Dance and Admissions with Jenny Gao ’18

Jenny is a junior from Cherry Hill, New Jersey and an intern at the CIL. She is involved in Beijing opera, has been a part of the dance group RnM, she works for Swarthmore Admissions, and externed at Principato & Young, an entertainment management firm this past winter break.

Can you tell me about Beijing opera, which you’ve participated in since the age of 8? What exactly is Beijing opera, what sort of  performances does it entail, and where do you perform?

Beijing opera is a highly stylized form of performance from the 18th century, its one of the cultural treasures of China. They often perform lots of historical or fantasy stories that the audience knows very well. Makeup and costumes are very intense (at least 1 hour to put on makeup, not including hair!), and the movements are very specific and stylized. Unlike Western theater, where the set has to be built and is very realistic, Beijing opera has a very minimalistic set and performers often do a lot of pantomiming. They use their skills and movements to convey spaces and actions to the audience.

I’ve performed anywhere from small venues like at churches and college dorms to the Chinese Embassy in DC and on national Chinese television (CCTV 11). The place I’ve performed most consistently is actually the Autumn Festival in Philadelphia thats hosted by Asian Americans United.
You’ve also been pretty heavily involved in RnM! Have you found any overlap in skills or habits that help you to be successful in Beijing opera and RnM?
I perform Beijing opera to connect to my culture and share it with others. In RnM, I danced because of the community and out of a need to connect with the rest of Swarthmore through dance. I guess any overlap would be the drive I had when performing in either context. For me, dance is a way to achieve certain emotions, interactions, and connections that otherwise would not have been experienced in the “normal” world.
Beijing opera and RnM are both creative, or at least highly performative, endeavors. You also work for Admissions, which at face value sounds like it might require a different approach. What would you say is the best skill you’ve acquired from working in Admissions, and do you think that you’re able to translate this back in any way to music and dance? 
I love working in Admissions! Being a student at Swarthmore can be very challenging and as an upperclassmen, you slowly become jaded. Working in Admissions allows me to talk about the Swarthmore values and the privileges Swarthmore students have – this refreshes me when I feel particularly complacent as a student. Having a space to dance is a complete privilege. Though I’ve had it for all my life, its certainly not something I will always have after I graduate. And so the “best skill” I’d say is always bringing a good attitude to class and truly appreciating my ability to move in a space with other people.
You externed at an entertainment management firm over winter break. So cool! You are also of course an intern for the CIL. Did you see any aspect of the CIL reflected in your externship experience?
I externed at Principato-Young Entertainment this past winter break. They manage writers, particularly comedy writers. Essentially, their clients are content creators. Instead of actors just waiting for an audition or a job, the writers were actively brainstorming, creating, and editing original content. The managers also were able to help their clients in these particularly creative aspects. I found this content creation process to be incredible.
Just like in an entrepreneurial setting, it can get so real, so quickly. For example, one person in the office read a hilarious news story, thought it’d make for a great movie, and by the time I left the office there were plans in to fly to meet the people mentioned in the news story to buy their life story rights. It was exhilarating to be in that office and know that ideas discussed here could, in just a couple of months, be movies and TV shows that I could be watching. I was able to sit in on a meeting where Paul Young ’92 was working with Jessue Kahnweiler to prepare for a story pitch – not unlike a startup pitch you’d see in an entrepreneurial setting.
When you think of your perfect, ideal leader, what are the first three words that come to mind to describe him or her?
EQ. Grounded. Passionate.
What’s your favorite (solo or group) performance for RnM and what’s your favorite Beijing opera performance? Even more fun….can you imagine performing an RnM show along to a Beijing opera song?!?!?
My favorite performance for RnM had to be the piece by Tara Giangrande’16 to the song Wilhelm Scream by James Blake. It starts out so meditative and then builds up into a complete frenzy – absolutely a pleasure to do that dance. As for Beijing opera, my favorite one is probably Farewell My Concubine. It was the first thing I learned and its a classic in Beijing opera. As for performing RnM to a Beijing opera song, I’ve actually played with that idea before! I can definitely imagine a drum-heavy instrumental track being played to some badass choreography.
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