The DANSCROSS 2009 Blog which follows is now presented chronologically as an archived blog narrative.
The DANSCROSS 2009 Blog which follows is now presented chronologically as an archived blog narrative.
I’ve been in Beijing for three days now, spending time in the studio both with Shobana Jeyasingh and Zhang Yunfeng and their respective dancers. In Shobana’s case in particular, the choreographic process is a process of working out what the choreography is. This gives me food for thought – but it also begs a question regarding my own role, since I feel the same could be said of that: the research process is a process of working out what the research is. I have a sense of what it is, but it’s not something I want to discuss on the blog.
Instead, I will make a few observations about how this is playing out.
1) Where should I put myself, and what should I do? I try to make myself scarce, half-hidden behind the piano. I try not to move too much, which of course puts me into an ironic relationship with my ‘objects of study’; I have joked that my immobility is in direct proportion to the dancers’ activity. What a slob!
2) The dance studio is a dynamic visual space – these dancers are people who have grown up looking at themselves in the mirror, subject to an exacting degree of corporeal discipline and surveillance by their teachers, and trained to be looked at by a paying public. Everyone in the room is watching and learning in one way or another.
3) But should I do anything other than watch? When I see a performance I may be studying, or even listen to a conference paper, I never take notes. It’s a distraction. I am reminded, too, of a comment in an article on rehearsal ethnography by Gay McAuley, where actors told her that they couldn’t work out the rationale behind when and why the researchers took notes, and that this unsettled them. I took a few notes with my back to the group on the first day, but it didn’t seem right. Yesterday afternoon, though, there were so many little details and fragments that were of interest, it felt appropriate to write. So there’s a right time for writing.
4) Interviews? I’m discinclined. I’d rather chat.
I laughed when I saw this photo of me on the Chinese blog. It reminds me that as much as I look towards the dance, not only do I look away from myself, but am oblivious to the fact: and being ‘reflective’ is only half the answer. There’s an ethnographic parable in that.
Because this trip was arranged quite late, it took a while for final ethics approval to come through from my university for things like formal interviews and video documentation. Up until then, this was the only picture I took. No human subjects!
There are many studios like this at the BDA – seven per floor (I think), on 7 floors: some are larger. It’s hot right now, and as you approach the building, you catch the sound of 49 pianos (give or take a Korean drumming class and a Danscross project or two) wafting out of the windows, and glimpse the slender backs and necks of resting dancers, catching the breeze.
Having got into the habit of not documenting the dancers directly, I’m minded to carry on in the same vein – by indirections find directions out, and all that. This is the view from studio 405.
As they warm up at the barre, the dancers’ spines align with the tower (it’s closer than it looks in the picture), and their legs with the arm of the crane. Occasionally, while they are dancing, the crane swings in, right over the roof of the BDA – a graceful counterpoint, not unlike the relationship between this picture and the one below, in the posting ‘Another moment’.
So, as per ‘Notes on observing’, the process has its blindspots. But I guess this city/body relationship is the kind of thing an observer is predisposed to notice, born as it is of a wandering gaze, the sharpening and blurring of focus as one’s attention is by turns compelled and released. Marginalia? No more or less, I think, than the researchers themselves.
In a short presentation to the group yesterday, I described the choreographer Zhang Junfeng as having a velevety Chinese smoker’s voice. He talks a lot to his dancers as he works with them. The tone is soft, almost hypnotic; the voice deep, though not so much rough or gravelly as richly burred. It’s a reminder, as if we needed one, that there is a materiality to speech, and that the choreographic process entails the transmission of corporeality as much as the embodiment of ideas.
For Junfeng’s dancers, then, it’s a kind of passive smoking: that somehow they incorporate the material effects of his habit into their muscles, movements, sensibilities. Minus the carcinogens, of course. More generally, passive smoking is a feature of social life in China that is striking to the non-smoking visitor from places where the default setting for public space is, as the sign in the Golden Peacock restaurant round the corner says, a ‘No Smoke Region’. And anyway, as far as I can tell, in places like the UK, smoking is in decline – except among dancers. The other day, I overheard a woman talking about her daughter: “She turned down a job offer from British American Tobacco. She said to me: ‘If the Chinese want to smoke themselves to death with their own cigarettes, that’s their choice – but I’m not going to persuade them to do the same with BAT’s'”.
