Card-carrying and carefree

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.

Shake it up Oct 27/28

October 27, 2009
Shake it Out
Every morning before going to the rehearsals at BDA, I go to the nearby Zizhuyuan Park. The name of the park has something to do with royal bamboo, which is everywhere and there is a separate bamboo specialty garden-within-the-garden. At 7AM the park is hopping, literally with over 15 or more “dance” related groups. I walk past tai chi, Beijing opera singing and instruments playing, four or five ballroom dancing groups playing popular songs to waltz, tango etc., three or four types of Chinese Folk dance with fans, no fans, streamers, a soft jazzercise movement class, sword dancing groups, foursomes that hit a feathered ball on their up turned heels, (jumping between hits with turning), and in one part of the park people are in separate spaces and over a loud speaker someone is shouting movements, and they all do these commands in unison, like jumps, walks with kicks, and everyone responds loudly with short shouts. I pass between curtains of music from many boom boxes.
The dances have names: Tiechun’s is now “Ghost Money” (maybe “coins” is better and the word in Mandarin means “paper money” that is used at funerals when it is burned so that the person who died may purchase what they need in the other world—). This goes so well with the Mozart work’s background. Then Jonathan’s is now Beijing Ren or Beijing Man, the name of the play by the playwright I wrote about last week, Cao Yu, (1940). This also stands for the once earliest finding of a human-like remains names Beijing man. Ok now the work gets gendered no matter what you do.
Ghost Money
Tiechun refines and refines. He reworks sections for the two child-like roles after watching a video of the work. Now these two performers are in a stronger opposition to the primary couple. While the dance classes are really strictly divided by male and female styles (even ballet), this dance is coupled (hetero-wise) so we have an intertwining of genders, while the ”roles” are still male/female gendered with women lifted by men and men doing big jumps and turns. In Jonathan’s dance gendering is shifted to different variables of male-ness.
Twisting theme of Ghost Money “Zhi qian”
I took two female folk dance classes and found the twisting of the torso, legs/feet/ankles in walking, and arms/wrists/fingers and shoulders, even turning is like curling up, twisting. This action must have many shades and variations, which I know nothing about, but it seems to function as a movement theme. Tiechun is head of the Folk Dance Division at BDA and he spoke of taking this twisting as far as it could go, “…to extremes,” he said the second day of choreographing. What does “twist” mean? If you do the action, it means you have to hold onto one head of the twist and initiate it from the other, or the center is held and the two ends must twist. It is a contained, bound action. Tiechun frequently directs the twist inward, and on occasion he might emphasize the outward action or untwisting, but most move inward to consolidate the action, control it closer to one’s center. I think Tiechun said to his dancers after one run through: twist until you can go no further, then make the change. Don’t rush, energy is continuous and active … the twist itself has emotion.” An active/passive relationship is necessary according to Tiechun, but not too active nor too passive.

Beijing Ren
While I keep searching for the ”shaking world” theme in this work, the play Beijing Ren is actually quite appropriate, but the dancers nor the choreographer are making use of the work itself, just cut up dialogue. Just a little background on Cao Yu:
In 1940, Cao Yu completed the writing of his fifth play, Peking Man, considered his most profound and successful work. Set in Peking (today Beijing) as its name implies, and in the then present, surprisingly the work does not allude to the war with Japan at all, but chronicles the history of a well-heeled family that is incapable of surviving and adapting to social changes which are destroying the traditional world and culture in which they live. The title of the work is an allusion to the so-called Peking Man, the proto-human who inhabited the north of China several hundred thousand years ago. Cao Yu’s recurrent themes are present, emphasizing the inability of traditional families to adapt themselves to modern society and its customs and ways. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cao_Yu October 27, 2009

Backlog of stuff: Jonathan uses “dream” idea, a kind of surrealism is in the sections and movement but the music drives it differently/ Could the sound be silent for a section? How much do we see when there is no sound to move the movement? Working on relationships needs more work. They are invested but some of the gestures that are small and personal no longer carry that personal stuff. Sometimes seems a bit mechanical, very beautiful but controlled and ”cool.”
I would like to have some time to talk to each performer from this group by himself, because they group think sometimes. Are these dancers in their world of the dance academy perhaps unaware of the shaking world? Or is it hard to think or feel when your life seems set and stable in their system of state supported dance? Are any dances ever controversial? Do their dance dramas go back into pre-20th century Chinese culture to be safe?

