Sujie Zhu ’15 won a 2015 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a $30,000 stipend to spend a year traveling the world for independent study outside the United States. She will embark this summer on a project titled “Expanding Possibility: Exploring Cross-Cultural Improvisational Performance.” She plans on researching performing arts in Senegal, Japan, India, and Eastern Europe.

A global studies and theater and dance double major and an anthropology minor, Zhu wrote in her project’s abstract: “I will explore variations in improvisational performance by immersing myself in four culturally distinct sites. Viewing practices from other cultures is like looking into a mirror. One’s own boundaries come into focus, catalyzing new discoveries and innovation.” Colby interviewed Zhu by phone while she waited for a delayed flight to Beijing at spring break.

Sujie Zhu performing, 2014

Sujie Zhu performing, 2014

Where did your passion for performance and improvisation originate?

SZ: I started dancing when I was really young, like ten. I came to Colby and thought I was going to be a global studies-only major, but I continued dancing and that was actually the first time I was introduced to contemporary dance. In China I was doing a lot of folk dancing, then at Pearson [United World College in Canada] I was exposed to world dance because of so many people from all around the world—salsa dancing, belly dancing etc. So then I became a theater and dance major [at Colby], and I truly found the passion of expressing my voice through theater and dance—not only just for the sake of art but actually to express political views, social views through performing arts. I think there’s a powerful and strong voice in that.

And how did your understanding change at Colby?

SZ: I’ve changed my idea about performing. Growing up in China I trained in Chinese folk dance. I was very keen on how the dance looks. … The Theater and Dance Department has really taught me to think of performing arts, the processes and the product, the content and the form together, to be thought-provoking, to be something that’s powerful not only for you as a performer, not only for the audience members, but also for the larger society, like for every individual that’s involved in the living form. This part of Colby, the Theater and Dance Department, to really teach us that performing arts is social, is political, and has potential in subverting norms, I think that has really broadened the international affairs side of me. That’s how the project started, I guess.

And how do you bridge that with your study of anthropology?

SZ: The anthro side, and also my previous experience of living in Canada with like 200 students from 104 countries, I was very interested in different types of folk dances and performances in general. … The thing I’m looking into is really the thought processes behind the performance. Is it poking at something? Is it provocative? Evoking and invoking? I want to study improvisation because I think improv is the present thought that you are having in this moment when you are performing. I think this has a lot to do with the experience and this historical, social, embodied knowledge of each individual.

Any of the four locations that you’re particularly eager to see?

I’m interested in all of them. In my junior fall I was supposed to go to Prague, but my visa was delayed. … So I decided to take a semester off and go to Beijing, and that became the beginning of this. I took last year off from Colby to be involved and participate in different performing arts projects. I also started an improvisational performance collective with two other friends in Beijing. We’ve been performing from venues like restaurants to the national arts performance center. We’ve been doing a lot of things. But Eastern Europe, Prague, is somewhere that I’m still eager to go to finally. I’ve never been to Eastern Europe; I’ve only been to France, Netherlands, the UK, and Maine.