The weather is changeable. Brilliant blue skies give way overnight to a hazy fug. A crisp, cooling breeze transforms into harmattan-like flurries of dust and sand that topples bicycles and launches litter briefly skywards. It’s played out in miniature when a smoker’s exhalations catch the light. Similarly, for the first few days I tramped the thoroughfares, wondering where the life had gone, and reflecting that Beijing was anything but human-scale. What, I wondered, is the place and value of dance in such a spaced-out city, where even crossing the road is a journey in itself. No wonder so many of the otherwise featureless modern office buildings fill their street-level retail spaces with foot massage parlours!
Of course, the human is here. Just behind the BDA, there’s a buzzing street scene, and as the heat of the day lifts from the pavements at about 6, the smells and scents of the place rise with it and separate out: flowers, fruit, piss. At night, the grilled meat stalls fire up: to order, you must enter a cloud of charcoal smoke, scented with fat and seasoned with szechuan pepper. At 1.30am the other night, I looked up from my low plastic stoll to see it shafted through with streetlight, like a nightsun. Yesterday, Shobana’s dancers were working on an unusually melliflous sequence. (I know ‘mellifluous’ refers to sound, and was going to invent ‘mellifluent’ to describe it, but given the point I began with, it seems apt enough). I said to Janet O’Shea, who arrived yesterday, that they looked like heavenly maidens, wafting through the clouds. Later, the interpretor told me that she translated one of Shobana’s instructions using the Chinese term ‘move like the clouds’.
Soon, I too will be moving through the clouds – substantially faster, but nowhere near as elegantly. I’ll breathe the rarified air of the plane, and perhaps commit to it some residues of the atmospheres I’ve been enveloped by over the course of my stay.
I have just found a video of Elisabeth Gilbert talking about the artist creation process (see link below). As DanceCross questions this matter, among others, I wanted to share this with you all. It is just 15min, it’s worth watching until the end (when the dancer and the “olé!” are brought together!).
PD We will miss you Paul!
Both of you!
How can I refuse a summons like that? (Paul’s ‘Over to you, Jay’, below)
I arrived in Beijing midway through phase one of the project. I can’t comment with any authority or conviction on the choreographic process, because I entered the studio and saw nearly finished dances being rehearsed.
So I am going to talk about the dances, not about their process of being made. I tell my students that looking at movement dynamics is a way in to writing about dance, especially if it is unfamiliar. Here’s a chance to try out my own advice.
I’m also taking this approach because I think movement dynamics is an area of difference between the two dances and, possibly, between the dancers’ experience of working on them.
Continuous, sustained movement characterizes Zhang Yunfeng’s piece. A breath rhythm governs the dance. Momentum carries the dancers through from one position to the next. This is not like the ‘moving like the clouds’ material that Paul observed because the movement is rarely light; it is grounded without being rooted. There is also a clear sense of attack that launches each phrase. But this attack throws the dancers into sweeps and spirals (now I’m talking about space, I know; but these things are not easy to separate) that carry forward seemingly until the momentum dissipates. A fall-and-recover principle seems to generate much of the material.
Fast and staccato are the key features in Shobana Jeyasingh’s dance. The phrases are grounded, punctuated by sudden, articulated jumps. There is a clarity to each movement, giving the dance an architectural quality. Changes of level and direction are frequent (space again, I realize); they add to the sharp, clear-edged quality of the material. Momentum is interrupted so that positions emerge in focus. An occasional indirect movement leads almost inevitably into an angular, articulate shape.
I’ve never seen Chinese classical dance but I wonder if some of the principles that Yunfeng uses emerge from that movement vocabulary. This way of moving seems more organic to the BDA dancers than the dynamics of Shobana’s piece.
I read that Dancross is designed to facilitate inter-cultural collaboration and I’m thinking about what that term might mean in this context.
In the US and in Britain, when we speak of ‘intercultural’ dance work, we refer to movement languages, an exchange between the vocabularies (units of movement) and syntaxes (systems of organization) of different forms. A dialogue between movement languages does seem to be at issue here, especially in the work that Shobana Jeyasingh has done with the BDA company dancers, who are trained in Chinese classical dance and Chinese folk dance.
