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ArtsCross 2013 performance: a review

A stand-alone piece that’s just been published on londondance.com

ArtsCross London 2013 – Leaving home: being elsewhere. It’s a composite title for a composite evening that began with a much-needed bunch of backstory. For this was no standard performance programme, but rather the visible face of a more many-headed project: part choreographic lab, part academic research forum, part cross-national venture. As project directors Christopher Bannerman (Middlesex University) and Martin Welton (Queen Mary, University of London) explained in their preamble, ArtsCross 2013 is the third year of a three-way collaboration between London, Beijing and Taipei with a double focus: on the one hand, nine choreographers from the three cities have been selected to work over three weeks with mixed groups of dancers, also from the three cities, to create a 10-minute work on the theme “leaving home: being elsewhere”. On the other, a cluster of academics, most but not all also from London, Beijing and Taipei, have gathered to watch, to reflect upon and to exchange ideas about the process in action. Throughout, a coterie of Chinese-English interpreters criss-cross the entire ArtsCross process.

The evening performance at The Place was, then, the almost arbitrary endpoint for the choreographers and performers of the London leg of ArtsCross (the academics had their own endpoint, a conference, on the following day). The multifarious nature of the project, its mixed agendas and its clear emphasis on process rather than product (tickets to the performance were free), all beg the question: how should you watch the performance? There are many ways, but I’m going to adopt a basic reviewer’s stance: what was the evening like, from where I was sat?

Well, it was a long evening of short pieces. Each 10-minute work was introduced by a subtitled video interview with the choreographer speaking about the process and the piece. Most were upbeat and explanatory, but two also raised problems they’d had: Ho Hsiao-Mei, about the difficulties of working with such dancers of such diverse backgrounds; Dam Van Huynh about the awkwardness of having academics sitting in on rehearsals. So it was no surprise to see that their two presentations were among the most embryonic of the evening.

In Ho’s My Dear No. 8, six dancers appear in (rather stylish) overcoats, which they variously doff and don in a mix of solos, duets and ensembles that suggest both external appearances (coat on) and more individuated inner lives (coat off). Particularly arresting are a couple of centaur-ish pairings, one dancer, facing backwards and bent over double, forming the hind legs for another dancer perched on his behind, so that the couples look like skewy pantomime horses. As elsewhere in the piece, the imagery is sharp but the choreography itself is nascent.

Dan Van Huynh’s Gloves also begins with a clothing idea, the five dancers swapping each other’s tops, vests, shorts and leggings so that straight after you see them, you see them change. There follows a rangier section to thrumming electronic music, three dancers roaming restlessly while two others form a kind of human turntable, the man rotating as the woman whirls through the air around him, arms clasped round the axle of his neck. A weird and actually slightly gross duet of armpit sniffery brings the piece to an abrupt end.

As with Gloves, you dip in and out of Vera Tussing’s Moving Relations: Research more than you stay with it. Here, though, you sense strands knitting together beneath the surface, a piece beginning to form even if you can’t see it. Curiously, there’s another clothing idea here, the dancers riffing on a little game based on the colour of people’s tops in the audience. In fact, there’s a lot of riffing and games in this piece – mirroring, following, doing-your-own-thing – and these structures give the disparate results a sense of purpose, if not yet a sense of shape.

The other six pieces in the programme all aimed for a more finished look, with beginnings and endings and arcs in between – the odd one being Su Wei-Chia’sFree Steps, which has a finished look but eschews any arc. It starts as it continues as it ends: five women clustered in a pool of light, frond-like arms wafting through the air, heads and torsos and legs slowly, deliberately turning, folding and twining, feet inching the group on a diagonal while the swell and ebb of ambient sound bathes the stage. It’s a meditative, mind-emptying experience, a welcome chill-out zone in the middle of the many mixed messages that form the rest of the programme.

Of the rest, Tung I-Fen’s Sound of Numbers is perhaps the clearest, if not the most ambitious. As Tung explains in her video intro, she used the idea of numbers as a way of cutting across language barriers. At one point, the dancers all talk at once; from this incomprehensible babble, they begin to recite numbers – and the piece then develops fairly mathematically: movement added to movement to equal phrases; accumulations of dancers to build up groups; divisions and subtractions. A little cold, maybe, but effective.

Two works drew explicitly on Chinese traditions, without actually following them.Guo Lei’s Mask, set to haunting modern music by Chinese-American composerTan Dun, uses a regional folk form called Nuo to construct a dynamic dance-drama of slapping steps, stylised gestures and quivering heads. But its most powerful element are the bright, grotesque masks that invoke a rite of transformation or possession, the human face of the dancers subsumed by the demonic visage of their masks.

Zeng Huanxing’s Walk draws, more gently, on Tai Chi, to create a work in three sections, each a different “walk” of life. In the first, a lone man – accompanied by an extraordinary folk song, a soul-flaying solo voice of astonishing rasp and range –travels along a strict diagonal path, artfully tossing and catching a red ball. It’s as if his path is set, but his spirit is unbound. Four women, cloaked in monastic brown, walk bunched up and hunched over, each bearing a red ball as if it were a burden. Finally another man wanders rootlessly (no ball for him), walking backwards, shuffling against the floor, turning every which way. The final musical jump from Chinese folk music to Schubert’s Ave Maria is certainly incongruous, but the strangeness works as part of the poetics of the piece.

A similar every-which-way male solo opens Riccardo Buscarini’s No Lander, which sets images of searching against images of blindness. The solitary opening seeker is taken up by a group of four men, and together they lean and pitch like the prow of a vessel pushing forwards. Then they go into reverse, blocking and impeding each other’s movements until the group breaks up, leaving its dancers stranded. Two men cover each other’s eyes as they push and tug at each other, like the blind leading the blind. And finally another twists awkwardly around his arm, planted into the floor as if caught in a trap, until he too presses his eyes into his palm, cutting off his own sight before lifting his hand to peer towards some imaginary horizon. It’s a simply constructed work that swells with poetic significance.

Zhao Liang’s Infinite Connections ended the evening. The opening is a little disjointed, with each of the six dancers running forward for a little cameo (a shout, a whimper, a catwalk strut), but the dancers gradually start joining up. Quite literally: they pull out a long elastic strip, which, like a game of cat’s cradle, takes on the exact form of the spaces in between them – first linear and geometric as they move in lines and squares, then into tangling angles as they twist and upend, duck and dive, until at last they form one large circle, letting go of the tie that binds them. Infinite Connections reminded several ArtsCross observers of a many-bodied Laban kinesphere, but it reminded me of something else too. Disparate dancers getting snared up with each other while a bunch of people watch them? That is pretty much a distillation, in dance form, of ArtsCross itself.

This article will also be posted online at my own website, sanjoyroy.net

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