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.

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