Overlooked No More: Si-lan Chen, Whose Dances Encompassed Worlds

This article is a part of Overlooked, a sequence of obituaries about exceptional folks whose deaths, starting in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

In 1945, the dancer Si-lan Chen despatched a draft of her memoir to the author Pearl S. Buck, with a letter asking for her ideas on why she was struggling to get the eye of a writer.

The drawback, Buck defined, was that whereas Chen had dined with the Nationalist chief Chiang Kai-shek in revolutionary China, had been romanced by the poet Langston Hughes in Soviet Moscow, and had labored in Hollywood for the producer Joseph Mankiewicz, nobody truly knew who she was.

The autobiography, Buck mentioned, of a mixed-race woman rising up in Trinidad, finding out ballet on the Bolshoi and choreographing movies like “Anna and the King of Siam” (1946), was too targeted on, effectively, her.

“The one thing which might have made your book interesting to the general reader,” Buck, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote in her reply, “would have been new information or closer views of the famous persons you mention.”

Chen disagreed that she ought to be a secondary character in her personal life story, and in 1984 she revealed her memoir with the cheeky title, “A Footnote to History (Dance Horizons).”

Si-lan Chen was believed to have been born in Trinidad on March 20, 1909, though, she wrote within the memoir, “I am not absolutely sure how old I am today.” Her mom, she defined, had lied about her daughter’s age to casting administrators, resulting in cast paperwork and mismatched data, a few of which say she was born in 1905.

Her father, Eugene Chen, was a Chinese diplomat and lawyer who later helped set up a revolutionary authorities in Wuhan, China. Her mom, Agatha Alphosin Ganteaume, was Afro-Creole and had grown up in Trinidad in a convent.

The household, prosperous because of Chen’s authorized profession, lived on a cocoa plantation in Port-au-Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago.

Si-lan, who glided by Sylvia when she was little, favored to observe the cocoa beans being crushed underfoot by plantation employees and would generally participate, stomping on the harvest together with them. “This is my earliest memory of a dance experience,” she wrote.

In 1911, the Chinese Nationalist Party chief Sun Yat-sen led a profitable revolution towards the Qing dynasty. With Sun’s encouragement, Si-lan’s father moved to China to assist construct a brand new, impartial nation. The remainder of the household remained in Trinidad earlier than relocating to London, the place the kids have been to finish their schooling.

There Si-lan studied dance on the illustrious Stedman’s Academy. “I was the youngest member,” she wrote, “colonial, cute and spoiled. Everyone pampered me.”

Her first public efficiency was as a buttercup flower. Eventually she grew to become the varsity’s go-to dancer for nonwhite roles. She was first solid as an Indian boy in a manufacturing of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” after which as Topsy, a slave youngster, in an adaptation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” She would later use racial inscrutability as a tool, creating dance actions that embodied a large number of countries.

Chen, proper, with the dancer Ragini Devi in 1940, when Chen lived in New York. There she launched American audiences to dances from Soviet Central Asia.Credit…The Museum of Modern Art, New York, through Art Resource

After her mom died, in 1926, Si-lan, her two brothers and her sister joined their father in China. The subsequent yr, Chiang Kai-shek purged the Nationalist social gathering of leftist and communist components, forcing the household to flee to Moscow. Once there, Chen started finding out ballet with the Bolshoi theater’s dance firm, although she quickly discovered its strategies too regimented and the Russian instructors stingy with their reward. “Each movement,” she complained, “had to be perfected and polished to escape reprimand.”

Chen realized of an experimental choreographer who had fallen out of favor with Soviet artwork critics for refusing to toe the social gathering line. His title was Kasyan Goleizovsky. “This,” Chen wrote, “was my man.”

Goleizovsky, nonetheless, had a penchant for sexualized choreography, and feedback have been made about Chen’s race as a form of corollary to the efficiency’s sensuality. As the scholar S. Ani Mukherji wrote, one Soviet critic mentioned of Chen: “Her appearance is even reminiscent of a mulatto … And like a mulatto, she flirted with her choice of men in the audience.”

