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First Taste (belated)

Knowing I was about to be a fly on the wall again during the making of nine new dances as a culmination of the London-based edition of the international creative residency ArtsCross 2013, a dear friend sent me a youtube clip. It’s a mock-Chinese ditty sung by what looks like an animated badger. I don’t find it offensive, just engagingly silly. What’s peculiarly endearing about it is the lack of translation. Apparently the song contains no words that are meant to be understood anyway – they’re all nonsense. It’s the spirit of it – and the sound of the rhythmic vocal delivered by an animal in a suit – that amused and charmed me.

But enough with the oblique at best preamble. I arrived on Monday, July 22 at The Place in time for a photocall. Most of the choreographers, dancers, translators and other behind-the-scenes personages involved in ArtsCross this year were captured by camera (several, in fact) while standing on a stairway (bound, no doubt, for possible artistic paradise to paraphrase George Gershwin). I spotted dancer-choreographer Darren Ellis, drafted in just the night before to lead the morning warm-up class. What’s the vibe been like, I asked? ‘Crazy, energetic, exciting and excited,’ he says, adding as an afterthought the word ‘intriguing.’ I grabbed a few minutes with the ever-genial Chris Bannerman who, speaking about the translation team, says, ‘They [the choreographers and dancers] don’t need that much, it’s such a physical thing.’ Still, as he acknowledged, it’s handy to have someone officially bilingual in each studio for every session and ethical as well. Plus there’s meant to be some collecting of dance words in various languages – an aid, perhaps, to help answer the question, Does meaning bend?

I try to get a grasp of who’s who, and from where, but I recognise it’s going to be an ongoing and necessarily incomplete process (and one interrupted by my attending the Edinburgh Festival from August 1st although I return for the ArtsCross performance on the 10th). In the Founders Studio at the front of the building Guo Lei (whom I am reliably informed is vice-president at Beijing Dance Academy, or BDA) is putting a handful of dancers through their paces. They face both him and the studio mirror in front of which he’s planted – I enjoy the mirror-imaging. The grouping of bodies is marked by the making of big mimetic circles with the torso and then, suddenly, arms jutting out like branches or antlers. Among the Asian movers is a tall young man (Huang, Yu-Teng) with a hard-to-overlook mop of hair the colour of a Grannie Smith apple. It’s also a genuine pleasure to BDA dance company member Zhao, Zhibo who, if memory serves, is the only dancer to have been involved in every single ArtsCross to date.

In the small section of his work that I observe being done again and again, Guo Lei seems to be placing his cast into rhythms based on some specific idea of dynamic tension and release. They’re like a mechanical plant that keeps opening and closing, rotating and then sprouting spiky bits. I’d love to be able to ask for just one sentence that might convey the essence of what he’s seeking in the piece, and to define what this smoothly-functioning unit of bodies represents for him. (And to explain how what he is doing relates to the collective theme of leaving home: being elsewhere.) Instead I unobtrusively clock body language, tone of voice and the like. And, for instance, how willowy the two Chinese women are beside Katie Cambridge, a sturdy Westerner trained to move in a different way and with a different genetic makeup that determines so much about who a dancer is and what he or she can do.

Dashing to the other side of The Place, I pop into studio 9 where Su, Wei-Chia is having his all-female cast feel the space. The white opaque shades on the windows are down and the mood is warm yet cool – like a hothouse out-of-hours. They rotate shoulders, sometimes big and then small. ‘Details are clear,’ intones the choreographer quietly, like a voice inside their heads. ‘Nothing in between.’ There is a spiralling of arms that are also occasionally U or C-shaped, and a corresponding light flicking of feet. The dancers – four Asian, one Western — are self-absorbed but steal occasional glances at one another. They’re working their upper limbs, and shifting their feet, and changing direction – like a small grove of loosely-aligned human trees. Rootless trees that think.

It’s subtle, intuitive stuff. All of these tasks are short explorations. I think they are a way for Su, Wei-Chia to lead his dancers into concentrating on parts of themselves – their bodies, that is – that they don’t normally acknowledge or are made as aware of. ‘Sometimes we start in a hard position but it’s perfect to create a new movement,’ he says to them in that same soft yet authoritative voice. He has each dancer begin to pull and tug on various body parts or points via invisible strings. The sort of self-puppeteering through which they are being gently guided, with its small twists and contained contortions, is fascinating to observe – improvisation with rules or strictures in place.

‘Are you happy, shy?’ Su, We-Chia asks of them, adding, ‘Use your body but be aware of the relationship with each other if you can.’ Only now, writing this a week later, do I register the low-key rumbling of whatever music/sound he had playing underneath these exercises. And now, in the memory of my mind’s eye, they’re floating across the room like self-transported seaweed. Their dancing is internalised yet always conscious on some level of its surroundings. ‘Be aware of your relationship with each other,’ says the translator. ‘Concentrate by yourself at the same time,’ chimes in Su, Wei-Chia. ‘Sometimes look forward and very far.’ Inside, outside; body, environment. They ooze and undulate like a sensual, rapt cross between plants and living statuary. It’s all part, I imagine, of a sensitisation to the finding of new organic forms with little or nothing fixed or pre-planned…

Next door in studio 10 – where the open door is less a symbol of welcoming creative policy than due to the simple fact that the room is warmer and potentially muggier than in 9 – Riccardo Buscarini is creating waves with five men. They move in low, thrusting and artfully tangled surges, solidifying briefly into gnarled tableaux before a new tumult overtakes them. ‘Crazy bodies,’ remarks Buscarini. Soon he’s mocking what he refers to as the ‘blah blah’ of his directions to the dancers. They’re strong and wiry and often stretched taut, with limbs gripped at wrists and ankles and partial wraparound lifts. ‘It looks like a dance by Matisse,’ he says, but if so there’s an extra muscular edge to it. Again I notice the difference in bodies: the three Asian men are thinner and bonier than the two more solidly-constructed Westerners. But all five dancers are pliable yet exacting, their linear arms and legs contrasting with curved backs and torsos. They listen and follow Buscarini’s instructions to make the transitions between each group shape ‘really smooth and complete.’ But each one, he cautions, is not an end in itself: ‘You just touch it and transform it something else’ it never finishes.’ They’re riding his wave.

Buscarini’s been making oceanic sounds – or was I imagining it? Conjuring wind and waves, and sea foam. (One source of inspiration for him was, he later reveals, Theodore Gericault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa.) Dynamics are important to him. He speaks to the dancers of ‘water inside the body and wind outside,’ and of their softness and silence on the floor, and how ‘in order to stretch out you need to begin smaller.’ He advises the men not to rush. I was watching them head on, but it’s equally gratifying to view them in motion from the side (as I believe the audience will see them).

After the session is over Buscarini tells me of ‘an epic journey’ and of his concern that ‘maybe it’s not going to come out that way’ by the time his 45 hours or so of studio time is up. But I can sense his pleasure in the quest. We talk about what I suppose could be referred to as the rootless suspension of travel and the sort of homelessness that happens when you live between places. ‘Sometimes I feel more at home on a plane,’ Buscarini confesses. ‘That’s what my piece is about – that sensation of never having a fixed point.’

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