Writing on the air: calligraphy as dance

Flying White, part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, Vancouver, February 2, 2020.

The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival has always had a big thing for issues and trends, but this year’s edition seemed not just woke but well into its third cup of coffee. The great majority of its two-dozen-plus offerings had Something to Say on everything from immigration to aboriginality, from eco-catastrophe to economic collapse, from gender and sexuality to social upheaval. As associate artistic director Joyce Rosario said in her program note, subversion was a distinct through-line in the PuSh program this year. Many of the offerings also gave people in the audience a chance to be complicit in the subversion.

Even the makers of something as apparently non-polemical as Flying White, a new dance-music-theatre piece presented under this year’s PuSh umbrella by the Turning Point Ensemble and Wen Wei Dance, seemed to want to make a gesture or two in the direction of subversion and engagement—to the slight disadvantage, it seemed to me, of the work itself. And one had to wonder: was this simply coincidental, or did they, out of some kind of perceived obligation, PuSh themselves?

No matter. Flying White is a vigorous and joyous integration of the venerated old and the eager now, a work whose core is music and movement of fresh, mesmerizing beauty. Choreographer Wen Wei Wang and composers Owen Underhill and Dorothy Chang have taken calligraphy, the ancient art-form of sign-making, as the imaginative catalyst for a creative collaboration that fuses music, movement and theatricality into an evening that is at once timeless and absolutely of its moment.

Wang is the artistic director of Wen Wei Dance; audiences across Canada have come to appreciate the way he blends diverse movement influences—Chinese ballet, martial arts, contemporary Western movement—into a style recognizably his own. Underhill is the artistic director of Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble, which specializes in new music of many forms and styles. Chang is a Vancouver-based composer who draws on influences ranging from pop and folk to traditional Chinese music. For this presentation, a group of TPE musicians were joined by five members of Taiwan’s Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra, which plays traditional instruments but (its publicity material says) “breathes new life into an art form that holds ancient roots.”

The same might be said of Flying White. Calligraphy is found in many parts of the world and has many styles and practitioners, though for anyone unfamiliar with the verbal meaning of the signs it is inevitably an abstract form. A program note tells us that “Flying White,” the calligraphic style that inspired this work, is “a rare and extraordinary form of Chinese calligraphy that jumps and leaps on the paper surface in graceful, beautiful strokes.” Wang describes it in poetic terms—“mobile and delicate …like meteors passing through the sky, or hair fluttering in the wind.”

Flying White is certainly rich with poetry—musical and physical poetry—but it is also something far removed from cultural stereotype. Forget the coarse canard about East never meeting West, forget ideas of cross-cultural appropriation. Underhill, Chang and Wang have found a mutuality of understanding that has enabled them to entangle the threads of their individual influences and creativities to create unexpected new synchronicities that both speak to the enduring universal instinct for abstract beauty and the expressions of the heart and underline our physical ephemerality: writing on the air.

The show comes in two sections of four short episodes, “Body and Sound” and “Silk and ink,” separated by an intermission, with Chang and Underhill providing music for four sections each. On a rectangular black performance floor so shiny that it acts like a mirror, the six dancers, in simple costumes of long black pants and (for the women) flimsy beige tops, combine in a variety of groups, duos and solos.

The fluid, full-body swirl of the movement is always light and graceful and beautiful. But there is substance and structure as well— the tension and release on which the movement is built conveys a physical urgency, lavish and blossoming, and wordless hints of meaning and mood from time to time emerge.

In a segment titled “The Impossible Return,” for music by solo cello by Underhill, a pair of male dancers reach and intertwine and turn away, and we glimpse mysterious fleeting images of love and longing: like seeing someone stroke someone else’s face on a passing bus.

Almost coincidentally, between episodes, a man and a woman explore, almost playfully, what happens if they move independently separated only by a large sheet of white paper suspended between their cheeks and shoulders. Areas of the body are fleetingly obscured by the paper, and we are forced to pay attention to detail—the curl of fingers, the twist of a torso, the reach of an arm—rather than the whole: the universal in the particular.

Occasionally, wafting, spirit-like figures—ghosts?—drift behind the orchestra. Silk drapes fall and swing. These elements, too, have no apparent narrative significance, but add to the overall sense of the mysterious, the implied existence of an otherworld we can only perceive in glimpses, and have no hope of understanding.

“Silken Air, Soft Light,” to music for the full ensemble from Chang, might be seen as a way to think about eternity as dancers evoke the living space between the depths of shining black on which they perform and the floating clouds—of heaven?—that are created by the raising and lowering of a billowing silk square.

This all makes a sweet sort of unified sense. Calligraphy can certainly serve as a vehicle for contemplation of mortality and the spiritual, after all. Taken together, the first six segments of Flying White had the effect of a period of meditation, affirmative without being in the least bit didactic, as gladdening as anything I saw at PuSh this year. The concluding pair of episodes, however, seemed out of place in relation to the flood of fresh and unusual forms of beauty that had gone before.

In the penultimate scene, “Angularity,” the dancers pull partners at random from the audience and form everyone into a large circle, with everyone joined together at the fingertips by sheets of paper that they hold aloft. The unbroken circle (I get it) briefly interweaves and undulates about the stage. Then the sheets of paper are gathered up and the audience members go back to their seats.

In the conclusion, a solo dancer, nearly nude, uses his hands and body to manipulate black ink into abstract designs on a large sheet of white paper. By the end, his body is liberally smeared with ink and the paper is covered with a random scribbled blob of shimmering wet black, reflected in a mirror suspended high above the space. It reminded me of those experiments by Yves Klein and his body art performance pals in the ’60s. Post-modernist calligraphy?

These concluding episodes looked to me like deliberate gestures of subversion of the calligraphic form. They felt uncomfortable after what had gone before. But maybe that was their point. It was a PuSh show.


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