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.

Crystal Pite’s Body and Soul

Body and Soul, Paris Opera Ballet, Opera Garnier, Paris, October-November, 2019, choreography and text by Crystal Pite, set design Jay Gower Taylor, costumes Nancy Bryant, lighting Tom Visser.


What has made Crystal Pite “one of the dance world’s most sought-after artists” (The Guardian) is not simply the ravishing movement sequences that she invents. Her dance-works are animated thoughts about the complicated miracle of being human in the universe—ongoing statements from an evolving worldview. She seems to want to touch the core of meaning, to glimpse, even for a moment, the why of it all (or not even that—the what of it all, the mechanics of existence). Through simple and unaffected images and metaphors that she manufactures from the unique language of human physicality—from dance—she invites us to join her in considering the enduring mysteries of the human condition.
The latest chapter in her continuing inquiry, her new evening-length work for the Paris Opera Ballet titled Body and Soul, probes ideas of conflict, control and social cohesion. Continue reading

Sons of Sissy: revisionist subversion

 

Simon Mayer says Sons of Sissy, his hybrid dance-performance piece for himself and three other male performers, was inspired by his “permanent interest in looking for what connects us and what we share as human beings instead of what separates us from one another.”
The connector he has chosen to examine here is folk dance—specifically the folk dance of his native Austria, and more specifically the schuhplattler—and folk music, art that is “made to be shared, to bring people together.”
He subjects these forms to a merciless, sometimes sardonic, sometimes absurdist deconstruction in order to explore what he calls “concrete topics”: society, spirituality and particularly history. History, he points out, repeats itself. Right-wing politicians are using tools and tactics similar to those used by the Nazis—and one of those tactics is “to get closer to the people by using folk culture as their property and tool of advertising.”
His approach to the light and the dark sides of social ritual opens up such a broad and fertile field of reflection that you hardly know where to dig first.
The schuhplattler, you might think, is folk dance at its most lumbering and artless: an ancient, barely-disguised village-boys contest of fierce masculine jollity in which the participants stamp and clap and slap their thighs and legs and march about.
Perhaps taking his cue from Orwell, who said all art is propaganda, Mayer stretches this marching aspect to its utmost, sending one of the dancers off in a long, stamping route-march round and round the performing space, a strenuous and noisy exercise in robotic self-erasure that reminds us that Hitler came from the same place as the schuhplattler.
At the same time, something quite else is going on. Mayer doesn’t mention gender, but he doesn’t need to: the topic is front and centre throughout, not only because the four male dancers perform much of second half of the show in the nude (the nudity becomes commonplace very quickly) but perhaps more importantly because, of necessity, the female roles in the traditional dances are taken by men.
We see the schuhplattler twice, once clothed and once not. The removal of clothing shows male aggression at its most elemental and its most ludicrous. But it also holds male-female convention up to the light. It may be simply coincidence that the two dancers with the longest hair are the ones who take the female roles, but we are repeatedly encouraged to reconsider conventional role assumptions as naked men clutching imaginary lapels twirl their equally naked partners in traditional choreographic interlacings.
To muddy the gender question even further, two of the naked men later engage in a slow, standing, face to face embrace. The episode had a certain poignancy given the ironies implicit in the sexual conventionality of folk art forms, but by contrast with the subtlety of the messaging of the rest of the show it also seemed suspiciously like a deliberate pushing of the envelope, just because.
The show (just over an hour without intermission) opens and closes with musical episodes of great sweetness—a laendler-like tune decorated with fluty yodeling to start (with the singer-performers playing a variety of folk instruments) and a melodious and melancholy piece of four-part harmony as the lights fade. In between, the sound is widely various, often loud (at one point one of the performers inserts ear plugs) and generated by folksy sources: blaring brass, crashing cowbells dropped repeatedly from a height.
At one point, one performer curls up on the ground and howls repeatedly in apparent—and because of its duration, genuinely moving—anguish. That element of duration is an important one. Much of what we see and hear is taken to what feels like excessive (certainly uncomfortable) length—physical exhaustion is a running theme—and we have the time to speculate on the jackboot force of relentless repetition of very simple messages.
Orwell (again) said that to use the word ‘political’ about art refers to the desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. In that sense, Mayer has created a crafty piece of subversion that offers unspoken political commentary through the unexpected and provocative revision of a fragment of established social tradition.

