A visit to two groups this evening – Su Weichia’s and Guo Lei’s – and it’s the first time I’ve come away thinking about dancers being singled out. Both these groups feature one UK dancer within a group of Chinese dancers. Of course, that’s not the only way of looking at the groups – and I’m conscious of my Londonist perspective coming into play, however epistemically reflexive I try to be about it – but it seems to me that the singling out isn’t solely a matter of seeing one white caucasian performing in an otherwise Chinese group (though it is that too). There’s more going on.
Su Weichia is working on a group section. His five female dancers travel slowly along a diagonal, keeping close but not touching, their arms and hands curling and unfurling, heads swivelling up and down and round, feet slipping mollusc-like against the floor, limbs wafting and joints rotating as if frictionless, well-oiled. It’s like watching some kind of composite sea-creature inch its way over coral, limb-like fronds filtering the water around it.
But the UK dancer looks just a little out of place. She doesn’t quite belong. It’s not to do with skin colour, or hair colour, or build, or any of those brute factors of physical appearance. It’s a quality of action. All the other dancers – including Su Weichia, when he demonstrates – have a similar quality of flow, of articulation, that reminds me strongly of the Cloud Gate dancers, with their exceptional poise, controlled flow and sense of interiority. Like learning a language, or even changing your accent, these are not things you can acquire within a fortnight. So I feel a little bad for our singled-out dancer. We all know what it’s like to feel out of place, when everyone else seems to fit in and we don’t, quite, no matter how we may try, or try to understand.
Then there’s Guo Lei’s rehearsal. It’s far more stylised, with masks and counts, head wobbles, hand gestures that accent the beat. I can’t tell how far it follows tradition, or even which tradition it might follow – but it’s certainly much more overtly “traditional” and “Chinese”. And here, behind a green mask, is a single UK dancer. Am I imagining her being singled out? The Chinese dancers clearly have a variety of training and are by no means a uniform group. Perhaps I’m being clued in by the language: the rehearsal is conducted in Chinese, so any interpretation into English inevitably draws attention to one dancer. But I think it’s more than that. I think this dancer looks singled out, a little out of place, because she looks good. She has a strong stage presence, a certain physical gravitas as a performer. Standing out, after all, means you are distinctive. What performer has the ambition just to fit in? Being out of place is way of being exceptional.
I don’t know what Mr Guo thinks about her, but I imagine (and this is me imagining, of course, though I’m not sure in what other context I would feel the need to labour this point) a degree of ambivalence. Of course, the inflections of the style may be more foreign to her than to the others, so he may need to focus on her, to attend to her more just for that reason. But just look where he has placed her: at the front of the group, centre stage, in the middle of a line-up. Naturally, that draws our eyes to her. If this dancer looks a little out of place, she belongs there. It’s part of her strength.