DANSCROSS 2009 » Donald Hutera http://rescen.net/blog Dancing in a shaking world Tue, 22 Oct 2013 16:31:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.6.1 Dream Speech http://rescen.net/blog/2010/01/dream-speech/895 http://rescen.net/blog/2010/01/dream-speech/895#comments Tue, 26 Jan 2010 06:38:09 +0000 Donald Hutera Below is a slightly doctored version of my summarising contribution to Danscross, delivered at a day-long conference following the two public performances of the eight finished pieces. Again, as in my previous review entry, I’m given myself permission to retrospectively comment on my own text [in square brackets].

‘I suspect I’m the only one of [...]]]> Below is a slightly doctored version of my summarising contribution to Danscross, delivered at a day-long conference following the two public performances of the eight finished pieces. Again, as in my previous review entry, I’m given myself permission to retrospectively comment on my own text [in square brackets].

‘I suspect I’m the only one of the panelists today who, rather than preparing for what we in the West might colloquially call his five minute song and dance, was instead having a foot massage until 2am. But I maintain that an experience like that could, and in this context, possibly enlarge my understanding of the dance I’ve seen in Danscrsss and elsewhere during what is my first visit to China. [The foot massage was an amazingly relaxing, highly choreographed and completely clothed experience. Three young women worked on my two female companions and me as we lay in a dim, paneled room in lounge chairs eating strange-to-us sweets and channel-hopping, eventually settling on a beautifully shot and wonderfully manipulative black and white Chinese film about rural children rebelling against an oppressive military regime. The massage was quick but thorough, and so well calibrated in terms of the masseuses’ co-ordinated timing and depth of touch from feet to fingertips. I won’t forget the film or, more to the point, the massage.]

I’m not an academic. I write about dance, theatre and the arts for the mainstream press and specialist magazines and websites. I feed on cultural experiences like this one. It’s been a great privilege to be an observer and guest here, gathering impressions, having – I trust – insights, making some perhaps incorrect assumptions, finding meaning and basically absorbing everything I can both in and out of this organisation. [That is, BDA.]
I think I learn more about dance seeing it in the place where it was created – and here it was being created in front of me. Liao bu qi! [This was an attempt to impress my listeners with my new-found but extensive knowledge of Mandarin. I’m being ironic. ‘Liao bu qi’ means, or so I was told, amazing or extraordinary. Apologies if I’ve written the sounds in incorrect phonetic English.] This privileged [obviously a key word for me vis a vis Beijing/Danscross] kind of situation informs all of my perceptions. Right now those perceptions are fully charged. I feel filled up, a little drained but intoxicated and hugely, deeply curious.

I arrived halfway through Phase V. How could I catch up? Be quiet. Look. Listen. Don’t impinge or interrogate — I’m not the choreographers’ dramaturg or confidante. And so I danced around the work, on its periphery. I saw fragments and quick sketches, caught some shapes, guessed at form and aspiration. I saw struggle and play. I wrote down ‘everything,’ silently dialoguing with the process in my notebook and occasionally, gently grabbing bits of information from Jonathan and Caroline during breakfast at the hotel. Doing this, I made my own spider’s web of connections in the studio.

What is just as important for me is finding those connections in the wider world outside the studio. I see the movement of Beijing’s citizens strolling or practicing t’ai chi in Zizhuyuan or Jingsan parks. I look at a calligraphy exhibition in the grounds of the Forbidden City and see some of the writing in the air that the six male dancers — ‘Jonny and Caroline’s boys’ — are doing in Beijing Man. I go to the National Library – I joined the National Library in my first full day here: liao bu qi! – and see people studying or slumped over computers and tables. Are they dreaming? I think the dances I saw being created – Beijing Man and Zhao Tiechun’s Ghost Money – are a kind of dreaming too. From the tallest point in Jingshan I gaze at the snow-dusted rooftops of the Forbidden City, hazy in the smog of Beijing, and I see the dream of those two dances hovering above those rooftops.

So I’ve been dreaming while wide-awake in Beijing.

The audience is dreaming too. Or maybe in China they’re chatting, or reading and texting messages on their mobiles, as can be done in the modern world. [But why would you want to? Boredom? A too-full life? Odd…] In these dances I see the present but also the past, and a glimpse of eternity. This last comment applies especially to Ghost Money, in which Tiechun’s onstage family inhabits a world between earth and heaven. For me it’s a view of China. [And one that I’d certainly never had before.] Last night’s foot massage is another, equally valuable view of China. I’m not sure yet what it’s taught me about dance, or dance in China, but it was a highly and subtly choreographed physical experience. [Sorry about the repetition.] My colleagues and I also enjoyed watching on television a channel advertising Magic Underwear Show Time. This was a kind of dance, too, about support for the breasts. [My attempt at off-the-wall humour might’ve fallen dead at the feet of most ofthe audience, but I couldn’t resist it. As far as I can gather Magic Underwear Show Time, bless its commercial little heart, is all about extolling the life-changing virtues of a certain brand of brassiere. Needless to say, and especially in a foot massage context, it held us fascinated and had us in stitches – a winning combination.]

I suppose the big phrase I’d use for my research process in a very process-oriented project is ‘subjective contextualisation.’ How cultural connections affect change. [Or something like that. Here the attempt was to give my words an academic spin, or some intellectual weight. Maybe I should’ve said ‘quasi-‘ or ‘pseudo-academic,’ which is not to invalidate my thoughts and views but, rather, is an acknowledgement that I don’t know how to talk that talk.]

Like watching – or dreaming – any dance, my investment in Danscross and Beijing – and its investment in me – has deeply aroused my emotions, stimulated my brain and senses, and changed me in ways I expect I will know better only after I go away tomorrow and, ideally, when I return to China. Xie xie. [That’s Mandarin for thank you, and as good a way as any to bring my contribution to the Danscross blog to a close.]

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Reviewing the review http://rescen.net/blog/2010/01/reviewing-the-review/893 http://rescen.net/blog/2010/01/reviewing-the-review/893#comments Tue, 26 Jan 2010 06:32:18 +0000 Donald Hutera I make my living primarily as a critic, although it’s not a label with which I’m particularly comfortable. In any case, after I returned to London the magazine Dance Europe accepted my proposal to write about the Danscross performances, both of which took place at Beijing’s swank Poly Theatre. What follows are excerpts from that review, occasionally sprinkled with [in square brackets] my retrospective commentary.

