly to New York and start to premiere that show. So we actually work on that piece over zoom. 

Am Johal  17:18  

NiNi Dongnier  17:18 
You know, we had a rehearsal over zoom during the pandemic. That is two years project and, and it is a live performance. It is really challenging, but we have a... after I fly in New York, we have a 10 day to actually rehearse in space, but still feel very tight. So the work itself is, I would say multiple layers. For the technical layer, or medium layer, is we're asking like how one physical body, a solo performer can create a duet and how to create a duet that have very, very crafted composition, my physical body and my doppelgänger. And to realize that is we using a live stream camera to capture my performance live, then goes through this algorithm-atic way of like, we codified a rule of interaction. So what you see on stage is me myself dancing with my manipulated image in time. And as last part of the work, we actually apply the, like, first time applied a little bit machine learning model into it, which is the camera and a machine has captured my movement like first 30 minutes movement and at the last 10 minutes of a show, and it starts releasing and try to categorize different kinds of gesture I did in the previous 30 minutes live. So that is briefly, it's how the technical side of the work. And for the context of work, it's actually very personal. Yeah, it's basically the context is my experience of migrating and living in different places and always feel like I have a parallel life because of being many many years of living in New York and Beijing and I constantly travel and I have my partner like around that time at different country with me and I feel like while I'm in Beijing and I have something that going out there in another country, while I'm in New York I still have that context of entire big world in China that I feel like I have a very complex feeling about time and space. Sometimes I forget where I am and time has become really relative with for me because I need to communicate with people at midnight who work in another— France they're in their morning. So I think it's about my sense of this dislocation and my life in constant migration between cultural place and emotional states and in a bigger sense that different context of different society as well as like what it means to be present and because in our work we have dancing with me, my doppelgänger a few second ago, also predict my future. So my image, so there's different image existent with present me. So I will say like time and space and yeah, like multiple risks, I cannot speaking fully because the work is really heavy to me.

Am Johal  21:06 
Yeah. And I guess we also carry the burden of multiple identities simultaneously and trying to reconcile that is, in many ways, an impossible project, but it's something that lives inside you or struggles in so many ways. 

NiNi Dongnier  21:21 
Yeah, definitely. And, and definitely, all those technological concept. I remember when I just moved to New York, we don't have a main communication, like tool. We don't have WeChat at that time. I remember I was still using phone card to call my family. And later on, we started having different kinds of...

Am Johal  21:46 
That's how you used to do long distance relationships before it's like the card and like—

NiNi Dongnier  21:49 
Yeah, right. And later on in, in those years is changing and become like without ever having the video call. Right. So the sense of distance, or like how we feel. I feel like, what does it mean to— means of living at one place? Am I really living... I don't feel like I'm either Chinese or American or Canadian or Inner Mongolian or Beijing or New Yorker. So I feel like everything massaged together. And all those histories, like movement history because I study different kinds of bodily language, you know, from classical form, Chinese dance, modern technique, contemporary technique, postmodern thing and in turn a variety of form. And also, I went to a different place to learn like Korean dance and I'm interested in Indian dance a lot. So, yeah, I feel like they all become part of me. So this doppelgänger and me, I don't know, like, unspeakable, it's about identity, about dislocation, about the complexity of being a person. And there is a scene of like, I get very emotional, movement-wise I get very, very strong energy released into the air and I'm exactly manipulate a world. Sounds a little cheesy, but it's actually is my experiences like, I always feel serious, emotional. I have serious emotional problem while I'm in the airport. Because airport become the thing, come and a go, become to a place connecting different location. And when I see people hugging and saying goodbye, they’re crying. I feel like I see myself because that's my experience. I always have to constantly say goodbye, say hello to people I love. And yeah, that feeling is really real. So it's very emotional. And I also learn from it. I am usually very attached to a place, or a person or object, and by experiences, constantly have to say goodbye, and constantly have to encounter new things or different challenge cultural wise, or individual-wise, all these challenges.

Am Johal  24:24  
And I guess also, there's the kind of exhaustion with code switching all the time, right?

NiNi Dongnier  24:29 
Yeah, definitely. Yes, start to learn, like be more open, and rethinking what the home can be, and more trust to my current feeling in this moment. Because nothing I can really control except, you know, like, this moment how I exist. Yeah, so that work is learning. Also, almost like a summary of my previous lives.