Airing My Views

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.

Vital Signs

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.

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.

Blogalong: October 31, 2009, October 30, moving backwards and forwards.

Where are we? We are in China, The People’s Republic of China. It struck me as I use the yuan money that is printed with many Mao images: a kind of ”Mao” is everywhere. The academy is overwhelming sometimes: dance in five or six studios down 7 floors of classrooms with windows: they are dance rich.
In our project, the aim towards the proscenium stage concert might have added pressure on these last two choreographers. This is a relay between last choreographing sessions, rehearsals, and the ”sharing” gathering where we see and discuss the works. This is followed by some kind of review by authorities. I am told this is to check the quality of the works to make sure they are of the quality necessary for the funding….hmmm. interesting.
I am not surprised but everyone is very kind, no suggestion of criticism or other ways to do the program. It is certainly an honor to participate, but will this just pass and the impact of ”exchange” and moving across, into, and through each other, fade back when “nationalisms” are on the rise everywhere? I cannot speak.

(A small aside: the music is played incredibly loud at the sharing session, I could hear the molecules in my ears and the digital hissing. Why so loud?)
Tiechun
I see so much tension in Tiechun’s work, it never releases. I don’t feel the brilliant last roll as strongly as I do in rehearsal when it is a small section done over and over. He is eloquent during the sharing session. I wish his characters would tell me their stories or dreams. His students and Pan Li the Chinese researcher on this project say how radical this work is and that this has been an incredible opportunity for them to see him work in a different way. I see his work as a landscape, vast.
Jonathan and Carolyn
If Jonathan wants to keep the shifting, which keeps the ”life” in the work, protects it from stagnation and performance-performance, he needs to set up a trigger movement or signal that pulls the dancers out of the dance, for one moment you are not in the dance then back in. He could use that lighting designed block of light more.
Yesterday they had a talk with the performers about going back to the first encounter with the words, when it was fresh, and there was personal investment in that movement for that character. In the sharing, Wang Lei spoke of the characters of the their language having multiple meanings so that that encounter could be multiple depending on how or if you played with the character’s layers. I love it, language dances: makes us all aware of the indirectness of speech, writing, whereas gesture strikes us with potency of time, space, direction, weight, and force.
Dancers and choreographers should never say they cannot talk about their dances. Articulation of joints meets the symbolic and performative. Cool.

shared exposure, or, share and share unlike

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.

snow and health

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.

self, emotion, place, scale, spirit, gender

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.

BIG questions

Wild show.
Nov. 6
Big questions I want to ask during the next two discussion and forum times:

After viewing and viewing and viewing the Chinese and the UK, Hong Kong, and Other choreographic works in performance:

What is the deep sweeping emotionalism in the Chinese works? What does it do? How does it work? What does it produce?
What is the abstraction of emotion through forms and stylization in the Other works? How does this process work? What does it do to ”meaning”?
Can we talk about the power and politics of emotions?
Can we talk about the power of abstraction?

How is dance “used” in these works?
How is dance “employed” in our different culture/nations?

How do you choose and shape the dance with your music, objects, lights, set?
How are we speaking and making meaning through every element of these dances in performance?

I feel that everyone needs to do homework on each other’s histories. Both of the individual and their “culture” and ”nation.” We do not create separated from our local space. We do not create separately from our given circumstances of daily life.

There is so much I do not understand.
Danscross crosses.

I miss you… Someone out there answer back.