‘At their best the pieces devised for Danscross [...]]]> I make my living primarily as a critic, although it’s not a label with which I’m particularly comfortable. In any case, after I returned to London the magazine Dance Europe accepted my proposal to write about the Danscross performances, both of which took place at Beijing’s swank Poly Theatre. What follows are excerpts from that review, occasionally sprinkled with [in square brackets] my retrospective commentary.

‘At their best the pieces devised for Danscross functioned like short stories, all of which were expressed in the language of the body. And that meant specifically Chinese bodies.
[This notion of each body containing the rhythms of the societies and cultures in which it exists continues to be of interest. I’d love to go back to China, see more of the country and spend more time simply watching how people move and interact…] The BDA Dance Company is a highly capable, attractive entity well versed in Chinese classical styles… It appears that the group adapted well to the rigours of contemporary dance offered by the foreign choreographers. By the same token, the Western dance-makers had to accustom themselves to a different system of circumstances and disciplines than they might have previously known. [The learning process on both sides was understandably immense and complex, and therefore not always easy. Again, what a privilege to witness some of those struggles – and the joyous breakthroughs.]

And the result? Not unexpectedly, perhaps, a mixed bag of dances that ran a gamut from Western abstraction to Chinese emotionalism. It was my good fortune that the two pieces I, in fly-on-the-wall fashion, watched being made in the studio turned out to be among the strongest on the bill. Set to the percolating rhythms of the American electronica duo Matmos, Jonathan Lunn’s Beijing Man is a male sextet cleverly combining an almost calligraphic gestural filigree with quick-witted athletic vigour. It was quirky, sexy and fun but delivered with a seriousness of purpose that deftly balanced its more playful qualities. In complete contrast, Zhao Tiechun’s Ghost Money was a moving, beautifully expressive contemplation of earth and heaven, or life and death, built round a four-person family unit clad in vaguely peasant garb. According to those in the know the choreographer was stretching himself here, redefining his knowledge and use of a twisty but limited folk style juxtaposed against Mozart’s Kyrie (Andante Moderato). It’s undeniably big music, but he had the measure of it. [I’d gladly watch these two pieces again, particularly if I could do so out of their Beijing context. I’ve long maintained that seeing dance in the country it was made can be a hugely different experience from seeing it abroad.]

The programme opened with Shobana Jeyasingh’s Detritus, a bold attempt to capitalise on the hybrid nature of the BDA dancers’ training. Sharpness and speed are the watchwords of Jeyasingh’s style. The piece’s admirably unsettling drive was, however, undermined by a score (credited to Andy Cowton and Ryoji Ikeda) played at ear-splitting volume. Kerry Nicholls’ Cleave was similarly fast and frenetic and, as such, a suitable exemplar of the shaking world theme. Nicholls works closely with UK choreographer Wayne McGregor, and it shows. That’s not a bad thing, and probably quite welcome in the context of both the BDA and Chinese dance generally. Cleave showed plenty of craft and kinetic complexity but, from this Westerner’s perspective, it was written in an overly familiar vocabulary. [I’ve never met up with Kerry to discuss her time in Beijing. As for Shobana, I know she had her bumpy moments there. Before the end of 2009 we agreed to get together for a post-mortem, but it’s yet to happen. Some day, maybe soon…]

Temperamentally I felt much closer to John Utans’ Water Mark, a liquid piece of structured improvisation musically bookended by a version of the American standard Stormy Weather and Tim Buckley’s vibrant Song to the Siren. Marked by a fine sense of stillness and an undertow of romantic melancholy, this was one of the evening’s most poetic and elusive dances and, in all likelihood, no less of a challenge for the dancers than Jeyasingh’s and Nicholls’ more aggressive work-outs. [It’s unavoidable that you have the strongest feelings for the work you saw being made in front of you. Alright, I only saw John’s work after it was finished, but only just. My response to that run-through – immediate, tactful yet honest and heart-felt – might’ve helped shape or shade the way it was subsequently interpreted. If so, I take no credit for this. If anything it’s a humbling reminder of what a sensitive state artists are in when they’re creating work, and how that needs to be respected. But how they deserve to be told the truth of what you think and feel, whether the work is fresh out of the oven or older than the proverbial hills. That, I guess, is one of the main functions of the critic/dance writer.]

The dances by the other Chinese choreographers was, unsurprisingly, quite distinct from their foreign counterparts and of likewise variable effect. Zhao Ming’s Trust or not took swine flu as the topical inspiration for a fairly obvious study in group dynamics with, in its favour, a hopeful ending. Zhang Yunfeng’s starting point for The brightest light in the darkest night was Liu Yan, a BDA dancer injured during the final preparations for the 2008 Olympics and now a wheelchair-user. Set on two levels, this heart-on-sleeve dance was her first time onstage since her accident. An exquisite, long-armed presence in a red ballgown, she occupied a high platform stage right. Until the closing tableau, her three male co-stars danced with expansive sensitivity below her. That leaves the programme’s oddest entry. Cued to an adaptation of a Bach cello suite, Wang Mei’s What a golden autumn featured five dancers in rabbit costumes. The choreographer has been described as the Chinese Pina Bausch. I can’t comment on the comparison. I only know that her unhappy, floor-based bunnies constituted the least successful and yet perhaps most original piece in Danscross. [Those goofy rabbit outfits! And don’t ask me why, but I happen to like rabbit references. But in this case was Wang Mei practicing some weird form of artistic self-sabotage or what? I watched a studio version of her dance, up close rather than long-distance as was the case at the Poly Theatre, and sans the bunny garb. It was a memorably affecting piece. Now I wonder what will happen to it. The same could be said of the other Danscross pieces. For one possible answer, read on…]

What next? It seems that some, if not all, of these dances may be presented in the UK next year. [That is, 2010.] Ideally the project’s next phase would happen there, too, with British dancers on tap for UK and Chinese choreographers. But as a model for cross-cultural exchange, Danscross could probably work anywhere in the world.’ [Here’s to the future…]

