Beijing Dance / LTDX premiered Earth / Quake, a contemporary dance work by well-known traditional Chinese choreographer Yang Wei at the People’s Liberation Army Theater last week to a noticeably mixed and highly enthusiastic crowd of foreigners and locals alike. This is the first time Yang has done a modern dance piece, announced good-humoured Artistic Director Willy Tsao before the show, ‘so even if you do not like it, you can appreciate the effort that she put into this trial’. The Beijing Dance / LDTX dancers could not have disappointed their audience had they tried.
Watching a piece by an Army choreographer is a pretty special experience. For Yang’s very first venture into the world of contemporary dance, she created a piece that explores the depths of imagination and fantasy. Countless metal chairs and a white bathtub hung from the ceiling above the dancers – the literal suspension of day-to-day reality. Jemmy Zhang’s costumes pushed the bounds of contemporary dance costuming with oversized formal wear hanging off the dancers in swathes at odd angles – Tang Ting Ting wore a jacket as a skirt. She climbed into it, one leg and one arm in the two sleeves, and played with the range (or restriction) of movement this allowed.
The piece ultimately centred around a romance between the dreamer (Adiya) and a veiled beauty (Gong Xing Xing), who seemed to be protected by a horde of strangely clad beastly creatures.
Gong trailed lengths of white gauzy fabric everywhere she went, looking like the dreamer’s ultimate damsel in distress. Adiya darted about, hopelessly in love and helplessly unable to make any progress with her.
In their Spring Equinox programme, the LDTX dancers presented an array of creative and innovative new choreographies. On the last Saturday of March, a huge crowd squeezed into the LDTX studio in Southeast Beijing to watch eight of the fourteen works created by the LDTX dancers. The company founder, Willy Tsao, welcomed everyone warmly (in both English and Chinese), proudly overlooking his dancers’ brave new works, and encouraging everyone to return for part two a week later.
The overwhelming feeling I got while watching these pieces was sparked by the litheness of the dancing bodies before me, and the emotional maturity of every dancer who took to the stage. Tsao’s dancers are phenomenal and interesting movers. While this means there is never a boring moment, there were of course some stand-out pieces of the evening.
The show opened with Gong Xing-xing’s A Space, in which three dancers in stripy pyjamas play around a trampoline. At first, the two men (Adiya and Bai Hua) seem completely oblivious to one another despite dancing in unison, playing on the bar of the upside-down frame. They seem preoccupied by something off to their left, and keep throwing nervous glances over their shoulders. A poetic moment reveals a third dancer (Gong) beneath the trampoline, her lithe legs picked out by an intense orange beam of sunny light. The three frolic playfully around, under, and upon the trampoline – peering over the edge, hands pushing on one another’s heads, competing for a better view – until Gong departs, leaving her pyjamas crumpled on the floor. These Adiya and Bai squirrel away eagerly and hang from the edge of the trampoline, as if creating a den. A final, sad trio ensues with the men below echoing Gong’s movements atop the trampoline, a circle of hazy light filtering through its surface from above as they share their pain.
Themes of pain and sadness resurfaced in Li Ke-Hua’s Waiting. Three women (Li, Tang Ting-ting and Fan Lu) are anchored to a single desk. Li’s walks her hands back and forth along the tabletop in her impatience. Sparks fly as Tang spars sexily across the table with Ma Yue, but ultimately he leaves her alone. The three sit together, as if communing their sorrows yet absent-mindedly unaware of one another. They pile up their heads in the centre of the table. Li puts her hands to her face yet they become other women’s hands. She seems haunted by ideas and ghosts of the other women in his life. Hands interlinked over their heads and foreheads to the desk, they convey a deep loneliness in the company of these other women.
The courage that Li, Tang and Fan had lost bestowed itself upon Qian Kun in Zhaxiwangjia’s One. This piece opens with one man (Zhaxiwangjia) slowly adorning another (Qian) with a pile of identical pale blue dress shirts – each one is wrapped around his neck or draped over his head. Cue five other dancers in need of a shirt. Once identically dressed they move together – all except one. Qian is ostracised, not by the behaviour of the group, but through his own choice. The group commands the space. The role of outsider shifts – one lone body is absorbed and another spat out – and whoever sees the group from without bursts into laughter. The six soon collapse, catatonic in their hysterics. In walks the director to haul them up. There’s a wonderful feeling of brotherhood. A string of grasped elbows links them like the joists between steam engine wheels, while one stands a head above the rest. One flies for them all. One hand stretched out in front of him, Qian searches the air for a connection, while others’ hands find, grasp and release each other all around him. As he stumbles towards Zhaxiwangjia, seated downstage, it suddenly feels Truman Show-esque so I’m not surprised by the vigorous fight that ensues. I am surprised, however, when Qian empties the colourful contents of the clothing bucket over his head, and wears the bucket itself!
