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.

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