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Audience behaviour remembered http://rescen.net/blog/2010/01/audience-behaviour-remembered/891 http://rescen.net/blog/2010/01/audience-behaviour-remembered/891#comments Tue, 26 Jan 2010 06:29:11 +0000 Donald Hutera It’s been more than two months since I returned from Beijing and Dancross but, as has been expressed elsewhere on this site, I also feel that it was an utterly unforgettable and privileged experience. Ironically, perhaps, I still think of some of the things I didn’t get to do. Yes, I visited the Confucius Temple but not the nearby Lama Temple. Yes, I went to the Summer Palace but not the Yuanmingyuan ruins, despite their [...]]]> It’s been more than two months since I returned from Beijing and Dancross but, as has been expressed elsewhere on this site, I also feel that it was an utterly unforgettable and privileged experience. Ironically, perhaps, I still think of some of the things I didn’t get to do. Yes, I visited the Confucius Temple but not the nearby Lama Temple. Yes, I went to the Summer Palace but not the Yuanmingyuan ruins, despite their proximity. And I was just that bit too late for the date I was hoping to have with Mao’s embalmed corpse! It lies in a Memorial Hall in the middle of Tiananmen Square, a vast and highly visited piece of land surrounded on all sides by white barriers and hardly my favourite spot in Beijing. Well, presumably Mao’s remains are not going anywhere soon, so I may yet be able to have that rendezvous with him at some point down the road….

I am of course hugely pleased with all I did manage to see and do, both in terms of tourism and – my main reason for being in Beijing – dance. In early November I’d meant to include in my Danscross blogs the words of Janet Smith, artistic director of Scottish Dance Theatre. The company was touring China at the time. I attended a lecture-dem led by Smith at Peking University (a campus worth exploring, especially for its pond and lake) and featuring Caroline Bowditch, Scotland’s Dance Agent for Change (and such a bright, talented and sexy woman). The night before I’d been to the concert hall of the Central Conservatory of Music to sample a bit of World Music Days. This was the title of a four-day symposium focusing on an exchange between Chinese culture and that of New Zealand and surrounding regions. The evening opened with music by a venerable yet still wonderfully lively male percussion ensemble from western Hunan province who, in 2006, were designated a National Intangible Cultural Heritage. This was followed by songs and dances from a small group of Maori artists. The audience seemed appreciative, but they were also undeniably distracting – and distracted – if the pockets of fairly low-key chat were any indication. Worse, to my mind, was their use of mobile phones (at least to text rather than talk or photograph) even as the show was happening. I was especially taken aback at this very same behaviour coming from two of my Chinese guests, a dancer and his teacher both of whom are connected to the BDA. I wondered — but did not ask — how they would like it if people were texting during their performance. But who can say, maybe they wouldn’t mind one bit. Different country, different customs.

The above is a prelude to an email Smith sent me later that week, which I’ve cut and pasted with only a few minor corrections in spelling: ‘The Chinese audience experience is something you must witness,’ she wrote. ‘The first 15 minutes is like Charing Cross at rush hour, but in a blackout, since they insist on starting bang on time but also letting in latecomers. Then the flash photography and videoing lights up auditorium and stage, along with cell phones (people texting, making shopping lists?). Then a little man in a uniform tries to counter-attack the photographers by sending an infra-red beam of light towards them. This crisscrosses over peoples’ heads and bounces off the walls of the auditorium. There is the constant clicking of high heels as ushers come and go with yet more latecomers, along with the clicking of cameras and the constant murmur of people talking to each other at normal volume. Somewhere beyond the chaos, surrounded by equally disturbing traffic backstage, the dancers focus for their lives and do that beautiful thing that dancers do when they take us to another world.’ Neatly stated and, crazy as it seems, I miss it now that I’m thinking about it, and about being in Beijing.

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self, emotion, place, scale, spirit, gender http://rescen.net/blog/2009/11/self-emotion-place-scale-spirit-gender/805 http://rescen.net/blog/2009/11/self-emotion-place-scale-spirit-gender/805#comments Fri, 06 Nov 2009 02:47:27 +0000 Donald Hutera http://rescen.net/blog/?p=805 At Sunday’s press conference Luo Bin, chair of the Dance Research Institute of the China Arts Academy, spoke about the scholars and bloggers as ’participants in what we’re observing. In learning about the object of our study we are also the object of our study.’ I suspect that this idea — and I might’ve said [...]]]> At Sunday’s press conference Luo Bin, chair of the Dance Research Institute of the China Arts Academy, spoke about the scholars and bloggers as ’participants in what we’re observing. In learning about the object of our study we are also the object of our study.’ I suspect that this idea — and I might’ve said this before — has manifested itself in different ways during Danscross depending on who’s been in one room together. Or maybe someone else said it. That’s how overstimulated I feel in this city, but in a positive sense. The ideas and the experiences I’m having are all running together, so much so that at times it could almost be that I’m channeling China itself. I’m joking and yet not joking. I guess this blog is one way to study my own responses, and make sense of being here.

I’ve been thinking about emotionalism in Chinese culture, and by extension my own, unexpected pockets of emotionalism about it.. The subject was brought up at dinner on Sunday with Chinese dance scholar and critic Jiang Dong, fellow blogger Qing Qing and the choreographer and BDA staff member Wan Su. And today, en route to the Great Wall, the guide on my coach compared the Chinese character to jade — not sparkly like the diamonds that Americans are said to favour, but smoky, muted and maybe initially reserved; there’s a lot going on inside that self-containment. It’s not just watching the dance that is ‘getting to me’ emotionally, but also hanging out in a park like Jingshan or hiking up on the Wall or being spoken to — in Mandarin, no less! — by a myna bird caged outside a small shop in a hutong behind the Forbidden City. I guess it’s partly the beauty and strangeness here that’s so appealing to me, or is that just some Westerner’s view of exoticism? I trust not. A friend of mine in London, with whom I’ve exchanged a few emails since arriving, implied that I might be finding the Beijing inside me. Somehow I feel this has a bearing on how I perceive and receive the Danscross experience. It reinforces my belief that you can’t beat seeing dance in the place it was created. That includes dance made in Beijing by Westerners! I’ll probably have more to say about context in a future blog.

An aside: I’m thinking, too, about the porous quality of Tiechun’s piece Ghost Money, and the way his dance exists between two worlds (human and, for want of a better word, spiritual). Maybe everyone involved in this exchange between the UK and China is having to test or develop their own porousness. How much will we allow ourselves to be permeated by another culture?

