Embodied translation: Artscross 5th Anniversary Performance, Beijing Dance Academy October 2014

Rebecca Loukes, University of Exeter
First posted: November 2015

I’ve been in Beijing for just under a week, observing the final rehearsals and performance of nine pieces selected from the past five years of ArtsCross. The programme for the show on 23 October consisted of works by chorographers from Beijing, Taipei and London. The pieces were reworked in various ways and included some of the original dancers and some new performers.

As a spectator and academic participant in ArtsCross since 2011, it was very moving to watch not only the culminations of these particular nine creative processes but to feel the weight of other collaborations behind them (other choreographers, dancers and academics involved in the project during the past five years).

While watching the dress rehearsals last Wednesday, I was struck particularly by the ghosts of the dancers from the earlier versions of the pieces – they seemed extremely present in their absence. I’ve been musing on the way that the original works have been translated to these new bodies and then translated again into ‘new’ works for the audience.

The new combinations of performers and choreographers created exciting differences and in some cases completely new material. Zhao Liang’s Infinite Connections, where an ensemble of dancers show a journey through life through winding and unwinding themselves along and between a giant piece of elastic, had to go beyond a simple recreation of the original work because the dancers (a combination of the original cast and new performers) needed to solve the concrete problem of how to negotiate the elastic as a group.

Taipei based choreographer Su Wei-Chia used his Free Steps, first performed in London in 2012, as a choreographic structure that provided a framework for improvisation for the dancers. Since 2012, he has used the structure for a number of different performances in Taiwan and beyond.

Guo Lei has also developed his Mask piece, since its premiere in London in 2012. The version performed at Beijing Dance Academy last week is part of a larger project to re-work it for a cast of up to 100 dancers.

Both London based choreographers Jonathan Lunn and Rachel Lopez de la Nieta created new material with their new groups of performers for Beijing Man and Beijing Bucket Blues, developing their devised approaches and giving dancers specific improvisational tasks which were then worked and fixed to become the final performance scores.

So, despite a shorter rehearsal period than for the original performances, each of the choreographers has taken into account the passing of time and the change of the make-up of their groups of dancers. While thinking about the way this ’embodied translation’ of ideas, structures and practices has taken place I’ve also been delving into Martha Cheung’s remarkable work An Anthology of Chinese Discourse on Translation: Volume One (2004, Manchester: St Jerome Publishing). The book explores Chinese theories of translation from the earliest times to the twentieth century and provides a rich source of information for a novice like myself. The following excerpt is taken from a biography of Yi Jung, a monk from the Song Dynasty: ‘To translate means to exchange; that is to say, to exchange what one has for what one does not have. Because there is a change in the soil, a tangerine becomes an orange’ (p. 174). Cheung reflects on this, going on to say:

…’Change’ is an integral part of the process of ‘exchange’… One does not simply take one object and use it in exchange for another object. A more complicated process is involved. One takes what one has… and uses it in such a way as to enable something … to germinate, grow, bear fruit and ‘become’ something else, something that is different yet still bears important and essential similarities to its source. (p. 175)

The processes of ‘change’ that have taken place during the five years of ArtsCross have occurred in multifarious ways that participants are still reflecting upon, and will continue to do so as thoughts turn to how the project might be developed in the future. This was re-iterated to me as I conducted mini interviews with some dancers and choreographers in Beijing this past week.

Beijing dancer, Zhao Zhibo has been involved in Arts Cross since 2009 and feels that it has fundamentally changed the ways she has understood her practice. She relished the opportunity to improvise with London and Taipei based choreographers and has begun to develop her own teaching at the Beijing Dance Academy integrating improvisational techniques. Likewise, dancer Azurra Ardovini from London has also re-considered her own work during her past 2 years involvement in the project. She reflected that some of the qualities of the Beijing dancers’ approaches have influenced the ways she moves and thinks about her movement.

The project has facilitated many processes of ‘change’ on a range of scales and as has been re-iterated these past few days in Beijing, what is crucial is giving these processes time. ArtsCross has carefully facilitated transnational relationships that have deepened over the five years since the beginning of the project but in some ways feel like they are just beginning. As we reflect and consider how this work can continue, I am reminded, as Martha Cheung emphasized above, how by holding up our own ‘knowledge’ to something ‘new’, as this project has done again and again, we are able to look at what we do differently. Or in the words of T.S Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Programme & Photos