On the jet plane, somewhere where China becomes the mountains of the sea below me. My last morning I had to decide between taking ballet and one more classical Chinese dance class, so I went to the classical class and felt so charged with the lines of energy, the signs that drift in and out of arm movements, the curves and thrusts of feet, and as usual I always find the male movement my favorite.
I miss you.
This is a kind of love letter.
Someone out there answer back. I overheard Chris remark on Sunday that this weekend and the whole Danscross project was really one of the highlights of his life. I had said that to Min too. I do believe in alchemy, how innovation really arises out of daring and now knowing how something will work.

But I want to know how you all are? What pictures come up? What last gestures strike you in your memory planes? What disturbed you? What made you take a pause and reflect differently?
I miss you.

Can someone tell me about the last half hour speeches by the two women dance leaders? I was so struck by their vehemence and power to silence us all. But I did not understand their context? The meaning of their need and drive and desires… can anyone comment?

Paul’s mediator and intermediary were striking like having demons undo all those nasty binaries that are too easily made to frame any dialogue. Let us interrupt each other more, let us be less polite, like innovative choreography: don’t simplify into tensions “between.” Resist the polarized. But what does making it complex do? Take it further, Paul.

The limitations and rules theme panel: Please post those wonderful powerpoints!!!! English and Chinese please.

I did love how the simultaneous interpreter made us “he’s” and ”she’s” randomly. Lovely gender switching.
I miss you.

I miss you. k

The meeting of creative minds

At the Beijing Dance Academy on the 9th November, where choreographers, dancers and academics equally shared the billing.

IMG_5957

Questions on transnational exchanges

I am in need of feedback on methods and ways of considering what happens in transnational creative exchanges: while there are many books, articles, and even dances on this process of transit and transmission between bodies of different “cultural and political practices: I am curious what Danscross choreographers, researchers, dancers, and administrators found (during or after) as the points of ”transformation” (focusing here about the space between not in opposition to):

1) What changes did you notice in what the dancers or choreographers or researchers did, directly related to the circumstances of being in Beijing, with Beijing-based dancers, trained at the Beijing Dance Academy? No matter how small and specific or broad and general: what caused a known pattern to shift, transfer, disengage, remain silent, empty out, or burst, self-destruct, or disappear?

2) Because “change” can be very difficult to know or write about except in retrospect, what was new or unprecedented or unusual in your dancing or dance making or observation process that was (again) directly related to these place/time circumstances of Danscross? In this case, could you describe what that was and what were the circumstances surrounding that moment?

3) While the larger and cumbersome “differences” of dance cultures may seem obvious to some of you, I think it may be still helpful to hear some of these. What were some of the first, most impressive, and continuing differences in this transnational encounter?

Two ideas: on slippage and ways of considering transmission between dance cultures.

Missing Beijing. After seeing DV8, a ”Diaspora” dance series at Counterpulse, a stunning play performed by the Druid Theatre of Ireland and listening to Yvonne Rainer: new dance makes demands. Before I start reflecting and analyzing as I do with new works that were made under observation, I wanted to explain a process of live research that has always been exciting to me: watching the slippages of transmission between choreographer and dancers, dancers and dancers, and improvisation and setting movement. The point here may be obvious to dance makers and dramaturgs and dancers, but the shifts of gesture in time, space, and energy between bodies in different stages of dance making, is the progressive performance that one rarely sees. “Researchers” or academics, who have been dancer makers, probably tune to this right away. I even experience the sadness of loss when I see a choreographer move away from or skip something I thought was brilliant in an earlier edition. Also exciting is the brilliance of dancers who press their own signatures into new gestures, even when, minutely, exactly, taking on, the choreographer’s direction and energy (or another dancer’s). But this can only be seen if one has the time, privilege, and invitation to see and observe a dance in progress over time, and time again.