Back to emotionalism and also on to both size and gender. Sunday night I was invited to watch a rehearsal at BDA of a full-length, abstract Chinese classical dance show. This massive undertaking involves three choreographers (all are men), film projections (not part of this rehearsal), some kind of written text, an original score (unfortunately played at a blaring volume) and probably about three dozen 2nd and 3rd year students minimum. (It could be more because several dancers were off sick that night.) Wang Wei — I think I’ve got her name right, and she’s not to be confused with Wang Mei who is choreographing for Danscross — and her virtually all-male team in BDA’s Chinese classical dance department will have been working on the this production for a year. It has three performances scheduled for mid-month and that could be it. As with so many things in Beijing, and maybe in all of China, it’s partly the sheer scale of the work that was impressive. The opening section for a wedge of extraordinarily agile, sober young men only was as tightly drilled, patterned and potently executed a dance as I’ve seen lately. (I was moved by the way they moved — the concentration, speed and precision of the individuals and the group.) The ultra-feminine female ensemble routine that followed featured a bevy of slim, seemingly made-to-measure dancers decorously sporting what could be deemed the Chinese classical version of the pointe shoe, a platformed slipper (most were aqua-coloured) that resembled a cross between bound feet and pony hooves. In such footwear how else can these young women move except with mincing steps and a willowy curvaceousness? (No subversion of gender conventions here then.) There was  an encounter between a scholar and some acrobatic, half-masked demons  and a sweeping finale in which a disciplined hoard of young people in big, fluffy costumes swirled about like smoke. I wasn’t clear if the piece is called Fenmor, which I gather has something to do with  the powdery makeup that Peking Opera performers’ use and, even more than that, the graphic qualities of  ink, or if the meaning of that word was instead a significant inspiration.

There are vast locations in this sprawling city — palaces and parks and avenues, and the Wall, or Tiananmen Square — and large concepts coursing through the whole country’s history. This reminds me — my brain is making some not especially linear connections here — of the recent talk in London jointly organised by Dance UK and Dance Umbrella and entitled Where Are The Women? Essentially it was designed to question the disparity between female choreographers and their male counterparts, starting from a point of view that in the UK the latter are getting more and better breaks than the former. I won’t detail the debate much further except to say that among the issues raised was the notion that women are generally making smaller-scale, more emotional work and, in the main, being less pushy about themselves and their careers than men who tend to make bigger-scale, abstract dances.

How might any of the above relate to Danscross? The eight small-scale dance pieces that will be unveiled to the public tonight are the collective product of some pretty large-scale thinking. Women seem to be fairly well represented in the project.  Having said that, one of the female Chinese scholars I had lunch with on the weekend remarked that, having been in the studio observing Shobana Jeyasingh at work, in her opinion the latter ‘thinks like a man.’ (Now there’s a debate I’d like to pursue with the accused.) Later, after mentioning this at dinner to Jiang Dong and his colleagues, he said it’s typical in Chinese culture to assume that ‘any strong, brilliant idea is by a man.’ I can’t comment on that. I just know that when I watch a dance I’m not dwelling on the sex of the person who made it. To be more specific, this means that to me ideally Shobana would first be perceived as an artist and only then as a woman artist. And then as a British-Asian woman artist? The levels and labels multiply. Nor does it negate the notion of masculine and feminine dance. Unresolvable, this. But another genuinely interesting investigative strand to be wrapped around dance in China — kind of like the raw silk I saw and touched in the Beijing Dong Wu Silk Museum yesterday.

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snow and health http://rescen.net/blog/2009/11/snow-and-health/793 http://rescen.net/blog/2009/11/snow-and-health/793#comments Wed, 04 Nov 2009 15:13:22 +0000 Donald Hutera http://rescen.net/blog/?p=793 It snowed on Sunday in Beijing. A lot. Some have said it was because scientists seeded the clouds. What would happen if they seeded choreographers or — why not — the public? Would there be a mass of dancing in the street? There already is movement in Beijing. The flow and disruption of traffic, yes, [...]]]> It snowed on Sunday in Beijing. A lot. Some have said it was because scientists seeded the clouds. What would happen if they seeded choreographers or — why not — the public? Would there be a mass of dancing in the street? There already is movement in Beijing. The flow and disruption of traffic, yes, but I’m also thinking of the couple of women I saw dancing in the so-called Long Corridor or open gallery at the Temple of Heaven. Or the three middle-aged women (again) who were practicing with shiny curved faux swords today in Jingshan, a gem of a park (once you get away from the tour groups clogging the entrance) just behind the Forbidden City. I have seen men moving. Older men, too. One had his leg fully stretched — ouch! but impressively so — against a round pillar in the Long Corridor. Elsewhere another, less limber gentleman was repeatedly executing a little kick movement on a path. Exercise? Maybe. But you could also regard it as this man’s dance on that particular day.

Apparently Joanthan’s dancers refer to themselves as Iron Men. They think their tough, and I’m sure they are. But everyone has aches and pains. So, a few dancers from within the whole group have been hurt or are ill. One of them told me there’s a clinic at the BDA, but the joke is that anyone who goes there leaves it sicker than when they walked in. No comment. But I’m curious how China’s health care system works, and how much dancers are taught about injury prevention and what treatments are on offer.

On Sunday there was a press briefing in the glass studio behind the main studio building at BDA. It was cold in there, enough to make me feel sorry for the dancers who were visible as they tried warming up behind the production shots of each dance that had been blown up to banner size. The snow had been falling since late the previous night, and it kept falling through many speeches and comments. Several of the Chinese said the weather boded well for Danscross. Maybe the season’s first snowfall (and on November 1, too) can be especially transformative. There were some lofty-sounding comments, like that of Danscfross choreographer Zhao Ming. ‘The deepest meaning of this project,’ he said, ‘is that it’s an opportunity for the rest of the world to find itself in China, and China to find itself in the rest of the world.’ Following on from that, but on a more practical level, an unidentified (to me, at any rate) guest asked if there would indeed be any possibility for Dancross to be seen elsewhere outside of China. Apparently there will indeed be a chance next autumn at the Linbury Studio Theatre in Covent Garden. Good. More would be nice, either in the UK or elsewhere.