However, a central issue, at least from what I have seen in rehearsals and heard about in the roundtable discussion, is less movement language than choreographic process. Specifically, it seems like the dancers found unfamiliar Shobana’s task-based approach to working with their own movement vocabulary. The dancers working with Zhang Yun Fang seem more comfortable with his method of teaching completed movement.
This is a matter of culture, but not of national ones. As Mu Yu and Shobana have both pointed out, there is no reason to assume that a choreographer will be representative of her or his (national) culture. But there is reason to think that choreographers’ work engages their experience and intersects with the institutional structures, working conditions, and funding opportunities that the work develops out of.
The dancers come from a large-scale, nationally funded conservatoire that is geared toward producing excellence in performance. I have seen dozens of classes, in ballet, Chinese classical dance, martial arts, Chinese folk dance, for students of a range of ages, all clad in identical leotards, tights, and ballet shoes, drilling in technique. It’s not hard to see, in this, the link to Russian ballet training – the rigors of training, the emphasis on technical accomplishment, the sense of being part of a system.
The contrast with the working conditions of the dancers in Shobana’s company is evident: project-based work in a small, regularly, but not heftily funded company, developing out of independent dance work or other small company experience.
What is interesting here, I think, is the way in which economic and institutional conditions contribute to expectations around ways of working. Patterns of project creation and of funding facilitate certain working processes. This returns me to the linguistic metaphor: what needs translating in this case is not only the languages, but also how they are spoken.
Ok… it may appear that I have been hiding… but I have been here in Beijing for almost 5 days now swimming in thoughts & actions… I am in my hotel room (gorgeous room that it is) I have a can of (luke warm) Tsing Tao beer & music playing & the sun is setting over the National Library on a Monday night.
The first & perhaps the most important thing I want to say is that how amazing & beautiful the dancers are… & I have worked with lots of amazing & beautiful dancers from all over the world. Here I find a generosity & openness that I have not experienced for quite some time. I am surprised at how the dancers have responded so quickly & articulately to the movement sequences & directions I have given them. Stylistically there is a move away from my “habitual”, “idiosyncratic” movement language – which is a linier / angular / yet a “round – flowing” one, to a very organic / grounded / smooth round flowing one …
I often ponder about the time as to when the choreographer hands over the work to the dancers… How does the choreographer maintain his/her signature / thumb print on a work? Is it necessary? Who does the work belong to? Do I want to see 6 John Utans’s dancing on stage? Or do I want to see Liu Xiao, Chen Chen, Ya Bin, Sheng Feng, Wei Feng & Yuan Jia?
I think I want to see Liu Xiao, Chen Chen, Ya Bin, Sheng Feng, Wei Feng & Yuan Jia… far more interesting & beautiful then looking at JU…
I might order some ice & open another beer…
Now, back in London, I have had some time to think about the experience of being in Beijing, working with Shobana and the dancers in the studio. What was my position in the project? As Paul Rae suggested to me in one of our inspiring conversations, I could say I was a kind of translator or mediator: I was trying to express with my body what Shobana wanted to get from the dancers, the quality of movements, the precision, the intentions…
Of course, the main problem was the language barrier. The translator was with us from the very beginning (not easy to get used to the time delay when passing across the information). But as we had simultaneous actions happening in rehearsals (as is usual with Shobana), by the begining of the second week I felt I had managed to communicate with the dancers using a kind of esperanto vocabulary. This consisted of very basic English words (verbs and directions mostly), some Chinese expresions (like numbers, “one more time”, bits…) and finally, and most usefully, sounds. I managed to develop an incredible repertoire of sounds to express movement dynamics. This was new for me. It’s true that I always tend to let the breath tell me what to do while dancing, but that’s very different from teaching movement dynamics through sounds. It actually worked very well and, like the system, we all (the dancers and myself) felt we were communicating in order to achieve what Shobana wanted. They also gained a certain understanding of the intentions behind the movements, and how to apply them while dancing the full piece.
I imagine this project (dealing with Shobana’s movement) has been a difficult task for the dancers, as they found themselves having to work very differently from their previous experiences. After my time with Danscross, I feel the universality of dance is not quite as obvious as we might think (I need to keep thinking about this…) But I’m glad to know that during the process we crossed that difficult edge and, after lots of hard work, I managed to establish a common land where sounds (and a full range of nuances between them) became a point of contact between two dance worlds.
