The event was addressed by the Chinese Ambassador, Yang Youming.Youming and his wife, Geng Hailing, are keen admirers of Dai Ailian, a Trinidadian who became known as the Doyenne of Dance in China, and both were proud to be associated with the establishment of the foundation.
“Uppermost in our minds was coming to the birthplace of Madam Dai Ailian. She was a national treasure in China,” said the ambassador’s wife.
Eileen Isaac, eventually called Dai Ailian (Ai - Love and Lian - Waterlily), was born in Couva in 1906, and left Bishop Anstey High School at age 14 to study ballet and modern dance in England. Years later she travelled to China via Hong Kong, where she married, and eventually, with her husband, moved to China. There, Isaac learned traditional Chinese dance, which was put together with what she knew, and eventually danced all over China, in her own style, while her husband became one of the most famous painters in China. They had no children.
Isaac has one nephew in Trinidad, Adrian Isaac, who spoke in awe about his aunt.
“She was just auntie Eileen but when I went to China it was a wake-up call,” he told Sunday Newsday.
His grandparents, Frederick and Irene, came from China and had three daughters, Phyllis, Grace and Eileen.
“My aunt danced one year in Trinidad anmd Tobago but she made China her home, work and love,” her nephew said.
“Dai Ailian,” said Madam Geng Hailing, “is very, very famous and when my husband was posted here we were so excited to find out where Madam Dai Ailian was born, and from that moment decided to do something meaningful. Then at the opening of NAPA, somebody said she has a nephew who is the only family connection here and we decided to make contact and definitely do something about it because she was a great lady. The Chinese Association of Trinidad and Tobago formed the foundation to develop cultural exchanges between the two countries and strengthen the ties because we have a long time friendship.”
Since the formation, the Neal & Massy Foundation has come out in support as the first local sponsor, and last September two male dancers – Juan Pablo Alba Dennis, of the Caribbean School of Dance, and Seon Nurse, of East Dry River, Port-of-Spain – were granted one-year scholarships at the Beijing Dance Academy. Their stay in Beijing will end in July, but they are both honoured to have been selected to perform with the BDA in London later this month.
“Dai Ailian deserves to be proud of,” says Ambassador Youming.
“She left Trinidad and Tobago at the tender age of 14. She could not know at the time what future would lay ahead of her. She could not know she would be the founder and the first principal of the Beijing Dance Academy, vice chairwoman of the Dancers Association of China and vice chairwoman of the International Dance Council of UNESCO. She could not know she would become one of the four female dancing artistes who has a statue put up in the entrance hall at the London Royal Dance Academy. She could not know, not in her widest imagination, that she would become the ‘Mother of Chinese Modern Dance’.
“And these were indeed the remarkable achievements she had made during her lifetime. When Dai Ailian passed away in Beijing at the age of 90, thousands upon thousands of people lined up in deep grief at her funeral, led by the Premier of China, and paid their last respects to her. Such a moving and unforgettable scene was the strongest proof that Madam Dai Ailian is held in high esteem in China and is profoundly respected and loved by the Chinese people.”He added,“Dai Ailian deserves to be remembered. She had made a remarkable contribution to the formation and development of Chinese modern dance. She had introduced to China not only ballet and western modern dance, but also Trinidad and Tobago dance art, a fusion of largely African and Indian culture. What makes Dai Ailian a unique and outstanding world-class dance icon is that she herself is the very embodiment of the integration of the cultures of East, for example China and India, West Africa and Latin America. Furthermore, Dai Ailian is also the forerunner of the cultural exchanges between China and Trinidad and Tobago. She had single handedly connected our two cultures so closely together by her graceful movements of the body as a great artiste.”
“When Dai Ailian died at age 90 in 2006 she was buried in the prominent Babaoshan Cemetery, which is for heroes, revolutionaries and top Chinese officials. The national flag was placed on her coffin and the first person to pay respects was the Premier of China. She was revered in China,” added Madam Geng Hailing.
Indeed, Eileen Isaac, of Isaac Junction in Couva, withstood difficult times to achieve greatness. She considered herself an alien in two worlds: a Chinese in the West and a stranger back “home”. Yet she found her place as World War II raged in the East and West, and pursued her steadfast dream through war, poverty and persecution, as love of her ancestral country and devotion to the art of dance took her through a 40-year sojourn during China’s greatest turmoil. How she survives and re-emerges as a cultural force is the story of Dai Ailan, as told by Daryl Ries in his bio-synopsis for the foundation.
“The West knew of Dai Ailian but When China closed its doors, the Trinidadian-born ballerina was presumed dead, imprisoned or wrecked by the wrath of the cultural revolution,” says Ries.
“She emerged a decade later, a savvy survivor in her sixties who endured all to become China’s ‘doyenne of dance.’”
“When China opened in 1979, Dai Ailian’s name was on the lips of the dance world. She had now left England over 30 years before. It was known that she had founded China’s Ballet in 1951 with the support of Premier Chou En Lai, but little else had filtered through to the West. Had she survived and where could she be found? Her friends and teachers hadn’t forgotten the diminutive Chinese girl that came to study dance in London from Trinidad in the mid-1930s. Anton Dolin, the famous English choreographer, Dame Alicia Markova, one of the world’s greatest ballerinas, and many more luminaries of the dance were haunted by Dai’s disappearance.
News came that she was in Beijing and Madame Dai, as she was now known, became reunited with the West.”
“From now on we must walk on two legs, with one foot in the West and the other rooted in our own rich heritage,” said Madam Dai of the new China.
As a cultural ambassador, Madame Dai became a famous figure at international dance conferences and ballet competitions, making new bonds on her official travels with the top dance artists of the time. Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn and Mikhail Baryshnikov were all part of her new “family” that she invited to Beijing’s Central Ballet of China.
“Exchange is the key to the future and I do not have another 40 years to make it happen,” Dai Ailian had said.
And so with her devotion to accomplishing this goal, it became a reality. The Central Ballet of China, co-founded by Madame Dai in 1951, was invited on its first American tour in 1986, less than a decade after it was reinstated to its former place as the premier classical ballet company of China.
Arriving in New York, the dance critic, Anna Kisselgoff, of the New York Times, said, “Madame Dai Ailian’s recommendations have borne fruit for China’s ballet. Her contacts have brought the likes of Nureyev to Beijing.” Ballet News’ Carolyn George also wrote at the time, “Dai Ailian is the grand dame of the dance in China, a pixie-like bundle of energy who belies her 70 years.”