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.

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