Hope the new team have a good time there and enjoy the process. Best regards from London.
Where else on earth can one sit, have a delicious Chinese lunch, an iced-coffee complete with a mountain of whipped cream, write on the ResCen blog & have a cigarette ???
My last day of my first week – I return to Hong Kong this evening. It will be good to have a distance of time & space & to return to the whipped cream mountain of material that the dancers & I have made at the end of the month. I can see changes & additions & cutting away already. I mentioned to the dancers that I will send directions via email & that the piece may change entirely from what it is today to the day I return, & then again…
We are going to have a showing this afternoon, sharing week one with the dancers & choreographer from the other group. We have made a lot of material, all open to possibilities, that ran for about half an hour at the last run !!!! Don’t panic as the phrases, duets etc will overlay each other, fall apart, go faster & slower… We have decided to do an “extended mix” this afternoon and see what happens… The performance work will be structured & decided upon… this afternoon’s impro play is part of the process and will also be part of the performance. In a way we are rehearsing the “uncertainties” of the work itself – which is also something that shouldn’t be rehearsed, planned, structured… Confused? (Sorry – I think I have started in the middle of the story.)
The dancers are working on a title for the work… I’m intrigued to see what they come up with. & I love the idea of finding a Chinese word & translating it into English.
I hope to add some images & video here when I get back home…
I would love to hear from people who have been in the studio with the dancers & I – & particularly if anyone sees the run this afternoon… words, images, impressions & thoughts of actions…
Again, I must say, the dancers are beautiful & I could watch them for hours…
Shobana and Zhang Yunfeng have
completed rehearsals and have left
the studio, Zhao Ming and John then
enter the studio and start new
rehearsals with the dancers. Paul,
Janet, Mu Yu and Zhang Ping have
completed the observing and
thinking, and left the studio; Anita,
Liu Chun, Jin Hao then enter the
studio and begin to look into the
rehearsal process. It is like a
kind of interesting relay race.
The difference is that people are
handing on the passion of creation
and the sparkle of new thoughts instead of a
baton. There is no result called win or
lose, everyone will meet at the end
point and share the experience of
After the first phase and half of
the second, the choreographers,
scholars and dancers are already
gathering some unique experiences.
During this period, I was coming in
and out of studios accumulating a random sample
of feelings and impressions.
However, one consistent aspect was the deep feeling of the
meaning of “crossing boundaries” that initiated
DANSCROSS. There are at least three
main aspects: creative process
(practice) and academic studies
(theory); different professional/aesthetic
areas of choreography, research,
performance and design; different
cultural backgrounds and perspectives.
All this is being woven into and through these days
So, see you at the end point.
Things contextual and cultural
Where to start from … and I have tried to start three times and changed my mind each time! I finally decide to start with a question about the context in which John (Utans) and I find ourselves in this project. We both work at the HKAPA (Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts), and thus work in what is very much a Chinese environment – but one which has a fascinating inter-cultural mix (and ‘inter-cultural’ used here in a broad sense). The APA is – a BFO!* – in HK which is part of China; at the same time, however, it stands (politically) apart from China. But the APA also has a strong western influence that comes through in various ways: leadership at the top, for instance, is (and has been for most of its 25 years) in the hands of non-Chinese; certainly that applies to Deans of Schools – currently 3 of the 5 are from the west, and one of the other two has strong connections with the UK. This inevitably affects/influences what is done and how it’s is done. In the School of Dance more specifically, each of its five Deans (starting with Carl Wolz) has been/is from the west – initially from the USA, and more latterly from Australia (although I bring some UK experience to the job). Many of the teaching staff, however, are Chinese, either local Hong Kongers, or from Mainland China, with one from Taiwan: we are roughly 50:50 in respect of east/west mix. By contrast our student population stands at 97% Chinese – this includes those from Hong Kong (the vast majority: we have only about 26 students who are non-local (including one from the Ukraine!), the number capped by the government at 20% of the Academy’s total undergraduate population of 750), from Mainland China, from Malaysia and from Singapore. So working intensively with young Chinese dance artists in a creative, artistic environment is nothing new for either of us. That said however, there are distinct differences between students from the Mainland and those from Hong Kong, differences that are due largely to the education and social conditions that prevail/have prevailed in each.