The allegation in Soviet newspaper critiques that her dancing confirmed no engagement with “proletarian ideology” notably troubled Chen, who had lived a lifetime of relative wealth and privilege. “I had never bothered to inquire of myself what ‘proletarian ideology’ meant,” she wrote, “because up until now it had not seemed any concern of mine.”

The criticism marked a turning level for Chen. She launched into a brand new profession as an ideologically aware choreographer, enrolling in programs on Marxist-Leninism on the newly based Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV) in Moscow. She started instructing evening dance courses to manufacturing unit employees as a part of the Theater of Working Youth; the director, she mentioned, gave her the place to “help in breaking my bourgeois background.”

Chen, whose mom was Afro-Creole and her father Chinese, in 1944. She believed the physique was a form of world unto itself, so long as it remained open to the rhythms of the folks.Credit…Man Ray 2015 Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, ADAGP, Paris 2021; Telimage

In the summer season of 1933, Chen toured Soviet Central Asia and have become enamored of the folks dances of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. By the time she gave a dance recital in Moscow that December, she had remodeled herself into an artist intent on representing the brand new, multiethnic peoples united by communist internationalism.

“In herself and in her dances she is the new woman of the awakened East,” her brother Jack wrote within the recital notes.

It was in Moscow that Chen met the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, who was within the Soviet Union to movie “Black and White,” about race relations within the American South. The two started a flirtatious friendship (Hughes’s archives are stuffed with letters to her), although Chen mentions him in her memoir solely in passing, writing that “Langston had been a sailor and walked like one.” She additionally included a poem he wrote about her: “I am so sad/Over half a kiss/That with half a pencil/I write this.”

Chen later met Jay Leyda, an American movie pupil who was finding out with the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. They fell in love and honeymooned in Leningrad earlier than shifting in 1937 to New York City, the place Leyda was employed as an assistant movie curator on the Museum of Modern Art. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chen needed to go away the United States each six months and reapply for re-entry.

In New York, Chen joined the socialist New Dance Theater and finalized her repertoire, which included dances celebrating the poor and working-class of China (a beggar woman, a “rickshaw coolie”) and condemning bourgeois varieties (“a jingoistic American lady” and “that very ‘arty’ type of artist,” as she wrote in her notes). She additionally launched American audiences to dances from Soviet Central Asia.

During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), she went on tour throughout the United States to boost cash for the China Aid Council. An article about Chen ran in The New York Post with the headline, “Chinese Girl to Fight Japs with Dance of Propaganda.”

Despite her efforts to steer conversations towards the struggles going through the poor, reporters, present promoters and colleagues continued to sexualize and exoticize her. A flier for a 1938 efficiency hosted by the American League for Peace and Democracy learn, “Spend ‘A Night in China’ with Si-lan Chen, Exotic Danseuse.” John Martin of The New York Times mentioned of her New York debut that yr: “She presents an attractive appearance, with a trig little figure and a lively and animated face. Her movement is crisp and smart and sure, with something of the characteristic clarity and precision of her race.”

Chen returned to now Communist-controlled China in 1959. Invigorated by what she described as a “new China, a socialist China,” she choreographed a ballet known as “Hu-tung” (“Lane”), which celebrated Beijing’s avenue tradition, with an emphasis on the video games she noticed youngsters enjoying outdoors. It was accompanied by Bizet’s piano suite “Jeux d’Enfants.”

But the Chinese authorities reprimanded Chen for her selection of Western music — criticism that pissed off her as a result of it was exactly this borrowing from and mixing of cultures that was on the coronary heart of her philosophy of dance. Further, it was how she understood her position on the planet as a mixed-race socialist dedicated to constructing worldwide solidarity.

Chen died on March eight, 1996, in California, having thought deeply about what it meant to maneuver by means of the world. Her legacy is a perception that the physique is a form of world unto itself, so long as it stays open to the rhythms of the folks.

Concluding her memoir, she wrote: “Our planet is large, yet it seems that people are always trying to restrict one another. The technique for survival is flexibility; with the help of those who love you, you move on, finding a place to function creatively in three worlds that should be one.”

Jennifer Wilson is a contributing author for The Nation.