Among the interesting solo pieces – Lesiurely, Roam by Ma Yue, ? by Gao Yang, Boundary by Liu Sen-Lin and Lycoris Radiata Fan Lu – I was particularly touched by the combination of sadness and playful experiment in Qian Kun’s Light Up The Darkness. Seemingly drawing inspiration form Charlie Chaplin, Qian plays with black paint on a white glove, getting it all over himself in the process, ending the piece by seeking (and receiving) a warm embrace from an audience member.
All of the pieces showcased in this first show were exciting, emotionally mature and beautifully danced. I took 21 twenty-something science students to watch this, their first live contemporary dance performance. Their summary? They “didn’t understand” much but decided “art doesn’t need language”. What a wonderful message borne by the LDTX dancers.
Building upon the first week’s stunning performances, the LDTX dancers presented another six brilliant new works in the second instalment of their Spring Equinox programme in Beijing.
The evening opened with an intense piece, Doll by Du Yan-hao. Seemingly naked bodies writhed in neon-lit Perspex boxes; shiny tar-black masks hid the dancers’ faces and disjointed limbs pushed through a screen en masse, giving Doll an edgy, futuristic aesthetic. Du’s choreography for 10 dancers saw them tangled in a heap on the floor, twitching and jerking up and down, one off-kilter movement sparking the next in clockwork fashion. Re-stacking themselves, five bodies disappear beneath the others as they arrange their feet in an unbroken line, each dancer’s feet indistinguishable from the next pair. Moving only below the knee, the twenty feet swing through the air, hitting the right-angle like hammers inside a piano and falling back to the floor in unison. The mechanismic quality of movement continues throughout the piece with dancers stepping through a production line manipulated as if undergoing rigorous product testing. Bodies collapse like string puppets as they are lifted from behind, their legs moving like pistons in the air, heads lolloping forward and their elbows rising up and out in suspense.
Continuing along a similar vein, Tang Ting-Ting’s duet, Reflection, was fast-paced, punchy and unrelenting. Tang and Du create a dark, shadowy atmosphere in which their intense relationship swings between passion and violence. He pulls her around by her long hair, catching her as she falls backwards into his grasp and never allowing her far from his reach. Yet she seems to revel in this connection, pulling her own hair in his absence. They share a quick angular duet on the floor, echoing one another’s movements while casting misshapen shadows. A large projection in black and white on the back wall further explores the power balance between the two dancers, her hands becoming his hands on her face, gradually melding with his face and finally zooming in on his lingering defiant gaze.
Liu Yin-Tao’s playful, swinging Fade Away and Jin Xiao-Lin’s sombre Where each contained aesthetically pleasing moments – particularly the unpacking and re-stacking of a set of chair frames like Russian dolls in Where. However, I felt the strongest emotions emerge from the two solo works of the evening.
Adiya’s Everywhere opens as he pats a cloud of white dust from his dirty clothing in a pool of light. Just as the smoky plume settles, he reemerges from the shadows to draw patterns on the dusty floor. Everywhere is extremely touching in its almost Sisyphean spiraling movement, Adiya falling to the dusty floor time and again, often seeming catatonic with despair and unable to rouse himself, only to rise and pat off the dust once more. It is as though the repetitive circular motion leads him away from his sadness and back to it interminably, sobs wracking his body between moments of strength. The piece is beautifully framed by an expanding circle of light that retracts and finally encloses him in darkness.
Similarly shrouded in sadness, Liu Ying’s Untouchable is sensitive and thoroughly human. Liu’s long expressive limbs contain a delicacy that enables her to appear almost weightless, yet the emotions she communicates kept her fully grounded in reality. The shiver of her spine and the shake of her back as she lies foetal on the floor convey a deep sadness that is quickly brushed aside by the shake of her head. Her fleeting emotions are almost childlike; she flips onto her stomach, cocks her head and her feet swing up in boredom. Looking ethereal in a floating white dress, Liu’s simple movements somehow get right to the core complexity of being human. Untouchable is a truly beautiful four minutes.
After the wide array of new works choreographed by the LDTX dancers, a revival of First Ritual by Li Han-Zhong and Ma Bo seemed a strange choice for the evening’s finale. While the interesting movement vocabulary was handled well by the dancers, the sensitivity of the previous pieces dissipated with the harsh, booming voiceover and elaborate costume design of this larger group piece. Compelling themes surrounding ritual, identity and mob mentality emerge through dynamic visual effects – bowls of clear water turning bright colours; a suspended empty traditional coat swung wildly around – but I couldn’t help thinking that this loud, dramatic work had best stand alone. The purpose of this arrangement, though, was to showcase the work before LDTX take First Ritual to the Macau Arts Festival in May.
Once again, the LDTX dancers stunned and amazed the audience at their studios in Southeast Beijing (yet more of my students among them). Their Spring Equinox programme was packed full of mature, sensitive and interesting works by the dancers-turned-choreographers, whose work I hope will be seen at larger events in future.