The School also has a mixed dance culture in that we have students majoring in Ballet, in Chinese Dance, or in Contemporary Dance. At the same time, we have gone a long way to break down the walls between the three streams, to the point where Ballet students have Contemporary Dance technique classes and vice-versa, and Chinese Dance students are able to choose either Ballet or Contemporary Dance. Importantly each semester we have what we call a ‘cross-stream’ work for performance – a work (contemporary) where the dancers are from all three streams. (John has choreographed three of these.) So: intercultural in more ways than one!
Given the context, I am constantly aware of being an ‘outsider’, and so constantly aware of cultural differences, and being sensitive to these differences (although I don’t always succeed!). Some of this awareness is possibly heightened by my own background as an immigrant child – the one with a funny name, who had dark rye bread sandwiches for lunch, and whose parents would insist on talking to her in a funny language! (This at a time in Australia when immigrants, no matter where they were from, where labelled ‘wogs’.)
* BFO stands for Blinding Flash of the Obvious – a term used by one of the lecturers at the Management Development Programme I attended at Harvard; and a term that has stayed with me. Its meaning is self-evident (or – in the context of the below – is it??)
Musings on language
It’s often been said that dance needs no words – it’s a universal language that crosses all [cultural] boundaries. I have never been convinced! Language of the more specific kind certainly matters when you are choreographing – to get your ideas across, to go into the detail, of explaining the inspiration/deeper meaningfuls behind what you’re doing. Some things remain difficult to articulate in your own language, let alone in someone else’s!
If I had any reservations, then they have been put to rest by the experience of this past week. Language, and the detail of the communication, is quite crucial. Let me just illustrate with a couple of examples of things that have happened ….
Take for instance, translation ….
John has/we have an excellent translator in – firstly – Emily Wilcox. She is an American doctoral candidate who has spent considerable time in China over the past 6 or so years, some of that time spent in intensive learning of the language (and so the culture as a whole: no way can you access the culture other than superficially without being able to use the language to communicate with people – and to communicate on more than a superficial level). So Emily is fluent in Chinese, and the same time has a good understanding/sense of movement/ dance (including observation): she’s able to give fluent instruction/ explanation …… But at times she also appears to expand on what John is saying – I say ‘appears’ as I don’t have any understanding of Chinese (beyond ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and the odd other word or two!), so have no real clue, other than the observation that she speaks for a good more time that John (a man of relatively few words). There are also times when she and the dancers engage in discussion that is [obviously] outside what John has said; and times when John gives some instruction to a dancer – who then asks questions/ for clarification – which are answered without reference to John. This may be simply connecting to what he’s said before – or it may not be. His humour, too, is possibly not translatable – at times a bit edgy, with a bit of a bite to it (and, some might say, very Australian!).
Our second translator – Annie – is Chinese/local, doing a masters at UCLA Riverside (if I remember correctly): while her English is good, she is not a native speaker, and in this particular context, appears not to be totally at ease with her role.
The dancers have a range of English capability – if they have more, they are reluctant to use/show it, although there is some evidence of one or two being able to do a little more as time goes on. Y however has a reasonable facility, and at times acts as translator. She is quick to ‘cotton on’ to what John wants, and this leads me to ponder …….the need for a dancer to be able to access the more subtle aesthetic and creative nuances that are part and parcel of a choreographer’s ‘tools of the trade’ (and thus an integral part of the creative process?). Choreographers work through the body/its movement (another BFO!), but they also rely heavily on imagery, on putting the practice/process into a context, on drawing on aesthetic principles – all of which have language implications. John also throws in the odd phrase in Cantonese – but this tends to confuse rather than help things (mainly because it’s so different from Mandarin/ Putongua). He also makes various ‘throw-away’ lines/ comments that are probably not translatable – even were they understood! (So for instance: “… trying something altogether different – because it’s Saturday”.)
So, then, the question of what gets lost in translation – and more to the point perhaps, what is comprehended in the first place.
The problem of language is less overt (in respect of the creative process) in the other group where the choreographer – Liu Ning, who is assistant to designated choreographer Zhang Ming – and dancers both speak the same language. But of course, I have little access to what is going on there because I rely on translation – and some of the time there is no-one to translate as Annie is often translating for John while Emily is attending class. So what I glean about the process comes from my observations – so even more subjective than normal, and inevitably superficial. I confess that at times it can be difficult to stay fully engaged as a result – even though there are always things of interest to pick up on.
