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.

1 comment to Introductions

  • Janet Smith

    Hi Donald, Please say hello to all from me and Scottish Dance Theatre who are out in China too. It sounds fascinating work that’s going on at the Beijing Dance Academy. Wish everyone well with the project.
    Strange destiny has us performing in Beijing on the same nights as you, so we won’t manage to see the outcome of your collaboration. We’re at Meilanfang Theatre on Nov 6th and 7th. However we are also performing at Peking University on Nov 4th. Maybe there’s a way we can link up and share our stories? We also have Caroline Bowditch with us in her role as Dance Agent for Change with the company. You may like to see her in action in our Interactive performance event on Nov 3rd at 1.30pm, – also at the University.
    We arrive in Beijing on 2nd Nov and leave on Nov 9th. Though our schedule’s tight I’d love to squeeze time to see a bit of your work in process if it’s possible.
    Love and all best wishes to Jonathon, Caroline and Chris,
    Janet Smith, Artistic Director, Scottish Dance Theatre

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