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Queens College dance teacher gets fellowship

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"We're all delighted and proud," said Susan Einhorn, chair of the department of drama, theatre, and dance at Queens College, where Mei is an associate professor. "It's great for the students and great for the college."

A native of Shenyang, China, 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 10-year Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966.

"It was a chaotic time," recalled Mei, whose parents, both professionals, were forced for a time to work as laborers. "Sometimes there was no school, because the teachers had been sent away. Instead, the workers made us memorize sayings of Chairman Mao," she said. 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, 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," Mei said. "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.

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.

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).

"I don't treat dance alone as a high art," she said. "It's not only about movement. Skill is easy; to become a full person with awareness - that's hard."

A similar attention to details fills Mei's pieces, which embrace music, poetry, visual arts, and other media. "I'm creating theater that involves all aspects of life," she said.

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," takes its theme from two of Asia's fabled rivers - the Ganges in India and the Yellow River in China. That work is scheduled for a 2005 debut. Its sequel, "Nomad: 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," said Yin, "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."

Posted 7:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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