Margo Lakin, Trinity Communications
“This is definitely a full-circle moment,” she acknowledges.
Her ties to Duke began in 2013 when she was a graduate student pursuing an MFA in dance performance at the University of Iowa. Attending the venerable American Dance Festival Summer Dance Intensive, held on Duke’s campus each year, she had just finished an afternoon of classes at the Ark and was walking by the Duke Coffeehouse when her attention was drawn to two fellow dance students.
“I noticed a student with a handheld video camera attached to his wheely suitcase, like a makeshift dolly,” Guan vividly remembers. “He was using it to film another student, following her as she danced through the courtyard, and this realization came over me that film can be another way to create movement.”
When she arrived in Durham that summer, Guan had professional dance aspirations. Along with her studio classes, she was part of the American Dance Festival performance season, where she danced the female role in Martha Graham’s piece, “Acts of Light.”
After her epiphany on East Campus, she returned to Iowa in the fall and immersed herself in learning everything she could about filmmaking.
“Dance on film speaks to me and suits the way I think,” she explains. “The possibilities are endless, and I can jump across dimensions — working within different locations and manipulating time.”
This new dance film path was also a big jump from her childhood in southwest China, where Guan’s family emphasized the importance of academics and encouraged a career in economics or business. As a child, she trained in Chinese folk and classical dance, piano, drawing and calligraphy, but the artforms were seen as hobbies and not something she could eventually make a living from.
Guan came to the United States for college, earning a B.A. in economics and French, with a minor in music, from Saint Mary’s College in Indiana. She followed with a master’s in international education policy from Harvard University. Although her studies didn’t focus on the arts, she continued to dance, choreograph and produce events connecting arts education and social change outside of class.
“The early part of my education in the U.S. really established my ongoing commitment to using dance as a vehicle for cross-cultural communication and social engagement,” Guan shares.
After Harvard, Guan went to Iowa to pursue the MFA that brought her to campus that pivotal summer. She followed with doctoral studies at University of California, Los Angeles, focusing on documentary and experimental dance filmmaking as the mode to include reoccurring themes of personal and cultural identities and racial justice into her later award-winning films.
From discussing the effects of colonialism on women of color in “The Weight of Sugar” to tracing her family’s lineage through multiple generations in “Family Portrait,” where her father dances alongside her, Guan doesn’t shy from sharing her authentic self through personal narratives and experiences with a broader audience.
This includes a theme appearing in her current work, focusing on a topic recently familiar to Guan: motherhood. Her short films “First Dance” and “First Dance 2.0” offer intimate glimpses into her two sons’ early years. Guan complements her dance film work with scholarly writings that explore the aesthetics and politics of screendance practices in postsocialist China, and dance film works by Asian choreographers in a global context.
This Fall, Guan teaches Performance Praxis, which culminates in new choreography for the Dance Program’s annual fall production, November Dances. The piece will mix live and multimedia components to explore the history of early Chinese immigration to the United States and the ideas of home, a theme that resonates with Guan — and many Duke students.
A new course in the spring, Screendance: Documentary Aesthetics in Dance-Moving Image Practice, will teach theories and practices of integrating documentary elements with experimental dance filmmaking as a methodology to engage with social issues and cultural memories.
In her pedagogy, Guan wants to expose students to the myriad of ways dance and media integrate and coproduce meaning, challenging them to think outside of the box and the studio — and to hopefully inspire them as she was first inspired at Duke 10 years ago.
“I want students to walk out of their classes with a feeling of empowerment and a belief in their own voices,” she says. “They should feel excited by the thought of creating, and I want to give them the tools to make that happen.
“And if they might want to make more dance films, I’d be happy with that.”