One of my great frustrations – and one I’m sure shared by other expatriates – is the lack of Chinese, and thus the limitation on getting into deep discussion about whatever with the majority of my Beijing colleagues – and the dancers. This inevitably means that I remain the ‘outsider’, with all that that entails (the intention to learn more Putongua being one!)
In some ways it reflected some of what was happening in the studio: my train of thought could not be as fluent as it would were the presentation not translated … I had to be conscious of simplifying my words – although I did not want to simplify them too much: so needed to strike the right balance. Essentially it was a process of negotiating my way through, rather than being able to freely present (simply an observation and not a criticism!).
There were then questions from the floor: for most part they were translated … and so were my answers … However I think this went reasonably well – the questions were not so particularly choreologically oriented, so were perhaps less ‘problematic’ in respect translation. But again it brought home to me some of the issues inherent in language and translation, and in words – their use and their meaning.
Phrases and such (John’s)
Try not to use the mirror
[… the task] becomes more complicated …. but more fun ….
A little bit like a conversation ….
…. but all this could change …
In a way you shouldn’t listen to the beat …. I don’t like it when it becomes very on the beat ….
Looking really Chinese ….
OK la …beautiful ….
For the moment
So – I enter a liminal space that begins at the airport, when everything I am doing ceases to be and everything I am about to do has not begun. The moment of traveling. The moment of being in between places that is simultaneously a moment of here and now. There is nowhere else to be although I am in no place.
I am upgraded to business class – yea! Upgraded liminality – sublime!
Jet lag, reeling, floating. Take a map from the hotel foyer, begin wandering. For a while, maybe an hour, I relish being lost, in the moment, not knowing where I am going, not knowing where I want to go. Concrete blocks of buildings, functional, living and business spaces. Down town, highways, cross at your peril, even though there is a ‘green man’ traffic comes from all directions. Better to cross by the footbridges. No, I want to cross the road. I will mingle with this Chinese family and weave with them, they seem quite confident to meander through the multiple flows of traffic. Watermelons and peaches sold off the back of a donkey and cart, bicycles on
Small restaurant, I sit outside, under the trees, hot grey sultry evening. Rice, veg and some kind of steamed meat — pork? Chop sticks practice. I think about tomorrow. Dialogue with Kerry, she is here with her son. Go with the flow and a pretty fast flow it is. Perhaps approach the writing from four initial angles: Kerry’s communication with dancers and translator; description of developing process; description of what I see and the questions that emerge. Lets see what happens tomorrow.
I come prepared, with Proust, Cixous, Goat Islands’ Small Acts of Repair and a Thesaurus.
A diamond in the heart.
Summary: a rich, full and fast day. Kerry introduces her movement language, through class exercises, taught phrases and task based methodologies. The movement language and style of working is challenging and new for the dancers. The day was positive and energised, with the different qualities of the dancers becoming evident. I am including the notes of the first day (below) as they begin to indicate the source of a depth of knowledge, history and cultural difference that is within the movement and the transference/translation of movement between bodies. The notes include fragments of Kerry’s spoken words (in italics), descriptions of what happened, descriptions of process, issues of translation and some emerging questions.
Beginning in the studio
An atmosphere of curiosity, with introductions, people meeting in small groups in studio 702 — one of many identical dance studios in the building. This is a large square space, with a wall of mirrors, no different to any other dance studio the world over. We do not really notice the site, it is familiar, neutral within the context of dance training..
Kerry is excited, energized, going fast. She talks with Mandi, the interpreter, discussing how they might work together.
I can go fast, if you don’t understand, please stop me.
A group of 6 dancers, sit together on the floor, stretching legs and backs.
Eyes are eager, waiting, looking at Kerry. Kerry introduces herself and identifies each dancer by name.
Lets make a start.
The dancers immediately stand up, spread out facing the mirrors, with equal space between each body – the universally understood protocol for the beginning of a contemporary dance class.
Kerry demonstrates and talks simultaneously.
Stretch up, arms overhead, curve down, hang down, weight of the head pulls you to floor. Just hang there. Take big breath in, exhale, push back onto heels. Breathe, slowly rolling up the length of spine working.