I’ve not met them all, but I know that some members of the BDA Dance Company are famous. One is Wang Yabin, who has another career as an actress on a TV soap opera. She told me she’s quite happy if her television fan-base is also lured into the theatre to see her dance. Another is Liu Yan, an award-winning dancer who now uses a wheelchair following an accident while she was rehearsing for the Beijing Olympic Games. I believe she is now commonly referred to as ’an Olympic hero.’ At the press briefing she spoke about the significance of Danscross for her. She is dancing in Zhang Yungfeng’s The brightest light in the darkest night. (I’ve not seen a bit of it.) The piece is the first she’s been a part of since the accident. It was moving and, yes, inspiring to hear her speak of re-entering the studio ‘and not wanting to look in the mirror. Now, after my injury, I’ve become much more aware of all the people involved in putting on a dance performance. They’re the foundation upon which it’s built.’ I didn’t go, but that evening members of the Danscross project were filmed before what was described to me as rent-a-crown audience of dance students for a Chinese talk show. A keyboard player was on hand to provide mood music: if the host said something amusing his quip was capped by a tinkling bit of music; similarly, when Liu Yan talked about herself pre- and post-accident (complete with clips of her dancing with full use of her body, and of the ambulance rushing her to the hospital) the instrumentalist laid on sentimental sounds. Again, I wasn’t there, but was this publicity or exploitation? However it’s viewed, in the bigger picture this TV event was perhaps as much a part of the Danscross process as anything else. At BDA that morning Liu Yan had said that gradually, working on Zhang Yungfeng’s dance, the joy had seeped back into her dancing. It’ll do that sometimes.

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shared exposure, or, share and share unlike http://rescen.net/blog/2009/11/shared-exposure-or-share-and-share-unlike/785 http://rescen.net/blog/2009/11/shared-exposure-or-share-and-share-unlike/785#comments Wed, 04 Nov 2009 13:56:36 +0000 Donald Hutera http://rescen.net/blog/?p=785 There’s a real heating up of the Danscross project as the collective energies of those who are involved and in Beijing focus on the public performances as opposed to the process. But these performances are also a part of the process. Will the enormous contradictions in Chinese culture be evident in the eight works to [...]]]> There’s a real heating up of the Danscross project as the collective energies of those who are involved and in Beijing focus on the public performances as opposed to the process. But these performances are also a part of the process. Will the enormous contradictions in Chinese culture be evident in the eight works to be premiered this weekend?

On one level this blog is like writing into some masturbatory void, but I’m aware that I am likely to get caught doing it.

Jonathan spoke at breakfast about how exposed he felt in what was sometimes a fully documented working environment, what with observers in the studio with him and Carolyn and the dancers plus on certain days a photographer or film-maker as well. Amusing, although maybe not at the time: apparently he muttered something along the lines of ’What the hell should I do now?’ and it was duly translated to the dancers as ’He’s undecided what to do next.’ Does process become performance when it’s under such close scrutiny?

My friend, the Beijing-based dance scholar and critic Jiang Dong [who's written a book called Contemporary Chinese Dance which to my shame I've yet to read, but which is available in English] has said that Wang Mei, whom he holds in high esteem [and whom I've yet to meet], isn’t the least bit interested in a career. She’s professor of the choreography department of BDA. and yes, she enjoys it when the public sees her dances. But that’s not why she’s doing it. If no one sees the work it’s okay. She’s really a philosopher, he says. Does this mean process is where it’s at for her?

Danscross has been three years in the making, which is how long it’s been since BDA and ResCen began thinking and talking about the project. The doing of it — the actual making of dances — began less than six months ago. hence the heightened expectations this week. I’m reminding myself of this timeline while thinking about the rules of the game for the choreographers. It’s about numbers: no more than six dancers in a piece lasting ten minutes maximum and made in just eleven days.

Results of Phase 4: on Saturday afternoon there was a sharing at BDA of Jonathan’s and Tiechun’s dances. The latter’s Ghost Money came first. Witnessing the creative struggle of any group of artists to get things right in the studio is a kind of investment, especially if you’re privileged enough to be able to do it over the course of a few days. Maybe that’s why I felt so glad for — and even proud of — Tiechun’s four dancers at the sharing almost in a lump-in-throat kind of way. I was moved by them — and by ‘Jonny’s boys’ too — because they’d really pulled their act together. The two pieces are vastly different in outlook and execution and yet they share a wit, by which I mean an intelligence, that stems as much from each cast’s commitment as their respective choreographic concepts. My Chinese colleague Pan Li was quite right when she remarked that each dance creates its own cohesive world. The high-flown sense of purpose of Tiechun’s piece, set to Mozart, is offset by something quite human. [More on this later.] Jonathan’s Beijing Man, meanwhile, is both serious and, in its own quirky way, sorta sexy. The six men in it are dazzlers. It’s fun — and something more — to watch them sway and float, leap and ’sleep.’

At the sharing Jonathan spoke about being ‘very drawn to the idea of making a piece with men only as the basis for a world that already wasn’t complete.’ His take on the notion of a shaking world is about ‘looking at the instability that comes from the shifting of alliances and people.’ This was possible, he said, largely because of ’the shared trust, connection and feeling’ of dancers whose working relationship he views as exceptionally harmonious. With them, he added, ‘I found I was in one way on very stable ground.’ Not being around during the first week of Phase 4 meant that I missed him/them using poetry from the Tang and Song dynasties, along with contemporary Chinese verse, to find movement. But it was this process, often a part of Jonathan’s practice, that enabled ‘the individual personalities and idiosyncrasies of the dancers to come out.’

Dancer Wang Zihan said that one of the strongest parts about working with Jonathan was the feeling that ‘in creating work there should be no restrictions or limits.’ It’s ironic that this arose out of creative circumstances that were in some ways highly restrictive, at least in their outer casing; it’s what each choreographer and cast have put inside of the dances that constitutes the differences between them. He continued: ‘In China we limit ourselves to a certain style or period. In this situation we were asked to forget about the time period or the meaning of a poem. This gave us more space for imagination and more options for physical expression.’ Fellow dancer Wang Lei added that he knew Western choreographers ‘like to use games to get and build up material,’ but in this case said games can be used in the future ‘when we have the opportunity to choreograph.’ Note that there’s been no time to enquire how such choreographic opportunities  might practically materialize, nor just what that choreography might be.