That said, I keep thinking of two important outcomes from the Danscross observation of process-in-process: on an uneconomic side: choreographers should repeat some of their dances, try them out on other dancers, see what happens, and perhaps make the audiences deeper observers? I see so much the second time. Further, why not invite a dance critic or researcher into your process?

Audience behaviour remembered

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.

Reviewing the review

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…]

Dream Speech

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.]

Swept Away

Final blog
Swept Away

I am swept away. You are not supposed to be “swept” away. I keep thinking about the references to Bruno Latour’s “intermediary” and ”mediator.” Perhaps I am a mediating intermediary? I go back to my first Sunday night in October in Beijing at the Beijing Dance Academy anniversary performance at one the national “Military” Theatres. The red flag, covering the stage, with its brilliant glowing five stars, one large representing the communist party and four smaller stars radiating on an arch from the larger one. Those brilliant four stars are supposedly the different kinds of people (or classes), as written by Mao Tse Tung: the working class, the peasantry, the urban petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie. I was so moved. I was so caught in my own history of this history, wanting so much to say that I dreamed of coming here for so long because of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Mao’s Red Book, Beijing Opera, the erhu, this red flag, and those revolutionary dance operas created by Jiang Qing. She had taken the ballet, folk dance, Beijing Opera, martial arts, classical Chinese dance, and folklore of the revolution to make this outrageous mixture into a ”teaching” dance drama for propaganda. Did she know she made a brilliant fusion of modern, postmodern, and avant-garde with melodramatic and pop sensibilities? How right on. It still works: I am swept away. (Stumbling, that afternoon of my first Sunday I felt that surge of the famous Beijing wind and dust storms. full of dust. I become a kite in the hutong and I am blinded. It takes a lot of time to get to places here when you are blown away and swept along.)

I am swept away by the power of Chinese dance, or of Chinese to use dance or dance dance to communicate kinaesthetic resonance that has a very specific aim. I still find it hard to understand the dance and the dancers without doing more research on the last two decades in China and Beijing. I have to do that, to understand the contemporary transformation in this powerhouse, the Beijing Dance Academy. I remember those stars on the flag: the large one and the smaller stars, radiating out from that central force, not unlike how the Beijing Dance Academy works: “star” power (and I do not mean soloist or fame or Hollywood stardom). What stays with me beyond all the choreographic changes, inflections, transformations … is this sense of power that dance has in China. What is this power about? Who does it serve? What does it have to do with the new/old China? I am sure there are many answers and more questions. There is something about the centralization of dance education for the dance stages, which will stage these dances and dance dramas that can and will “move” the audiences beyond and outside their daily lives. I will take that further in my essay for the Danscross book. It was remarkable how much the Chinese choreographers’ works “moved” (swept away?) the audiences and by contrast: how the ”foreign” choreographers’ works made the audience carefully watch and consider…I was told by one young dancer friend that perhaps I could not understand how much “feeling” meant to the Chinese. I know I must avoid ALL essentializing and of course I am swept away, but I also have to reflect and question this power “across” Danscross. I am an intermediatrix.

In Hongse niangzi jun (The Red Detachment of Women)

I went to this revolutionary opera ballet by myself in a 3000 plus seat Beijing theatre that was packed and sold-out. Everyone in the 2nd balcony seats was leaning forward toward the stage to the effect that I thought the balcony my very tip into the orchestra area. For this work, they had a full orchestra and chorus, and dance ensemble of thirty-five to sixty-five members. It was one of the most “power-full” performances I have ever seen. It was not about technique, but power in devices fueled by overwhelming beliefs and passion for those beliefs. You do not have to believe me, but when the Red Detachment of Women strut, leap, and swagger (with big rifles) down stage on the long diagonal for their first full out stage appearance, the whole audience came to their feet. And the soloist, especially when she is striving and writhing during her scenes of capture, liberation, and revolution, dances everyone’s heartache: Surge. Hearts beating. Wow factor. Dance Power. More later, more and more.