Choreographed by Li Pianpian & Tan Yuanbo
Guangdong Modern Dance Company
Guangdong Cantonese Opera Arts Center, 7 November 2015
From its first arresting image to its quietly confident resolution, Guangdong Modern Dance Company’s Point One is deeply satisfying. A dappled golden goboe comes up on fourteen dancers standing with their backs to the audience. Above them, suspended from the ceiling, an angled steel shaft with a massive wooden ball upon its end sweeps around and around, enclosing the dancers within its cone. Slowly, one of the dancers in the centre begins to move, in circles within circles, the body dipping and swaying, the arms slicing pathways around the head, the breathe carrying the body down to the floor and up again. Until the final moment of the work, this movement changes and develops into wonderfully subtle and inventive variations on the theme, but it never stops.
As the other dancers join the movement, their bodies and breaths rise and fall together. There are patterns, but the work is not about patterning. The well-trained dancers move en masse, but the work is also not about synchronicity. Togetherness seems merely incidental; the dancers are alert to one another, and yet each contained within his or her own sphere. There is also music, but the movement is of, not with, the music, which reverberates around them. The dancers move like monks chanting prayers: repetitive, familiar, and necessary. Group movement breaks into close duets, with the dancers never touching, expertly navigating each others’ constantly changing negative spaces. In a male-female duet, two dancers equal each other in speed and attack, eyeing each other as they spiral in a kind of martial play.
There is a section of dance only for women, in which the circling pendulum stops, as the group continues its seamless movement down into the floor. With soft extensions, relaxed feet, and rocking, sweeping suspensions of weight, the women pray with their bodies to the sound of a sighing cello. The next section brings in the men, and the pendulum disappears entirely, elevating up to the ceiling, replaced by searing rock-concert backlights and a hard beatboxing score. The men’s group is more frontal than the women’s, and there is more bravura movement among its lifts and bodily contact, but it never seems grandstanding, and always cleaves to the theme.
Point One is impressively assured, especially when you consider it is only the second full-length work created by Guangdong Modern Dance Company dancers-turned-choreographers Li Pianpian and Tan Yuanbo. Every detail has been carefully considered and the whole work tightly structured. The restrained yet elegant costumes by K@fingpop — wide legged pants with boat necks in black for the men and a muted crimson for the women — add a monkish touch. The music, by American-born Li Daiguo who is now researching ethnic Chinese music, is a triumph. In distinct stereo sound, the music merges expressive cello with Chinese musical instruments and discordant noise, separating sections with prolonged but easy silences.
The stick-and-ball stage installation, created by Malaysian designer Low Shee Hoe, who is also responsible for the evocative lighting, contextualises but does not overpower the dancers. It is supposed to look like the hand of a clock circling endlessly around a clock face, although the hand appears to be going anticlockwise, at least when seen from above, with the stage as the face. This movement, the choreographers say, suggests time going backwards. Yet seen from below, from the perspective of the dancers if they lay upon the stage and looked upward, the hand is in fact travelling clockwise, so the illusion of time reversing is a trick of perspective.
To me, the ball and stick suggest not so much a clock but another mechanical device which, like dance, speaks of space as well as time: the astronomical orrery, a mechanical model of a solar system which depicts the movements of planets and moons in relationship to each other, usually orbiting a central sun. In Point One there is only one planetary body, and the sun is the dancers themselves. Far from being stationary, they are involved in their own tiny circling orbits, with patterns that at first seem random, but which, if the model holds true, must also have their own complex inner logic, discernible only to a quantum physicist or an astronomer surveying deep time.
The surrounding stage design is more than the box containing the toy: it too provides a particular cultural location. The stage sides are masked with black cloth so that they rise like black walls dwarfing the dancers. On each side, three square half-height doorways open onto darkness, suggesting rooms and corridors beyond. During the women’s dance, filament bulbs glow in the open doorways, as if night has fallen. The light on the stage comes only from above, but the lighting grid overhead is also masked so we cannot see it. We get the impression of being underground with the dancers, as sunlight comes filtering down, and the orrery hand casts its rotating shadow. It is a meditative space removed from daily life: the sunken courtyard of a monastery, or the vast central vault of a mausoleum.
The day I watched Point One, I visited the tomb of the Nanyue King, 2000 years old and a jewel of Southern Chinese archaeology, which was uncovered in the 1980s in the heart of Guangzhou city. The award-winning modern museum building is almost as impressive as the treasures it holds, and these are precious indeed, including the only jade burial suit sewn with silk thread, the oldest example of Persian silverware in China, and the first flat blue glass in the region. The building, by regional architects He Jingtang and Mo Bozhi, is fronted by hulking walls of red sandstone stamped with primitivist figures carved in bas-relief, and grand double staircases reversing upon themselves to enter a vaulted reception hall.