A familiar beginning to a Limon based class. Kerry works for Wayne McGregor at Random Dance Company. She is here in Beijing as choreographer and in her role as
Falling to the side, arm comes up above head, hand flat, arm stretches in front of body, back arches away from arm… Bring arms come up like an eagle.
Plie, slow, four to stretch, using arms to help us up.
As Kerry demonstrates the dancers pick up the exercise through seeing and copying, a learning from outside to in, not through the words that are spoken. Kerry turns to ask Mandi to interpret ‘eagle’. The difference is immediate, the dancers fully embody that particular movement on hearing the word, the metaphor.
Mandi and Kerry now find a way to work together. Mandi stays right inside the action and translates as Kerry speaks.
What is ‘suspension’ in Chinese? We need the feeling of suspension a lot in this work.
This is discussed, and again there is an ‘aha’ moment, as the shared term brings deeper understanding.
Here is my hug, here my arms are really expansive, here is my fall, throw this arm over the top and my spine reaches over. My body is trying to stay leaning forward, like superman, I land onto my left, right, low on the floor – lovely. In my parallel, push this leg, cut underneath, then just walk 7,8. Mandi do you know ‘rebound’ in Chinese? No OK – so don’t lose momentum. Suspend, suspend, same thing here, then fall. Good lovely.
I watch a dancer as his leg goes up effortlessly high to the side. He hardly notices his own hyper extended leg. High legs are currency amongst these dancers, a necessity for a successful career. Yet, there seems to be little awareness of the extension. Perhaps because these dances were trained so young to achieve this extension, through a regime of stretching, that it is difficult now for the dancers to consciously own their extensions. I wonder if that they have dissociated from the pain, therefore dissociated from conscious placing and effort. The same leg finds it hard to take a normal step forward. Two contradictory qualities are at play, the hyper articulated and the pedestrian.
… 5,6,7,8, ear, ear, arm behind, don’t forget low, high, I am in curve, arch curve, like a tiger, my arms come with m… I should still be here on releve, step back on 4… my arms take me, in the air on 5, we run we run back, right leg, left, right, close. Suspend and fall, Attitude retire, my arms go swimming, my arms push the space away, step, bring foot to ankle… then we do left side.
I see you do arms and legs and not the spine. I am interested in what the back is doing –
The short but strenuous class allows dancers to meet Kerry, the atmosphere is eased through the familiar universal structure.
Kerry notices how the dancers are exhausted. Then remembers that this is new material for them, new ways of moving, new uses of the body – of course they are exhausted.
Kerry talks to the dancers about the work. We sit in a small circle on the floor.
For me, the work has got to have attack.
For two weeks, you may get tired, because the energy is like this (punches her fists in the air), but you are fantastic dancers and I want to show you off…
You have to meet me and be alert when we come in the studio.
For me ugly is good. I don’t want you to look in the mirror and making a pretty shape, it is more a sensation, more about the feeling than what it looks like. A lot of my language is distorted, and so quite extreme. Your bodies are trained, and I want to see how far we can take them. You may get sore in the lower back. So stretch when you can. I will sometimes give material, a lot of the time I give tasks for you to find the answers. This is interesting for me as well, as a choreographer, you can push me in another direction as well. So I feel it is a sharing of ideas rather than me leading. We are a company, I am in the company and I am learning from you as well. When I set a task and you are solving it, how you solve it is important to me, the process of how you get to the answer is sometimes more interesting than the answer. Remember! Till I say, this one is in the bin, remember everything. Wayne always says his dancers are his computer software, so you are my memory. I am going to be pushing your brains as well as your bodies. This will feel weird, but go with it.
Kerry teaches the dancers her 1st phrase.
She takes a deep lunge to the side, elbow jutting forward, arm at right angles. She circles her elbow outwards. Her chest moves against the circle, arching back, avoiding the arm. Now she has got two elbows jutting forward, circling without dropping…
You are a little bit polite and small, make it big, scary, I want it scary.
Her elbows break again like wings behind her back, she suspends, throws her arms forward, falls, her body curves over, her arms come down fast, then head, sharp sharp. Broken birds. She shunts, hips through, body pulled back distorted, all weight on the back foot.
Do you have a lighthouse in China, by the sea with a light shining all the way round? Mandi looks puzzled. Probably not. So this movement is broken at the hip, back straight, eyes looking, focus all round as you turn.
