Reviewing the review

I make my living primarily as a critic, although it’s not a label with which I’m particularly comfortable. In any case, after I returned to London the magazine Dance Europe accepted my proposal to write about the Danscross performances, both of which took place at Beijing’s swank Poly Theatre. What follows are excerpts from that review, occasionally sprinkled with [in square brackets] my retrospective commentary.

‘At their best the pieces devised for Danscross functioned like short stories, all of which were expressed in the language of the body. And that meant specifically Chinese bodies.
[This notion of each body containing the rhythms of the societies and cultures in which it exists continues to be of interest. I’d love to go back to China, see more of the country and spend more time simply watching how people move and interact…] The BDA Dance Company is a highly capable, attractive entity well versed in Chinese classical styles… It appears that the group adapted well to the rigours of contemporary dance offered by the foreign choreographers. By the same token, the Western dance-makers had to accustom themselves to a different system of circumstances and disciplines than they might have previously known. [The learning process on both sides was understandably immense and complex, and therefore not always easy. Again, what a privilege to witness some of those struggles – and the joyous breakthroughs.]

And the result? Not unexpectedly, perhaps, a mixed bag of dances that ran a gamut from Western abstraction to Chinese emotionalism. It was my good fortune that the two pieces I, in fly-on-the-wall fashion, watched being made in the studio turned out to be among the strongest on the bill. Set to the percolating rhythms of the American electronica duo Matmos, Jonathan Lunn’s Beijing Man is a male sextet cleverly combining an almost calligraphic gestural filigree with quick-witted athletic vigour. It was quirky, sexy and fun but delivered with a seriousness of purpose that deftly balanced its more playful qualities. In complete contrast, Zhao Tiechun’s Ghost Money was a moving, beautifully expressive contemplation of earth and heaven, or life and death, built round a four-person family unit clad in vaguely peasant garb. According to those in the know the choreographer was stretching himself here, redefining his knowledge and use of a twisty but limited folk style juxtaposed against Mozart’s Kyrie (Andante Moderato). It’s undeniably big music, but he had the measure of it. [I’d gladly watch these two pieces again, particularly if I could do so out of their Beijing context. I’ve long maintained that seeing dance in the country it was made can be a hugely different experience from seeing it abroad.]

The programme opened with Shobana Jeyasingh’s Detritus, a bold attempt to capitalise on the hybrid nature of the BDA dancers’ training. Sharpness and speed are the watchwords of Jeyasingh’s style. The piece’s admirably unsettling drive was, however, undermined by a score (credited to Andy Cowton and Ryoji Ikeda) played at ear-splitting volume. Kerry Nicholls’ Cleave was similarly fast and frenetic and, as such, a suitable exemplar of the shaking world theme. Nicholls works closely with UK choreographer Wayne McGregor, and it shows. That’s not a bad thing, and probably quite welcome in the context of both the BDA and Chinese dance generally. Cleave showed plenty of craft and kinetic complexity but, from this Westerner’s perspective, it was written in an overly familiar vocabulary. [I’ve never met up with Kerry to discuss her time in Beijing. As for Shobana, I know she had her bumpy moments there. Before the end of 2009 we agreed to get together for a post-mortem, but it’s yet to happen. Some day, maybe soon…]

Temperamentally I felt much closer to John Utans’ Water Mark, a liquid piece of structured improvisation musically bookended by a version of the American standard Stormy Weather and Tim Buckley’s vibrant Song to the Siren. Marked by a fine sense of stillness and an undertow of romantic melancholy, this was one of the evening’s most poetic and elusive dances and, in all likelihood, no less of a challenge for the dancers than Jeyasingh’s and Nicholls’ more aggressive work-outs. [It’s unavoidable that you have the strongest feelings for the work you saw being made in front of you. Alright, I only saw John’s work after it was finished, but only just. My response to that run-through – immediate, tactful yet honest and heart-felt – might’ve helped shape or shade the way it was subsequently interpreted. If so, I take no credit for this. If anything it’s a humbling reminder of what a sensitive state artists are in when they’re creating work, and how that needs to be respected. But how they deserve to be told the truth of what you think and feel, whether the work is fresh out of the oven or older than the proverbial hills. That, I guess, is one of the main functions of the critic/dance writer.]

The dances by the other Chinese choreographers was, unsurprisingly, quite distinct from their foreign counterparts and of likewise variable effect. Zhao Ming’s Trust or not took swine flu as the topical inspiration for a fairly obvious study in group dynamics with, in its favour, a hopeful ending. Zhang Yunfeng’s starting point for The brightest light in the darkest night was Liu Yan, a BDA dancer injured during the final preparations for the 2008 Olympics and now a wheelchair-user. Set on two levels, this heart-on-sleeve dance was her first time onstage since her accident. An exquisite, long-armed presence in a red ballgown, she occupied a high platform stage right. Until the closing tableau, her three male co-stars danced with expansive sensitivity below her. That leaves the programme’s oddest entry. Cued to an adaptation of a Bach cello suite, Wang Mei’s What a golden autumn featured five dancers in rabbit costumes. The choreographer has been described as the Chinese Pina Bausch. I can’t comment on the comparison. I only know that her unhappy, floor-based bunnies constituted the least successful and yet perhaps most original piece in Danscross. [Those goofy rabbit outfits! And don’t ask me why, but I happen to like rabbit references. But in this case was Wang Mei practicing some weird form of artistic self-sabotage or what? I watched a studio version of her dance, up close rather than long-distance as was the case at the Poly Theatre, and sans the bunny garb. It was a memorably affecting piece. Now I wonder what will happen to it. The same could be said of the other Danscross pieces. For one possible answer, read on…]

What next? It seems that some, if not all, of these dances may be presented in the UK next year. [That is, 2010.] Ideally the project’s next phase would happen there, too, with British dancers on tap for UK and Chinese choreographers. But as a model for cross-cultural exchange, Danscross could probably work anywhere in the world.’ [Here’s to the future…]

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