It’s the first rainy day since my arrival in Beijing. I am met, somewhat sodden, at Dawanglu station by a young Chinese woman named Jade. Clutching our umbrellas, exchange our thoughts about London, the city we’ve both left recently, and Beijing, where we’re both newly living. Jade walks me to the Beijing Dance / LDTX Studio, where rehearsals are just beginning for the day.
Looking up briefly from leading the rehearsal, Willy Tsao smiles and welcomes me with a warm hello before returning his focus to the dozen or so dancers in the room. In Beijing for just a couple of days, Tsao has invited me (at this point, a complete stranger) to watch the group’s morning rehearsal before an early lunch at their studio complex.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Tsao is a major figure in contemporary dance across China. In addition to his directorial role at the helm of LDTX, he’s the founder and artistic director of Hong Kong’s City Contemporary Dance Company, managing director of Guangdong Modern Dance Company, and founder of the Guangdong Dance Festival (November) and Beijing Dance Festival (July). He splits his time between the three cities, leading rehearsals with each company whenever he visits, and joining each company on national and international tours. Tsao has just featured in TimeOutBeijing‘s 10th anniversary edition (October 2014) as one of the ten people who will define the next decade in this rapidly developing city. He’s made a huge impact on the Chinese dance scene already, and shows no sign of slowing down. I certainly agree with TimeOut – Tsao will continue to shape the performing arts scene of contemporary China, within and outside the country.
Seventeen dancers fill the space facing Tsao who sits at the front, one hand beating out a rhythm on a drum as he talks them through their movements. Under his instruction, they stretch lithely, moving with an acute awareness of their bodies. I watch without fully understanding; I understand on a physical level – it’s that Artaudian ‘evidence in the realm of pure flesh’ thing again – but less so on the level of reason. I don’t speak enough Chinese.
Jade, ever more welcoming, brings me a glass of water and sits close beside me to translate. Through her, I hear Tsao’s instructions to his dancers:
“The centre should be your focus, should lead all the movement…”
“…don’t think about poses, reaching to a point in space, but leading from the Tan T’ien.”
“Open up the space around you.”
“Always think about the next step, think about rhythm…”
Tsao’s constant return to the Tan T’ien – the sea of qi or energy centre, in Chinese medicine and martial arts like T’ai Chi – is a major indication of his unique approach to contemporary dance. Tsao’s dancers have trained at a range of different institutions in China and internationally, so have relatively varied backgrounds and levels of experience. Many have trained in contemporary or modern dance, some have a stronger knowledge of ballet. They are all strong, precise, graceful dancers, but he wants them to leave their training behind.
Training has conditioned their bodies, given them the strength and awareness necessary for their careers, but that’s just the base from which Tsao and his dancers work. Tsao trains his dancers to focus on moving from their Tan T’ien, and allow the extraneous details to fall away. He doesn’t expect their movements to be identical – he puts little emphasis on perfection and far more upon impetus. It’s all about movement quality that originates in the Tan T’ien.
However unfamiliar this may seem to a western-trained dancer, this focus on the centre, the body’s core of power and movement, seems to me the most logical step for contemporary dance. What’s important is the essence of the movement and the feeling it generates. The intricacies of movement are not imposed by the choreography but radiate from the individual dancer. Their movement is clean and pure. A breath of fresh air, which is a rarity in smoggy Beijing.
Unlike many other dance companies around the world, Tsao’s companies employ dancers full-time as paid professionals, which enables dancers to maintain full fitness and develop their skills rather than having to supplement their performances with other part-time or short-term jobs. This policy was the only clear option for Tsao – how else could one maintain a professional-level performance group, long term? He is devoted to his dancers, to their talent, to their development.
This devotion to his dancers shines through in the rehearsal. He and the group share a special, almost familial bond. There are several moments in which Tsao shares a joke with one or two of the long-standing company dancers, playfully making light of the mistakes they make or mimicking the faces they pull during exercises. Everyone is in on the joke, everyone is involved – even the one or two young dancers who are here for just a few weeks as trials. He is supportive of them, encouraging and praising their hard work.
Over lunch, Tsao engages me in deep and fascinating conversation. He seems so completely in tune with modern China I can’t help thinking that he’s poised to shape its future. He’s certainly shaping the outside view of contemporary China – touring shows to events and festivals worldwide, he’s giving the world a vivid glimpse of the vitality of contemporary Chinese arts.
After encouraging me to visit again soon, and the promise I’ll be welcome at any and all of the three companies’ future performances, Tsao returns to the centre of his influence – he’s only in Beijing for two days, so rehearsals take priority. The dancer’s unrelenting energy is eclipsed only by Tsao’s zeal for his creations.
A feminist anthropologist exploring the realities of culture, gender, and sexuality in contemporary Asia