When I first read the lineup for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, I saw that it included Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre and Beijing Dance Theater, performing only a week apart. Having spent time in China, I immediately pitched a story which involved reviewing both shows and discussing the ways in which modern dance has developed and been interpreted in Asia. Given current political and historical tensions, it was hard not to want to see these two shows together.
And then I saw them. I felt uncomfortable and hesitant: the companies and performances couldn’t have been more different and I wasn’t sure that I could (or wanted to) force them into a single article or narrative.
I ended up with many more questions than answers: Was I guilty of wanting to imagine Chinese modern dance as something coherent and monolithic, representing something uniquely “Asian”? Would I have tried to find something “uniquely German” in Pina Bausch’s work? And what does it mean when we call something “modern dance,” even when it doesn’t look familiar to American audiences?
Cloud Gate’s Water Stains on the Wall, performed in the academy’s Opera House, featured an angled white stage, pitched towards the audience. It was used as an empty canvas on which dark, abstract cloud shapes (or ink blots?), occasionally changing direction or speed, were constantly projected. The piece was apparently inspired by company director Lin Hwai-min’s interest in calligraphy, but, unlike Cloud Gate’s other work, the references were not particularly obvious.
The cast of 16 male and female dancers, dressed in identical flowing white pants, epitomized lightness and control. Every movement was calculated and totally intentional, occasionally bordering on monotone. Even when dancers slid down the face of the slanted stage, they refused to submit fully to momentum or gravity. This individual discipline was captivating and physically impressive, but it also felt lonely and stifling. Seeing the performers constantly on their own weight and within their own conscious control provided diminishing returns. Not once in the 70-minute piece did one dancer touch another; there was rarely a sign of personal acknowledgment. It seemed that, within each performer, Lin (a writer, before he became a choreographer) had created a unique and isolated universe.
There were, to be sure, truly captivating elements of Water Stains on the Wall. Hands and wrists were often used to initiate movement, carving and caressing what seemed to be invisible lines in space. Cloud Gate’s movement vocabulary was full of looping circles and deep, wide lunges, with nary a pointed foot. The most striking thing to me was the powerful groundedness that permeated each dancer’s body. That connection felt natural and comforting, almost elemental. I couldn’t help but think of the concept of “lower dantian” in Qigong; the area three fingers below the navel that is thought to be the body’s center of gravity. Cloud Gate’s dancers had clearly mastered control of this area and I was intrigued to find the program proudly credit the company’s two “internal martial arts masters.”
I kept wondering whether it made sense to try to distinguish between Cloud Gate’s “dance” and “martial arts” influences, but I decided that it didn’t really matter. One of the most fascinating parts of watching dance is seeing the way each body tells its own story. Years of specific dance and movement training literally changes one’s physical being; shaping muscles, grooving motor neuron patterns, creating calluses, and strengthening joints. When you watch a body on stage, you see not only what the person is doing in the here and now but also what she has done in the preceding months and years to prepare for that very moment. Performance is both a product and an implicit study of how one arrived at that product.
A week later, the bodies of Beijing Dance Theater’s performers told a different story. Haze, the company’s most recent show, by director Wang Yuanyuan (a former director of the Chinese National Ballet), was more focused on shapes and gestures: far more traditional stuff. Water Stains on the Wall is the work of a mature director, one who is comfortable in his own personal style; by comparison Haze felt young and occasionally disorganized, a less successful mishmash of different choreographic techniques.
Performed in the academy’s smaller Harvey Theater, Haze also featured a non-traditional stage; a floor composed completely of soft cushion-like material. It sank beneath the dancers’ bodies as they alternated between desperately diving forward and falling back, arms crossed over their chests, as if they were falling helplessly into waiting graves (the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake was apparently the work’s genesis).
The unusual floor allowed the dancers to confidently hurl themselves through the air only to magically rebound and continue their ballet-inflected movement unfazed. The soft surface also rendered even the simplest of balances difficult and unstable, making the dancers appear like they were wobbling in quicksand. However, these brief images were never really developed into a coherent and recognizable theme. Ultimately, the overly dramatic music score and near-constant smoke machine grew wearisome, and I wished that Wang had edited things down.
In the end, did Haze fit into a familiar narrative about China’s economic explosion and concurrent environmental decay? Did Water Stains on the Wall illustrate something uniquely Taiwanese? I’m not sure; I’m not entirely convinced that these are even the right questions to ask. For me, the human body will always be the most interesting part of a dance performance. Maybe “Asian modern dance” will someday become just “modern dance.” Maybe it’s already there; maybe I have only myself to answer to for my confusion.