Am Johal  24:59 
Nini I was gonna ask you about, you know, coming into a university context and becoming an assistant professor. There's this engagement with pedagogy and your students and it's a really rich, wonderful environment to also kind of build your own practice. But one of the challenges always, of course, in any art faculty, is how one can engage in all the demands of a position inside of a university and at the same time, develop their practice and continue with the collaboration that's been going on which already in your context, you're working in multiple places, multiple countries. How have you sort of managed that capacity to both teach but also to continue to build your own practice?

NiNi Dongnier  25:51 
I do feel they're connected. Yes, I'm trying to really, looking at the composition, like who is actually in the room, like the individuals. Like for example sixteen students in the studio. I'm trying to give them some fundamental tools for art making, not necessarily movement based, sometimes expand to another media, but I think more important thing is to learn their trajectory and what's the right tool for them. So I keep this idea of like, if I'm doing my work, and while I'm doing my work, my sensation is open, and I'm trying to— sometimes I even feel too much, but I try to be very honest, to giving what I actually experienced to the student especially the variety of students. Students are very different, right? Like individually, they're very different. For students like here in Simon Fraser University, the student body are very diverse, right? They come in from different cultural backgrounds and different, they’re coming from different place. So I'm providing the fundamental tool, I'm keeping message, like the idea of composition, choreography, and how to observe things in very detailed, how to articulate idea and how to, from one concept to, to developing your concept into your own language. I'm constantly massaging that part. And also, I think I have lots of conversation going on, between my practice, my students, their own life, and their contexts, their common contexts they're interested in. So I don't know if that answered your question.

Am Johal  27:42 
Yeah, you did. I'm wondering, you know, can you speak to some of the work that you're currently doing or future collaborations? Like, what are the kinds of things you're thinking about in terms of the work you'd like to make? What are some of the ideas that you're thinking about?

NiNi Dongnier  27:58  
I think I've overloaded myself. And this is also a problem I have. I have a few project like actually locate in my mind. I will say the main project is a new commission from Shanghai International Dance Centre, going to premiere in August. It's a work that I'm thinking it’s going to be a four women performer including myself going to be a construction of four solo work. But mainly around the idea of body movement, and the material extension, from body and movement, which means I will want to work with a lot of actual material, like physical material. And I'm also very interesting—this is my question, I feel, sometimes I feel like contemporary dance have too much movement. And I always ask why, like, why you always move, like, why we need that much a movement to... and actually I didn't remember anything. So I kind of want to use extension of body which is material and also body. To find me some energy, that don't require much of movement, but a strong presence and the actual volume and quality and energy of the thing. So each solo is gonna be, one central idea is the motion in space. So for example, I'm thinking— I'm still changing. But right now I'm thinking, first part is the movement of nature phenomena, which is a movement of cloud. How do we embody that also how to transfer to another material. And a second is a fly in silence, which is animal’s movement. I'm not even thinking this is a bird or something I don't want to give specific... locate on specific animal but more of like the energy of like, a free motion, the sense of like, how animals experience gravity, you know, their sensation going to be very different with human being, right? Because I still remember my mom take me to... In my early years, I spent a lot of time actually lying in the grassland and looking at cloud, they're moving in very slow way. But they're like a painting constantly changing. And you feel those cloud right in front of your eyes. So while I look at like birds it's same and the third part the solo it's using that very, I will say like a fundamental form of like, how we as humans do like, move. I want to use walking, so everything generated, entire solo gonna be generated on close observation of walking, and a really deconstructed how we walking through the space. And the last work it's, I want to do a 99 verbs and wishes and to my current partner. Like it's a love story. So yeah, yeah. Yeah, I think—

Am Johal  31:34 
Does he know about it?

NiNi Dongnier  31:36 
I don't know. Free to show him. I think I want abstract. I mean, love relationship is really sweet but also sometimes a little sorrow, you know, all this kind of complexity of things. I want to really...

Am Johal  31:54 
I don’t know what you're talking about. It's nothing but joy for me.

NiNi Dongnier  31:59 
Yeah, like, I want to abstract to 99 verbs of like, I'm only show each verb once and it's gone. And for me, it's like, love, like you enjoy that moment. It's gone. I always feel very sorrow about like, like, this moment will gone. You know, and you can never track back. So I think it's a... Yeah, I think it's for me, it's a memory of like a good love and time. And also that is inner emotional moving. So it's also about motion. Movement. So four motion, four movement together. It's a whole show and called... So I think for now it's called 'From origin to vanishing point' means everything going to go through space and gone. But yeah, media wise is more about sculptural body.

Am Johal  33:05 
NiNi, I was going to ask you, as you've landed in Vancouver in the middle of a pandemic, you've probably had some chance to interact with some local dancers and see at least a bit of the local dance scene I'm wondering if you could speak a little bit to your thoughts or relationship to the local scene here in Vancouver.

