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.

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