Helluva spell

Random thoughts and observations, or else I may never feel caught up with myself here:

The BDA Dance Company, as ringmaster Chris Bannerman put it to me the other day, is kind of the Chinese equivalent to NDT2. I wonder how the dancers perceive themselves, their place in the national (and, why not, global) culture, their sense of achievement and what potential they feel they collectively embody. My colleague Katherine has been pursuing some of these issues. More on that in a bit.

Apparently Tiechun is going to use fans to blow paper money around the auditorium when his dance is finally shown to the public. Maybe I got the means of transport wrong, but there will be flying bills. Fake, I presume. Even so, it could start a riot…

The British-based designer Charles Balfour, who will be lighting five of the eight Danscross pieces, has been talking about hell and death with Tiechun. Edifyingly, no doubt, on both sides. I asked Jonathan Lunn is he believed in the concept of hell (no) and if he did, what would his idea of it be? Being stuck eternally on a rugby field in a freezing November rain, he replied. My own playful notion of hell dates back to my schooldays too. I was about age 12 when my older brother and I used a home-made ouija board to contact Marilyn Monroe in our kitchen. She spelled out that she was in hell, and that the devil called all his minions there jazz babies. It would seem that some do indeed like it hot.

Fragments from the interview I sat in on that Katherine was conducting with Tiechun’s quartet. How learning Westerner’s choreography has ‘overthrown some of the things that we think are correct.’ This from sweet, round-faced Huang Dongmei, who also spoke of Chinese movement as typically being ‘more introverted. During this process we’ve had to overhaul ourselves mentally and physically.’ Wu Shuai, whom I see as the class clown, hilarious and endearing, evinced surprising philosophical depth when he spoke of Western versus Asian dance. The first he described as ’several different brooks from many directions going into a big lake,’ whereas the latter stems from one source ‘that pushes the river a long way. It can go on forever, and it activates our imagination.’ Put another way, Western dance moves ‘from the impossible to the possible’ while the route of Chinese dance is the opposite ‘because it has no end to it.’ This notion of eternity intrigues me; it’s the opposite of a quick fix. Also interesting is how the dancers generally question or certainly regard as unfamiliar the whole idea of choreographic personality or, by extension, the individual voice. As Chris Bannerman (or Bannerman Chris; when in Beijing…) reminded me at breakfast this morning, in Asian countries the surname tends to be voiced first. The implication is that identity is about an us before it’s about a me.

I’d like to learn more about Chinese dance drama. I think. What am I talking about? Of course I’d like to know more. I only qualifed this graph’s opening statement after having tonight witnessed what I was told was an example of dance drama staged in the BDA experimental theatre. In this period piece, supposedly based on a well-known and possibly classical story, three main characters were supplemented by a small squadron of identically clad extras of both sexes. The latter were exceptionally well-drilled, their bold, machinated and frankly rather basic moves cued to a score that seemed a melange of blockbuster film music. One of the two male leads strode around in a black robe being commanding and mean to a young woman in pink and a long, thin man in a blue jumper and loose white trousers. The latter pair were plainly some kind of couple. And to what spurious lengths they suffered. (How to say sturm und drang in Mandarin?) Alas, I failed to engage with either part of this duo. The young man was especially and tediously, off-puttingly and frantically pathetic. When the soldierly extras began mincing around him (note, without dropping their aura of implied threat) I thought, Great, could this be a whole new genre? Let’s call it bombastic camp. Dreadful is how I’d describe it, and yet there was still some discipline to admire in this arduously bold dance. Who knows, I may be misreading a masterpiece, and I haven’t got a clue who was responsible for it. Such ignorance could be the price paid for making a spontaneous decision to see something just because I happened to be in the vicinity when it got mentioned, and I went along for the ride. It was bumpy, yeah, but I like to think it’s my tendency to try to actively respond to new and/or unexpected experiences. As Wu Shuai and other dancers remarked today, an open mind is where the new China is at.

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