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

It was in Moscow that Chen met the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, who was in the Soviet Union to film “Black and White,” about race relations in the American South. The two began a flirtatious friendship (Hughes’s archives are filled with letters to her), though Chen mentions him in her memoir only in passing, writing that “Langston had been a sailor and walked like one.” She also 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 film student who was studying with the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. They fell in love and honeymooned in Leningrad before moving in 1937 to New York City, where Leyda was hired as an assistant film curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chen had to leave the United States every 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 girl, a “rickshaw coolie”) and condemning bourgeois types (“a jingoistic American lady” and “that very ‘arty’ type of artist,” as she wrote in her notes). She also introduced American audiences to dances from Soviet Central Asia.

During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), she went on tour across the United States to raise money 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 toward the struggles facing the poor, reporters, show promoters and colleagues continued to sexualize and exoticize her. A flier for a 1938 performance hosted by the American League for Peace and Democracy read, “Spend ‘A Night in China’ with Si-lan Chen, Exotic Danseuse.” John Martin of The New York Times said of her New York debut that year: “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 called “Hu-tung” (“Lane”), which celebrated Beijing’s street culture, with an emphasis on the games she saw children playing outside. It was accompanied by Bizet’s piano suite “Jeux d’Enfants.”

But the Chinese authorities reprimanded Chen for her choice of Western music — criticism that frustrated her because it was precisely this borrowing from and combining of cultures that was at the heart of her philosophy of dance. Further, it was how she understood her role in the world as a mixed-race socialist committed to building international solidarity.

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