For his part, Tiechun began by saying how ‘in China we don’t have this practice of having created a piece you have to explain it afterwards.  A lot of times, working with dance, the minute you try to put it into words something’s lost in translation.’ ‘ Could this have been for him one of the 18 levels of hell that he was telling lighting designer Charles Balfour about? He was honest and good-humoured about having no ideas for three or four months. ‘In the past when I created a piece i always had a kind of preparation,’ he explained. ‘This time, no. That kind of approach will give the dance a lack of definition, but this lack of clarity becomes an essential part of the piece.’ Addressing his dancers, he admitted that ‘I didn’t pick you guys because you all majored in folk dance. It’s just that you were the one left over!’ He tried working from their improvisations, but apparently this didn’t prove to be particularly fruitful. What he hit upon, eventually, was shaping them into a family unit in which two of the dancers are ‘not really dogs, but they take on the essence of dogs. In every family there’s always these small lives crawling about. But if this was a family, there needed to be some kinds of twists and contradictions between these people.’ Out of this Tiechun somehow hit upon the idea of using money to signal a transition to another world, ‘a symbol all Chinese people are familiar with. It’s money that works in the worlds of the dead and the living; It connects the two.’ The dance is not about rebirth or reincarnation, he said, but more to do with the meaning of those two worlds juxtaposed against what happens between the actual people or even within an individual. While thematically all of this might sound heavy, on the physical side Ghost Money could hardly have been simpler. A lot of movement was derived from a Chinese folk dance called  jiao zhou yang ge. Tiechun himself called it limited, citing twisting as its major element. ‘The entire piece comes out of this twisting action, and out of the dancers themselves.’

After stating her belief that Tiechun was ‘totally going away from what he’s done before,’ Liu Xiaozhen deemed it ‘a new way of performing Chinese folk or ethnic dance, and of passing down culture and tradition.’ The dancer Huang Dongmei echoed this, speaking of how she and the others were able to ’open up and try things never possible before’ by ‘reaching out and trying to grab onto certain elements about just what is Chinese for us?’ She’d asked Tiechun if his dance was a tragedy or a comedy, but ‘he wasn’t sure. He said it’s sometimes one and then the other.’ As for personal rewards, she believes that working on Ghost Money has strengthened her ‘ability to think and reflect as I’m dancing and creating a dance work.’

I asked if the choreographers could comment on each other’s dances. ‘Talking about someone else’s work is even harder than talking about your own. All i can say is there is a feeling here. Jonathan did an excellent job of deeply accessing material in the dancers’ minds and hearts as well as their physicality. I see elements of Beijing and China in it, maybe, but just an impression. It’s not specific. And if it were an imitation, it would be wrong. You can see the process in the finished work. It’s a product of the way it was created.’

As for  Tiechun, Jonathan said his piece contained ‘a refreshing clarity and purity. There’s a strong sense of a connected group of people, and something from another time.’ The beauty of the dance, he added, was never merely decorative but instead had a carved quality. The work reminded Carolyn of paintings, and also of something ‘not of this world, but making a connection between our past and out future. Maybe that’s the feeling between life and death.’

It was compliments all round then. Ringmaster Bannerman, aka Professor Ban, took the opportunity to sum up the project from his perspective:  ’In the process of research the unknown becomes familiar, but the opposite is also true — things that we think are familiar to us suddenly become unknown.’

It’s more than half a week since the sharing. For me here and now the greatest unknown is still China itself — the people, the place and the dance that is happening both in the studio and all over on the streets of Beijing.

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Helluva spell http://rescen.net/blog/2009/10/helluva-spell/764 http://rescen.net/blog/2009/10/helluva-spell/764#comments Thu, 29 Oct 2009 16:01:19 +0000 Donald Hutera 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 [...]]]> 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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Vital Signs http://rescen.net/blog/2009/10/vital-signs/762 http://rescen.net/blog/2009/10/vital-signs/762#comments Thu, 29 Oct 2009 14:40:29 +0000 Donald Hutera Fascinating and fun to watch Avatara Ayuso prepare to bring Shobana Jeyasingh’s dance — made at the very start of Danscross — back up to speed yesterday. It’s a sextet featuring, with one exception, dancers I have enjoyed watching this week in freshly-made pieces. Avatara is a wonderful teacher, in command yet relaxed. And she’s learning Mandarin!

I’m not quite clear about why the dancers balked at going barefoot. I see now that [...]]]> Fascinating and fun to watch Avatara Ayuso prepare to bring Shobana Jeyasingh’s dance — made at the very start of Danscross — back up to speed yesterday. It’s a sextet featuring, with one exception, dancers I have enjoyed watching this week in freshly-made pieces. Avatara is a wonderful teacher, in command yet relaxed. And she’s learning Mandarin!

I’m not quite clear about why the dancers balked at going barefoot. I see now that it’s probably not because they had no idea it would be required of them when performing the piece, but rather that they weren’t necessarily prepared for a barefoot warm-up on this particular night. I guess I’ve never thought much about footwear in Chinese dance, but bare feet is definitely not the norm. Tonight I dropped by the BDA’s experimental theatre where a string of solos and ensemble pieces in what I am guessing is a dance-drama style were being shown to a smallish group of mainly older people who were marking things on clipboards. I wonder what this evaluation was for. Anyway, the first and quite tall boy wore a costume made up mainly of bits of fake fur and hide. He had on baggy-legged, tight-at-the-waist trousers, and his chest was mostly bare. Despite the faux naturelle look (including glitter lashes!) he was incongruously shod in what looked like black and yellow trainers. Go figure.

Avatara’s class was a challenge to do and a pleasure to watch. The focus was the kind of grounded weight exchange associated with contact improvisation, which is a far cry from what these dancers are used to. She started with a three-person taffy pull where the body in the middle is being stretched from either end. By the end of the two-hour session she’d shifted from testing, toning and training to summoning key elements of Jeyasingh’s work back up from inside the dancers’ bodies. Other moves included leaping backwards and up into your partner’s grasp, or slanting down fast, sharp and back to back, almost like a tree that’s been felled. Although I don’t think I heard her say the word, most of this was about the trust that comes from really working together. Attention was also drawn to the direction of each dancer’s gaze (up tends to expand how the movement is read by an audience) and, even more crucially, to the openness of the chest. ‘From the heart,’ Avatara instructed, ‘like in life.’ She demonstrated what she meant and wanted to see; how almost every move seems to originate in or push out from the chest, so that nothing looks or feels held back. And yet it all must be very controlled, strong, focused, with taut stomachs and some kind of intention. It’s up to each dancer to decide what that last is, but intention there must be. It’s what drives Jeyasingh’s dance, however abstract it might appear.

