When Xun Sun accepted a position on the music faculty of Southern Utah University in 2001, he was surprised to learn that Cedar City is the original home of a woman he learned about while growing up in the People's Republic of China. His next surprise was that most Utahns have never heard of Helen Foster Snow, the Utah woman who in the 1930s created a bridge of friendship in China that's still remembered.
Those surprises were the starting point that led to a remarkable, groundbreaking artistic collaboration between Southern Utah University students and faculty with performing artists in Wuhan, China. A group of students are currently in Wuhan, performing alongside professional Chinese artists in a dance drama they created together about Helen Foster Snow's life.
Planting Utah ideas in Chinese soil • Helen Foster, born in 1907, grew up in Cedar City and Salt Lake City. In 1931, she took a secretarial position arranged by her father at the United States consulate in Shanghai, intending to become a journalist. Beautiful and intelligent, she was soon immersed in the glamorous social life that swirled around the embassy. She married journalist Edgar Snow in 1932 and began writing about what she witnessed in a country struggling to reinvent itself while under siege.
Snow was touched by the plight of China's displaced and downtrodden people, who poured into Shanghai as Japanese troops invaded rural China. Unlike many other Westerners in Shanghai, Snow and her husband immersed themselves in Chinese culture, writing their way up and down the war-torn country as students protested, armies amassed and families starved.
Edgar Snow's books and articles found a larger audience in the U.S. in the 1930s than his wife's did, but many scholars now consider her clear-eyed, detailed accounts of life in revolutionary China to be a more valuable historical record.
Pained by the suffering she saw around her, Snow worked to organize industrial collectives that provided people with food and supplies, and aided military resistance after Japanese troops decimated farms and factories. The Indusco movement of small-scale self-supporting cooperatives caught on as a way of employing workers and providing goods to support resistance against the Japanese invasion.
Making art out of history • "We learned about [Helen Foster Snow] in Chinese history class," said Sun, who became a U.S. citizen earlier this year. "Helen was highly praised by not just the leaders and founders of the People's Republic of China, but by the common people. She helped them. She was very beautiful and did lots of great things. I've known about her since I was pretty young."
That background led Sun, other SUU faculty members and Chinese performing artists to launch their own artistic exchange. In the past year they've created the dance-drama "The Dream of Helen," which celebrates the life of a Utahn whose pioneering spirit expanded women's roles, created lasting friendships and answered human needs.
The connection began thanks to Sun's contact with Chang Sheng Mei, president of the Hubei Opera and Dance Drama Theatre. Mei visited SUU as part of a cultural exchange project in April 2010, and the idea of rekindling Snow's cultural bridge-building spirit was sparked through discussions with Shauna Mendini, interim dean of SUU's college of performing and visual arts.
"What better way for people-to-people relationships to form than through the arts?" Mendini asked.
Cultural bridge-building • Cultural misunderstandings occurred throughout the project, Mendini said, but were surmounted because the groups stayed in close communication. Mendini has done much of the administrative planning for the project and is amazed by the way it took root and grew.
"I feel like I have a tiger by the tail, and it's a Chinese tiger," she said. "I just go along for the ride."
The performance piece doesn't attempt to tackle controversial issues related to China's revolutionary period, Mendini said, in which Nationalist and Communist forces competed for control of the huge nation. Instead, the work emphasizes Snow's efforts to help the downtrodden people of China.
"We're not getting into politics," she said. "We can't, and we don't want to. … What we are looking at is her humanitarian effort."
"The Dream of Helen" was conceived by pairs of American and Chinese directors, composers, choreographers and set designers. Fourteen SUU students join a cast of young Chinese performers for the work, a Chinese art form in which a written script is performed without words through dancing and acting.
In addition, six SUU students and one faculty member have joined the 90-piece Hubei Symphony Orchestra for the show's performances on July 23-25. Sun will conduct the orchestra.
Keith Bradshaw, of the SUU music faculty, paired with composer Yi-Lin Luo to write the show's score, which incorporates traditional Chinese instruments within a Western-style symphony orchestra. Bradshaw used the melody of "Poor, Wayfarin' Stranger" as a taking-off point for the American side of the story. Luo's signature melody for Helen is more Chinese in character.
"We are both in it to make the best dance-drama we can, not to strut our compositional expertise," Bradshaw said of Luo. "I consider him a very good friend, though we need a translator to communicate. He's someone I would embrace any time I saw him a wonderful man."
Translating through dance • With a contingent of SUU students and faculty, senior Bethany Hess has been in China nearly nine weeks to flesh out and rehearse "The Dream of Helen."
Hess, who plays Helen, said the language barrier was a frustration when she first arrived, but being a dancer helped with communication issues. "With dance, you can show what you want," she said. "You don't have to use words all the time."
SUU paid the students' transportation costs, and they have been guests of the Chinese government and Hubei Theatre during their stay. A similar arrangement was worked out at SUU when a small group of Chinese artists visited to get the show under way and present an academic symposium.
Making friends with cast members will be Hess' favorite memory of her nine weeks in China. The young adults in the show visit karaoke clubs together after rehearsals, where Hess' new friends have shown that they know the songs of Lady Gaga as well as or better than their American counterparts. Many of the performers from the two countries plan to stay in touch.
Portraying Snow has taught Hess deep admiration for the extraordinary Utah woman. "She really saw the people," Hess said. "She cared about the people. For her, it was not just about being in China and living in luxury, as she could have lived."
Sun remains the project's linchpin, as the only person involved who is fully fluent in English and Mandarin and enculturated in China and the U.S.
He sees an important metaphor in "The Dream of Helen's" storyline, as well as the way the show was created.
"Today, as the world becomes smaller, to understand each other is very important," Sun said. "America is a wonderful leading country, and China is a wonderful growing country. It is important for our new generations to get to know each other and understand the two cultures their differences, and the things they have in common. Not just currently, but for the future."
Her life and times
R Five Southern Utah University faculty members, along with SUU president Michael T. Benson, interim dean Shauna Mendini and student performers are in Wuhan, China, this week for world-premiere performances of the dance-drama "The Dream of Helen." Also in China is Colorado State University history professor Kelly Long, who wrote the biography Helen Foster Snow: An American Woman and Revolutionary China, published by University Press of Colorado in 2006.