After a glorious and sunlit Borisbike ride to Colombia Road along the Regents Canal this morning, the ArtsCross academic team reconvened back at The Place for the latest seminar in our series. The depth and breadth of discussion has been quite staggering over the last few days, and I salute not only my colleague’s intellectual willingness to engage with difficult or unfamiliar ideas and modes of thought, but also the patient way in which all involved have paused, waited and translated. We are supported in this not only by the linguistic gifts of those members of the team who speak both Mandarin and English, but also by the patient input of Chia Chi who has so ably made out thoughts apparent in one language or another.

In framing today’s session on Crossing Languages, Chen Ya-ping asked whether we might conceive of dance as a means of unravelling and/or re-entangling national identities as we face a world in which they appear paradoxically both less and more important than previously. This led to some very interesting discussion about efforts in the second half of the 20th Century in both the PRC and Taiwan to recover, rediscover or re-establish an ‘authentic’ style, training and choreography of Chinese dance. We’ve been over some of this before, but what was particularly revealing about this discussion was the extent to which it both revealed the very different ways in which source materials have been a) sourced and b) interpreted by some of the principle players in re-establishing classical Chinese dance within China and in Taiwan, and the significance of staging to the subsequent state and status of the artform/s. As Alex Kolb pointed out, folk and courtly dances often take place without the need for an audience — they face partners, other participants, or ritual focii such as idols or deities. Staging them relative to the perspective and sensibilities of an audience, alters their choreographic structure, duration and direction and the sense of whom the performance is for. Does this also open up the possibility that one’s self-identity also shifts to encompass an awareness of the aesthetic judgement of others?

Without a comprehensive (and frankly unlikely) survey, that’s a question that may best pass unanswered. However, I found Ya-ping‘s suggestion of identity as something that can unravel a really useful one. Where many accounts of identity might privilege the tightly wound, self-containing version, what if (continuing the metaphor) the spool of identity unravels? Identity doesn’t disappear under the terms of this metaphor, but becomes available to re-wind or re-wrap around other things, crossing and re-crossing not only itself, but other bodies, spaces, histories and feelings.

This put me in mind of Su Weichia’s rehearsal. All of the five women in his piece are technically excellent, skilled performers. Su’s choreography has not disappeared or removed that technique — surely an important aspect of each of their identities — but it has invited them to unravel themselves from it, and reach beyond it. And reach they do, bending and stretching oppositionally at their limits, in a slow, but almost constant eddying flow, that has the strength and depth of tidal water if not its mass and volume.


It must also have been an astonishingly difficult process of rehearsal. Somewhat mirroring the fashion in which they twist, stretch and recoil across the stage, over the last two weeks they have repeated this strange, slow extremity of movement over and over again. I don’t think it at all metaphorical to suggest that this has also been a drawn out process of unraveling their identities, inasmuch as that refers to the habits and dispositions we consciously and unconsciously deploy in communicating and interacting with others. Unraveled, drawn out into long, sinuous threads we now see them wrap around and over one another with the delicacy, accuracy and poise that only skilled technique can bring, but also being flung past its habits and dispositions to spool around others, elsewhere.

Unravelling and rewinding identies

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