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Airing My Views http://rescen.net/blog/2009/10/airing-my-views/756 http://rescen.net/blog/2009/10/airing-my-views/756#comments Wed, 28 Oct 2009 19:47:55 +0000 Donald Hutera I’m like a sponge in Beijing soaking up impressions, information, interpretations. I use the latter word even though I’m largely observing the Danscross dance-making sans an interpreter, largely by choice. I guess I figure that if dance is indeed the universal language, that pretty much ought to hold true in the studio too. Which is not to say that I’m not taking advantage of Emily or Annie’s presence, or at all refusing [...]]]> I’m like a sponge in Beijing soaking up impressions, information, interpretations. I use the latter word even though I’m largely observing the Danscross dance-making sans an interpreter, largely by choice. I guess I figure that if dance is indeed the universal language, that pretty much ought to hold true in the studio too. Which is not to say that I’m not taking advantage of Emily or Annie’s presence, or at all refusing their skills. They’re a valuable resource especially for someone like Jonathan Lunn, who does not speak Mandarin.

I usually see him at breakfast in the hotel. Wednesday morning he told me that he’s selected the dancers for Beijing Man via DVD. As I might’ve already indicated, he chose well; they’re a brilliant unit. Carolyn Choa sat with us and elaborated on the well-known play that served as a sort of touchstone for Lunn’s piece: three generations of a family beset with financial problems, some mismatched marriages and a longing to get away, or to connect with other, catalytic characters, and so on. It’s a microcosm of a society in transition, as Choa explained. The characters might be considered products of an unstable world. You could call it a shaking world, which was the phrase that provided the project’s loose thematic impetus. Although this dramatic background — the Chinese/Chekhovian connection — was in no way an overt influence on the dance, Lunn admits that it has somehow informed the creation process. Dreams are important here, too. The cast members all chose and shared a dream during their first week together, and it’s the physicalisation of this subconscious material that they and Lunn have utilised to create some of the movement. I’m sure someone famous has referred to dance as a language of dreams, but I can’t think who it was. It’s certainly not usually best treated as a documentary device.

In the studio Lunn keeps refining and problem solving. The mood on Wednesday was up-beat. He’s drawing upon his dancers in a way that Zhao Tiechun, as far as I can see, is not. It makes me wonder about the nature of the relationship between choreographers and dancers in the UK versus China. How collaborative is it here? Although he’s the ultimate arbiter, Lumn is certainly inviting his sextet into the decision-making process. They were poised identically on the floor, one leg stretched out in front and the other bent back. Lunn simply asked, ‘How do we get out of this?’ A dancer flipped onto his feet, another rolled up. As it turned out, whatever method each one uses to elevate himself they will all rise quickly and simultaneously onto their legs and then slow down. It’s a subtle shift from functional/purposeful to contemplative. The dancers make their moves together and, clever lads, they get it right ‘on the first take,’ as it were.

After catching the tail-end of Tiechun’s morning session, I impulsively headed to the centre of Beijing and the Forbidden City. If I say it reminded me of a vast film set it’s not just because of Bernardo Bertolucci’s gorgeous but, as I recall, over-rated The Last Emperor. (Having said that, now I really long to see that film again.) The scale of the actual place is daunting, which is why I think I preferred the small courtyards and attendant living quarters on the periphery of the high central halls and the grand open squares which they dominate. Passing through one of the quieter buildings off to the side, and one containing painting and calligraphy, I was suddenly struck by the calligraphic grace that Lunn’s dancers possess. At their best they’re writing in or on the air.

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Card-carrying and carefree http://rescen.net/blog/2009/10/card-carrying-and-carefree/748 http://rescen.net/blog/2009/10/card-carrying-and-carefree/748#comments Tue, 27 Oct 2009 22:04:16 +0000 Donald Hutera I’ve only been here two days, but already i feel like a foreigner who belongs. I mean, I’ve become a card-carrying member of the National Library (conveniently located in an impressive new building just across the street from my hotel) and also signed up for a discount card from a nearby shop that sells sweets and all kinds of dried fruit. Now all I need is an invitation to join the Communist Party.

I’d [...]]]> I’ve only been here two days, but already i feel like a foreigner who belongs. I mean, I’ve become a card-carrying member of the National Library (conveniently located in an impressive new building just across the street from my hotel) and also signed up for a discount card from a nearby shop that sells sweets and all kinds of dried fruit. Now all I need is an invitation to join the Communist Party.

I’d settle instead for an all-you-can-dance pass from the BDA. The more I hang out there the more there is to see. Apparently an internationally recognised ballroom couple (he’s American, she’s German) are guest-teaching this week only. I was quite happy spending a few minutes behind glass peering into a first floor studio at young Chinese women wielding fans. Lots of wrist action required, and dipping and swaying. This was in the main building, a real layer cake of a structure with its seven studio on each of seven floors.

In one of them Jonathan Lunn seemed to be in fine fettle, as were the young men with whom he is creating Beijing Man. Or is the piece to be called Beijing Ren? The latter word means people, and that second title is the same as a play by Cao Yu who has been described to me as the Chinese Chekhov. I must remember to ask him about the significance of this reference. In any case, Lunn’s boys jump and lift, walk on their hands or stretch their legs up past their ears effortlessly. It’s bold dancing, but endowed with a certain intangible, floating quality and almost beatific in its dynamic flexibility. This is exemplified by a little dance one of the lads does while being observed by his mates. Lunn calls this soft set of moves with its curving shapes and trailing fingers the angel solo. Speaking to a handful of visitors from the British Council, the choreographer praised all six dancers for their combination of feminine delicacy and masculine force. ‘They make choices Western dancers wouldn’t necessarily make,’ he said, immediately contradicting himself by adding that he could probably name a hundred dancers from the UK or elsewhere who might make similar choices. Note, however, that his first impulse was to recognise a difference. And yet at times, Lunn said, he forgets that he’s in China working with dancers who do indeed have a different training. I wonder what he might be learning from them, or about himself and his methods… suffice to say that, cued as it is now is to percolating tracks by the American experimental electronic music duo Matmos, Beijing Man has a clockwork flow.