I thought of the museum while watching Point One, and remarked on their similarities. The square massifs of the museum are reflected in the trenchant right angles of the set, the dull red of the stone walls echoed in the costumes. The museum encircles the hill containing the tomb: you climb the hill and then go down into the tomb, a symmetrical set of rooms made of enormous stone slabs. The roof of one of the rooms is open overhead, punctured by the excavation works which first discovered it, and the sunlight filters down. In the tomb, these squares within squares served to encase the body of the king, and the fifteen courtiers and courtesans chosen to accompany him in death, as well as an immense funerary treasure, including hundreds of jade and terracotta circular disks or bi: hard surfaces enfolding soft organic bodies, and right angles contrasting with circles, circles, circles.
The bi are thought to symbolise heaven and the cong, an object with a circular inner tube and a square outer profile, to symbolise earth. Similar dualistic references to classical Chinese symbology are everywhere in Point One, especially in the yin-yang of the male-female dancers in their contrasting colours and energies. This symmetrical iconography explains the work’s balanced feel. The continuous circular movements are an abstraction of the form found in most Chinese dance, evoking harmony by confining the flow of Chi energy within the confines of the body. (In the Nanyue king’s tomb, too, were found flattened jade pendants shaped like dancers, with long sleeves spiralling back towards the body.)
As Chi circles within the body, so Point One circles back to its beginning. After the men’s group section, the work gradually begins to resolve. The women and the pendulum reenter. As the sound drops to a loop of water swishing and birds crying, the lighting falls to the original dappled circle. In the centre, a single woman continues the spiralling form, while the other dancers walk slowly backwards in a clump around the periphery of the circle. At regular points along the circumference, a single dancer is left behind, in a great unhurried visual effect, until the central dancer is the last to take her place in silence as the twelfth hour marker on the face of the clock.
Point One could have ended patly at that point, but it boldly forces through to a protracted coda. The dancers at three and nine o’clock start to move again, as the others gently fall away. In the centre of the circling cone, the man and woman almost meet, facing each other in the same movement phrase so we see his back and her front, her right and his left. In total yet utterly compelling silence, they go on and on, around and around each other. Gradually they draw tighter together, decelerating, until in the last eternal moment, the woman turns to the front and makes the final circle, with only her hand in front of her face. In the stillness and darkness that follows, the entire audience exhales.
It would be easy to couch Point One‘s appeal within an ideal of an Ancient China — mysterious, spiritual, unchanging — but this would be both Orientalist and reductive. Point One is very much an expression of the here and now, of the realities surrounding the dancers and Guangdong Modern Dance Company. Diana Lary, a professor of modern Chinese history at the University of British Columbia, has examined how the interpretation of the tomb of the Nanyue king emerges from contemporary political fixations. Guangdong, the boomtown capital of China’s southern provinces, asserts a sense of cultural autonomy from the centralist government in Beijing by emphasising its ancient lineage, illustrated by the tomb of Zhao Mo, who once dared to call himself Emperor, in defiance of the Han dynasty.
The same might be said for Point One. The choreographers, who are themselves from Guangdong and who have come of age in the regional dance company, attempt to manifest their difference from their peers in the vast (and expanding) stable of Chinese modern dance mogul Willy Tsao, which includes City Contemporary Dance Company in Hong Kong, BeijingDance/LDTX, and the new Shanxi Danceland in Taiyuan.
On the one hand, Point One is yet another item in the plethora of pan-Chinese contemporary dance works obsessed with time (this year’s Guangdong Dance Festival also included works by other companies titled ‘Within the Time’ as well as ‘The Time’). But time is relative, and it can be made to serve a regionalist agenda. “[The] past is made to seem very close to the present,” Lary writes of the contemporary interpretation of the Nanyue king’s tomb. “Time seems to be truncated, the two ends of more than 2000 years of linear history brought close together in a way that identifies each with the other completely.”
It is also easy to see in Point One a warm and ebullient Southerness in contrast to a cold and joyless Northernness. Willy Tsao himself told me that his three established companies have regional flavours: Hong Kong audiences opt for comedic work, Beijing likes drama and expression, while Guangdong prefers abstraction. He ties Guangdong’s preference to a sense of local confidence, couched in relative political ease and economic stability. It might also be a deliberate attempt to demonstrate what Lary calls, “an elegance and originality that is proof of a high level of cultural sophistication.” In this, it absolutely succeeds.
Lary, Diana. “The Tomb of the King of Nanyue – The Contemporary Agenda of History: Scholarship and Identity.” Modern China, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Jan., 1996), pp. 3-27. Sage Publications, Inc.