She transfers two phrases onto the dancers bodies, called part 1 & part 2.
I observe the process of learning, picking up the material, connecting mind and body, watching as the dancers try to keep their weight low,
Kerry’s words as are often metaphorical in describing the movement. What is being translated is not what she does but what she says. The dancers pick up the shape of the movement from watching. The quality of the movement they learn from the translations of the language, from one metaphor to another.
The dancers do not know what Kerry is saying while she is moving, so she is being observed from 6 different perspectives. Kerry might be speaking about what her arm is doing, but the rest of her body is also moving. So the dancers, who do not understand what she is saying, might be focusing on something else that catches their eye.
Does dance transfer solely through the body?
Do words allow a deeper understanding in the body?
Is copying movement enough?
Movements are unpredictable, always catching a surprise, playing with dynamics, texture, speed, drop, turn, curve, circle, jump, arc, smooth, low, effort, hard, soft, sticky, silky, long, dragged, punctuated, staccato, one gesture at a time, with very fast changes. This is contemporary dance post Forsythe – fragmented, non hierarchical, continuous, multiple directions, movement that defies conventions of beauty, yet creates the beauty of distortion in its place.
Lets do: 1st group part one, part two, go away, 2nd group: part one, part two, go away, 1st group, part one, part two, go away, 2nd group, part one part two – lunch!
The work is in the task of learning and translating the surface of movement into a deeper place in the body. The work is in about becoming familiar or comfortable with the material. With so much extreme effort, I notice chaos, and I feel empty of centre, like a shell. The idea is to move so fast that the body is intuitively caught up in the movement, not perfecting or understanding at this stage. At this stage Kerry wants to jump their bodies out of complacency, out of smooth
Kerry introduces a
Today’s task evolved from Laban’s shape and effort, to Forsythe, to Wayne McGregor to Kerry Nicholls.
For now, lets call it ‘The point solo’.
Kerry instructs the dancers:
The dancers create solo phrases.
This requires concentration, detail, and precision, thinking into movement. Focus goes to the different body parts in juxtaposition with each other. When awareness is with one body articulation, intelligence is moving in other directions. No part of the body is sleeping. This requires direct attention and precise memory to a multiplicity of directions.
Next task –
Make duets with your solos, you are in the same cube together. Stay really close. Work through the material without crashing. I want it look like a conversation. Be aware of what the other person is doing, give attention to each other, and weave with each other without losing individual precision.
The dancers are tending to look in the mirror rather than relate to each other. They tend to make it look ‘right’ as a duet, rather than going for the discomfort and strangeness. There is a desire for confluence rather than conflict.
Keep going, the task is never done.
5 interventions are inserted into the duet.
Try to be investigative, keep going back to work it again.
I don’t want to see anyone sitting down; I want you up and in full energy all the time. You need to be up and creating without stop for 10 minutes, in a place of presence.
Kerry works closely on one duet, she looks at the material, pausing the dancers when she wishes to intervene. Adding, editing, creating the conversation, changing the timing, playing with dynamic, altering speed, looking for moments of contact, moments of risk, points of stillness, sharp stops, looking for changes in height, weight, sharpening, making rhythm, sorting eye focus, looking where and when, filling moments of dullness. She is directing and crafting the material. The dancers giggle, the energy high, there are accidental bumps and punches of knees and elbows. Kerry is inside their material as they dance, detailing exactness.
What are you looking for Kerry?
Looking for things that attract me, the extreme of physicality.
By bringing in a detail of my style, I can see how to get in and out of that moment. The detail tells me if I need the movement that follows. If it is too organic, I give them something to change that direction, diverts the pathway.
We have a debriefing process at the end of the day.
How do you feel?
Many things are new.
What is new?
The style and energy.
This is a good new style for everybody.
After two weeks with me it will feel like home.
We discover that the dancers have known each other for 10 years at the Academy.
Three dancers worked with Shobana. One worked with John Utans.
Three trained in Chinese classical dance, three in Chinese folk dance. None have had ballet as a first training.
What is the main difference between Chinese dance and this work?
Chinese dance is soft and circular. There are not the angular, sharp straight lines of this work. Chinese dance is like a ball of energy in the heart.
While this work is more like a jagged diamond in the heart.
Video clip: day 1 Wey fong & Wang lei