Earlier, upstairs in the BDA theatre, where a long row of poinsettia plants lines the base of the raised stage, Tiechun was making progress on Ghost Money. The name, as I understand it, has something to do with the notion of burning money so that deceased relatives and friends will have a rich afterlife. It was no doubt useful for Techun to see his work outside the studio, in a larger and more theatrical space. A good deal of his attention went towards the boy in the blue shirt, as I identified him yesterday. This kid’s got a reckless, tumbling insouciance that can be disarming, but that may also give Tiechun pause. Hence the extra attention. There’s a bit in the dance where he’s downstage and has to raise and grab his legs a few times, do a spin that eventually sees his arms flung behind him and then segue into a jump that ends in a hand-on-knees squat. The boy is sort of a a cross between a colt and a puppy. He has a facility, and he tries hard, but stopping on a dime every time is not necessarily his forte. Still, I enjoyed seeing him pirouette several times yesterday, just for himself I think; he finally got it right, with no wobbles, finishing with his fingers in V for victory signs. Today he eventually managed what Tiechun needs, at least once, and presumably will do so again.

I ended the day with a dusky walk through Zizhuyuan, or Black Bamboo, Park. One of the entrances is just across the street from BDA. The park has something like three lakes, two islets and two rivers running through it. There was a half-moon tonight, and bats dancing beneath the willows. I wonder, given its proximity to BDA, how many dance people follow its paths while clearing their heads about their various lessons or projects.

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Introductions http://rescen.net/blog/2009/10/introductions/723 http://rescen.net/blog/2009/10/introductions/723#comments Mon, 26 Oct 2009 13:34:18 +0000 Donald Hutera I’ve been on earth for more than half a century, and writing about dance and performance for more than half that time, and yet this is my first time to China. Kung Fu Panda was, I think, a good choice for an airplane movie. (Best line: ‘We do not wash our pits in the Pool of Sacred Tears.’) I shrugged off and then slept away jet lag. It helped that, instead of crashing as soon [...]]]> I’ve been on earth for more than half a century, and writing about dance and performance for more than half that time, and yet this is my first time to China. Kung Fu Panda was, I think, a good choice for an airplane movie. (Best line: ‘We do not wash our pits in the Pool of Sacred Tears.’) I shrugged off and then slept away jet lag. It helped that, instead of crashing as soon as I’d unpacked, I went on an excursion to the nearest shopping/eating vicinity in this district of northwest Beijing. Street life! The real thing, too. Virtually no other Westerners visible apart from me and my guide, Danscross Big Daddy Chris Bannerman. Highlights include sharing a sweet potato as we strolled; the many mannequins in the dance shops whose collective dress sense Chris aptly dubbed ‘Ninja boogie’; the fish that jumped up out of the tank in the market as if to say ‘Eat me!’ (or ’Save me!’?); and, on the negative side, the woman who barked viciously at a tot who was bawling as he waited for an old man to repair his battery-operated toy gun with cellotape. In the main, however, the people I either saw or met seemed to peaceable and not unfriendly.

Enough local colour. My purpose in being here is to play fly on the walls of the Beijing Dance Academy as i watch some creative juices flow. I’m impressed, too. Jonathan Lunn may have had a baaaaaaad last night (food poisoning?) but he sure didn’t let on today in BDA’s theatre space. And to have created so much detailed material in just a week. He is quick, he says, but so are the six young men in his work-in-progress. They know each other so well, he adds, that he can can just set some moves on one of them and it’ll spread to the others like a virus.

Like the dancers themselves Lunn’s piece looks muscular and wiry, and it’s peppered with a gestural filigree that offsets their bold, grabbing energy. Working with the soft-spoken Carolyn Choa as a second, collaborative brain and pair of eyes, the long-haired Lunn juxtaposed a couple of duets and clarified their spatial relationship. These twosomes feature headstands and splits, and boys tunneling between each other’s legs. The fleet, often spiraling complexity of connections made here can be dazzling. A third duo was just as nimble; I recall in particular a compact lad vaulting one-handed over his tall, skinny counterpart’s arched body, using the latter’s pelvis as a springboard. Lunn appears to have tapped into the cast’s youthful spirit. The extended fragments he worked on today suggest a kind of dreamy hijinks that suits their collective talent and temperament. Already this dance, although unfinished, seems to belong to them.

The same can’t yet be said of the quartet — two of each sex — that spent time with Tiechun today, but that’s okay. Fellow blogger Katherine Mezur tells me that in Danscross this Chinese choreographer is challenging not just his dancers but himself as well. I slip into the studio — one of 49 in BDA’s main building — as he’s drilling them in a unison passage. They must advance downstage while mainly doubled over, using hands and feet to negotiate a fast, twisty rotation. It’s a fiendish little pattern, and particularly daunting for one quick-to-clown-around boy in a blue shirt. (He sticks out, too, because the others are all wearing rehearsal clothes in combinations of red and black.) Tiechun has this boy do the sequence again, alone; he gives it a go but slips inside his socks, giggling good-naturedly. Other tricky bits follow, as when the dancers hold hands and pretzel round each other like a knot trying to undo itself only to become further entangled. After that everyone’s in a line flat on the floor, holding onto the ankles of the person ‘above’ them; slowly this braided chain of bodies rolls across the space. None of this is meant to illustrate the music (Mozart’s Kyrie) that Tiechun is using, and yet his movement has its high-flown moments. As if to counter this he turns two of his dancers, a man and a woman, into dog-like creatures who scamper about on all fours. Meanwhile another couple executes a precisely timed duet on several levels; at one point they roll on the floor, feet hooking together, only for the female to be hoisted up into a sitting position atop the male’s raised thigh.

Tucked inside a denim jacket, and quite notably bald, Tiechun makes a quiet, even brooding taskmaster. He’s prone to take a brief ‘time out’ to work out next steps, or to solve any problems that may have arisen from those that already exist. Like Lunn, he’s putting together the pieces of a puzzle that he also has to manufacture on the spot. Based on my first-day observations, it’s working. Earlier in the afternoon the transitions between sections in Tiechun’s dance might have seemed awkward or arduous. But by the end of the day his doggedness, coupled with the dancers’ discipline, had smoothed over some of the bumps. He was even able to share in the dancers’ jokes about how easily they could slip into t’ai chi instead of Tiechun. Not taking yourself too seriously is perhaps a good sign at the start of a new week.

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