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Best of Scene

Graduate brings thought-provoking modern dance to the world

By Steve Hansen

Willy Tsao came to PLU with an eye on studying business, perhaps to continue in his family’s textile business. But once he was here, he found himself in a modern dance class, and he was hooked. Tsao graduated with a business degree in 1977, but he was soon back in his native Hong Kong thinking about what became his passion: modern dance.

Since then, Tsao has been an essential component in the formation of three major Chinese modern dance companies – The Hong Kong City Contemporary Dance Company, the Guangdong Modern Dance Company (the first professional modern dance company in China) and the Beijing Modern Dance Company. Tsao has been heading modern dance companies for 25 years, and he sees no end in sight.

In March, Tsao had the opportunity to visit the PLU campus while in Seattle with the Beijing troupe, which was on its first American tour. The company, which was founded 10 years ago, performed in some of the country’s most prestigious venues, largely to positive reviews and standing ovations.

The performance, titled “Rear Light,” is set to the music of Pink Floyd’s classic album, “The Wall.” The 1979 album is something of a metaphor for alienation, and the production seems to follow suit – there is a sequence that suggests interrogation, for instance. Much of the production seems to focus on individual dancers attempting to break free from the larger, collective group.

Willy Tsao ’77 posed at Eastvold, site of his student dance work, during a recent visit to campus.

Much like Tsao himself, the company has a reputation for being innovative and iconoclastic. One thing the Beijing Modern Dance Company has a reputation for not being: Chinese. In fact, Tsao, the artistic director, doesn’t really know what that means. Modern dance, in his opinion, goes beyond specific genres or cultural conventions – the core essence is freedom. “Artists should be free to express themselves,” Tsao said. “That’s modern dance.”

That Western journalists tend to seize on the fact that Tsao and his company have been able to create such art without hindrance from the oft-controlling Chinese government frustrates him. In fact, Tsao said no Chinese government official even viewed the current production before it left China for North American shores, despite the fact that the production focuses on what happens when people become alienated by their surroundings.

Many choose to see allusions to Tiananmen Square in the performance, for instance. Just as easily, said Tsao, you could see allusions to Abu Ghraib.

“Western critics seem to have only two perspectives [when seeing Chinese performances], either traditional or Tiananmen Square.

“That is a very superficial view – it only reflects the limitations of the audience,” Tsao continued. “As dancers – as citizens – there are so many more meaningful conversations that also need to take place.”

There was a time when some of Tsao’s dance companies had to address creative and political issues – namely, whether something like modern dance serves national interests and encourages patriotism. But he sees little of that now. “China is becoming more contemporary,” he said. “They know that art is educational, and [the government and citizens] are proud of it. It has been interesting to see the change in attitude.”

And that appears to be a recipe for continued success. Now back in Hong Kong after the completion of Beijing Modern Dance Company’s first North American tour, he says he’s ready for his second. And that will be soon enough – the company is scheduled to perform in Mexico City and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in October.



Best of Scene

Ready, Set, Eat! Portland personal chef puts tasty meals on busy people’s tables

By Nisha Ajmani Wade '02

Busy households around Portland, Ore., are thanking Shana (McGillivray ’99) Larsen for making mealtime easy.

Larsen, a personal chef, owns and operates Ready, Set, Eat! She plans and prepares meals for clients who either don’t have the time to cook or who simply don’t want to.

Cooking everything from meatloaf and mashed potatoes to Chinese pork roast with coconut rice, Larsen offers a variety of packages – ranging in price – that can be tailored to each client.

“You can mold it however you like,” she said. “You can offer services that match your interest and meet your clients’ needs.”

Larsen begins by meeting with clients to discuss budget, likes and dislikes, allergies or special diets and the number of meals they want.

Personal chef Shanna Larsen ’99 cooks, cleans and leaves a kitchen full of meals for her clients. Photo by Dan Tyrpak.

Then, she searches for recipes and designs a menu, often experimenting with different ingredients. The day of cooking, she shops for groceries, packs up her equipment and, goes to the client’s house to prepare the meals, leaves with instructions for reheating and cleans the kitchen.

Larsen said she doesn’t have a typical client. Some are married and some are not, some have kids and some don’t, but most are working professionals or families on the go.

She cooks for nurses who complain about hospital food, and heat up her meals at work. Another client is a busy family tired of eating fast food and takeout.

As her business has evolved, she has put a greater emphasis on healthy cooking, knowing people are concerned about that – and that they can get unhealthy but cheaper options elsewhere.

“I like to make sure people can feel comfortable eating what they’re eating,” she said.

Larsen, who majored in biology, admits that starting her own company without a business background was a challenge. She said she learns as she goes, makes mistakes and has a good support system.

“I feel like it’s what sets me apart,” she said about her biology background. “It’s a different medium, but it’s a lot like research. You combine things in a certain method to produce a desired result.”

Larsen had originally planned to go to medical school after graduation. Then, she got married. “I hadn’t pictured myself being married and in med school,” she said. “The time commitment to do that just wasn’t where I wanted to be.”

After doing research in molecular biology at Oregon State University, Larsen and her husband moved to Seattle. While working as a cancer research technician at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Larsen enrolled at the Art Institute of Seattle’s culinary program.

“Going to culinary school was something I always wanted to do,” she said.

The two moved again – to Portland – when Larsen was about one-third of the way through the program. It was then that she started her business. “I had researched being a personal chef a little bit,” she said. “I decided, now’s the time to start it and see what happens.”

Now, halfway through her third year, Larsen is happy with her choice. There are times when she is booked so far in advance that she can’t take any new clients, so her goal is to franchise Ready, Set, Eat!, and allow others to enter the personal chef profession.

In addition to her chef duties, Larsen caters small parties or events and offers cooking classes. Molding the classes to the students, Larsen provides hands-on experience to individuals or small groups. “I like the one-on-one,” she said. “It’s a more intimate and comfortable setting.”

Larsen’s biggest inspiration is her mom, who was always experimenting with new recipes and ingredients. “We would always have weird stuff,” she said. “Not your typical tacos and pizza.”

Some of Larsen’s inspiration also came from a semester study abroad trip to Guadalajara, Mexico, during her junior year at PLU. She said eating authentic food revived her interest in cooking and finding new ways to prepare dishes.

Larsen said being a PLU resident assistant for three years taught her how to deal with challenging personalities – a skill she still uses today. “You learn how to live with conflict,” she said. “And you’re bound to have to deal with conflict when meeting with clients.”

Even though she came to PLU thinking she knew what she wanted to do, Larsen said she left not as sure. “I learned a lot about myself at college,” she said. “PLU was a great school for me.”


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© Scene 2005  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Summer 2005

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