NiNi Dongnier  33:27 
To be honest with you, I'm still learning and I'm not so hurried to push too hard on this yet because definitely, because my teaching and my current job I just come to a new program, I have a lot of thing to learn about School of Contemporary Art, especially the dance program. Also in relationship with another different kind of area because my work is also very interdisciplinary. And right now I'm getting contact with the community here more based on interaction with my colleagues. They are practitioners of dance, performance and visual arts. Some people here in Vancouver so I think I learned things and even like from Peter like who is doing, writing a book about Vancouver dance scene I think I learned things through people I'm encountering every day but I haven't shown my work here yet which is, I'm really looking forward because I think when I put my work here it's actual the— connection or the communication with the community here. But so far not yet. I hope to after the premiere of my work in Shanghai and I have opportunity to bring my work here. I know here's the PuSh festival and many great performance space. I want to bring my work here to you know, just to share something I did.

Am Johal  34:59 
Gabrielle if you're listening as the curator of the push festival, just a little plug there. NiNi is there anything else you you'd like to add?

NiNi Dongnier  35:11 
What I'd like to add? Oh, one thing I want to add—

Am Johal  35:18 
Anything. I just always ask that as the last question in case you know, there was something you wanted to say that I didn't ask about.

NiNi Dongnier  35:29 
It's my life. I found a new apartment and—

Am Johal  35:32 
Vancouver's so expensive. We have to talk about housing. It's so expensive.

NiNi Dongnier  35:36 
So excessive and I found a super old building at the West End. And I've— Why say that because I... the building is so old, but it was a character that have hardwood floor and is bigger than all the apartment I've lived in in New York. And now I have a studio like my, my studio I can actually use.

Am Johal  35:57 
Does the person who lives under you, like hit their hockey stick on the roof, like knock it down up there!

NiNi Dongnier  36:01  
I'm on third floor, I'm on top floor it's a low-rise building and I hope not. And yeah, I feel like I'm so lucky I have that current studio. So after teaching or before teaching, I have my own quiet moment of like, be purely myself and go deeper into my thinking and working process. I remember well, I'm living… either New York or Beijing, I don't own my own studio. I always, either I'm a residency or renting a studio in a few hours, but I feel very pressure, you know, they give you a three hours window, and it's hard to get in to that zone right away. Right? So if I have my own studio means I can waste time in my studio, and I can take a nap in my studio. And I feel that lots of good idea coming from the moment or for like a few minutes after you wake up from a nap you know, because you're really relaxed. And your your mind is very close to you know your actual thinking versus constantly changing place and feels very grounding. So I would say yeah, if I will share one thing is have a home studio is absolutely so helpful for artists. So Vancouver I hope the rent is cheaper. That I can rent it for longer.

Am Johal  37:43 
Well I'm glad you have these wonderful thoughts after you— after I take a nap I need to— I'm usually thinking about having a snack. A snack.

NiNi Dongnier  37:51 
What kind of snack do you like?

Am Johal  37:53 
Like cheezies. Salt and pepper chips. All sorts of things. That's neither here nor there.

NiNi Dongnier  38:00 
Can I share one more thing? 

Am Johal  38:01 
Yes, of course. 

NiNi Dongnier  38:02
Okay, I love the food here in Vancouver and all the wonderful pastry shops. Oh my god, it's so good. Yeah, I love the food here and and people here are very... they give you a lot of space. So I don't feel I'm pressured or anything. I love New York because living in Beijing and New York both places are very pushy, you know, people will want to constantly do things and not-stoppable. And while I'm in Vancouver, I  actually feel that I'm still have that side of me that I always feel like I'm not working hard enough, I kind of blame myself I should work harder and do more and I didn't finish my reading today etc. But I feel the atmosphere actually gave me a new experience to say as I'm getting older, right like it's... for some I have time to digesting to tasting an idea or rewriting a piece of paragraph or really chew on the texture of moment. So I feel like Vancouver gave me that dimension. I really appreciate. Yeah.

Am Johal  39:22 
NiNi, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar.

NiNi Dongnier  39:27  
Thank you. Thanks for your time.

Kathy Feng  39:31
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to this episode with NiNi Dongier. To learn more about NiNi’s artistic projects, check out the show notes below. Make sure to follow us on Twitter and Instagram at sfu_voce to stay up to date on our latest podcast releases and events. Thanks again for tuning in, and we’ll see you next time on Below the Radar.

Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
April 11, 2023

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