An Ambassador of Dance: Mary Pat Henry and the Tianjin Conservatory of Music

Mary Pat Henry, professor of dance at the UMKC Conservatory, adjusted a student’s costume before a rehearsal of “Fusion.” The work was choreographed by Professor Wang Hong-Yun, dean of the Tianjin Conservatory in China, as part of a choreographic exchange between the two schools. Henry facilitates the modern dance program in China. (Serena S.Y. Hsu/Zuma Press)

When China’s prestigious Tianjin Conservatory of Music decided to launch a modern dance program for Chinese students, the school asked two professors with dual tenures at the UMKC Conservatory and the Tianjin Conservatory to recommend an outstanding choreographer and instructor to lead it.

Without hesitation, the professors, UMKC Distinguished Professor Chen Yi and her husband, 2011 Pulitzer Prize Winner, Zhou Long, suggested Mary Pat Henry, ballet professor of dance at the UMKC Conservatory.

“Mary Pat Henry was our one and only consideration,” Dr. Chen said in a recent interview. “We have known Henry for several years as Chair of Dance and Associate Dean of Faculty Affairs at UMKC. (Henry’s) expertise with dance history, her leadership and her extensive knowledge of modern dance and ballet technique have been invaluable to the growth of the Conservatory.”

“Knowing all the details of running a dance department is crucial to adapting the new curriculums for the Chinese university system,” Chen further explains. “Henry’s energetic and tireless passion (continue to) amaze the Chinese.”

Henry has been with the UMKC Conservatory since 1985 while maintaining a high profile as co-founder of the critically acclaimed Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company.

Henry has led the program in China for the past three years, including her most recent stint, which ran from April through May, concluding with a final Tianjin theater performance of her “Counterpoint Continuum.”

Requiring perfect unison and set to the rapid pacing of 2009 Pultzer Prize winner Stephen Michael Reich’s music abstractions, it’s a challenging work, in which any mistiming, leg misalignment, sluggish footwork or not being perfectly in sync is glaringly apparent.

But Henry knew the students would rise to the challenge: Unity and perfection of the corps are core strengths of Chinese performers, rooted in their familiarity with Chinese folk dance.

“The tradition of Chinese folk dance is so deeply instilled that it never leaves (the dancers),” Henry said. “Their training and interpretations leave a unique imprint that the dance world can likewise benefit from.”

Henry’s costumes — lovely tangerine-hued dresses reminiscent of Chinese scarlet-and-orange festival lanterns — and the small handheld candles in the finale were designed with Chinese aesthetics in mind.

As Chen observed, “Henry truly appreciates international culture and history and is single-minded in her devotion to promote world understanding through dance and music.”

“The students love her,” she added. “She remembers their names and who they are. Henry’s return to China is what they always look forward to.”

Henry’s instruction of the Chinese students represents one half of the program’s cultural exchange. Before Henry leaves for her annual month-long trip to China, Tianjin Conservatory’s dean, Professor Wang Hong-Yun, spends approximately two weeks in March teaching UMKC dance students Tianjin’s cutting-edge re-interpretations of Chinese folk dance and postmodern music, which have consistently won the institution First Prize National Awards in China. The UMKC students then give a final studio dress rehearsal presentation for Professor Wang of one of her selected choreographic works.

Serena S.Y. Hsu

Serena S.Y. Hsu, a Kansas City photojournalist with a background in 3D animation and ballet, specializes in performance photography. Hsu has contributed to KC Studio and KCPT’s Flatland; she also works as a wire photojournalist for ZUMA Press.

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