 

Sons of Sissy was at the Dance Centre, Vancouver, April 4-6, 2019.

Wen Wei Wang: souls unbound

 

 

March, 2019

 

A couple of years ago Wen Wei Wang made a dance called Dialogue, for six male dancers. It was about ways that we make contact with each other—or don’t. The piece threw a transformative cloak of grace and order over roughshod male energy and competition.
Now he has made Ying Yun, for five female dancers. They are not at all alike, these pieces, and yet they have a similarity, and that similarity is in their generosity and understanding of what it is to be human. They render visible the idea of souls unbound.
As a dancer, Wen Wei Wang always commanded the stage with disciplined power and inherent elegance, a coiled, oiled versatility that was a product of his background (his upbringing in China, and his experience as a dancer in styles ranging from Peking opera and Chinese ballet to a wide range of Western contemporary movement).
That breadth of experience in life and art inevitably shapes his expression as a choreographer. He respects and celebrates the individual and shows us what it is like to be truly free in the body. Being free in the body is not as easy as it might sound. And it is a paradox of sorts that this sense we get of meeting individuals at their most liberated—souls unbound—is founded on the controlled elegance and restrained power that so distinguished his performance.
The new piece investigates the lifelong influence of what he calls his close affinity with femininity and womanhood. It is dedicated to his late mother—the title, Ying Yun, is his mother’s name: Ying, he tells us, could mean hero, and Yun indicates clouds. Because of this, we are bound to be looking and listening for references to his Chinese background, and we can fancy we hear them occasionally in the street sounds on the soundtrack. We might also imagine her spirit in the projected image of a glowing sun-circle that dominates the stage for a time then diminishes to a tiny ball of glowing defiance.

As always with his work, we see a range of influences from his dancing career (ballet tropes: the dying swan, the impossibly beautiful princess) along with the torqued joints, deep, powerful squats, leaps and lunges and swirls of the modernists. The bodies of the dancers imbue this movement with an aura of the feminine—soft power, controlled with a restraint and discipline reminiscent of the work and teaching of his mentor and partner, the late Grant Strate: a solemn, alert grace.

There is generally something heroic going on in Wen Wei Wang’s work, in the sense that we witness the human creature striving nobly; it is evident here in the sustained poise and exquisite control of these women as they push to their expressive limits. We see them as confident individuals, collaborating, respecting each other’s beings, admitting us to human truths through human movement: the same grace beyond gender that we saw in Dialogue. Together on a single bill these pieces would make a powerful pairing.

Grace under fire: Wen Wei Wang

 

November 23, 2017

Wen Wei Wang’s latest choreography, Dialogue, which opened the Dance in  Vancouver biennial last night, continues his explorations of themes of inter-human interchange, our need to make connections with others and our anxiety  when attempts to connect are misunderstood.
Six male dancers lay their bodies and souls on the line in a linked series of solo, duo and group pieces that approach this universal human dilemma from various skewed viewpoints, some of them wryly comical, some of them bittersweet. They give us glimpses of human creatures in all their flawed grace.
Continue reading

Edouard Lock: showman or shaman?

A presentation to the Royal Society of CanadaNational Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, November 19, 2004

© Max Wyman

In the late 20th and early 21st century, dance has been shaped by a few great artists with the vision and the audacity to exploit and explore the possibilities of the artform in a new fashion. Two of them have spent their careers working in Europe: Pina Bausch, who is German and works in the area of neo-expressionist theatrical modernism, and William Forsythe, an American also working in Germany, whose interests lie in expanding the expressive potential of classical ballet. A third is Canadian: Edouard Lock. Continue reading