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Photo by WU Jia-hao

DanceX, Guangdong Dance Festival 2015
7-10 November 2015
Various venues, Guangzhou

In November, I spent four days in Guangzhou, watching up to 10 shows a day at DanceX, an arts-market-like platform which opens the annual Guangdong Dance Festival. Curated by festival director Karen Cheung, DanceX is a showcase of regional Chinese contemporary dance, drawing from the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau, as well as Malaysia, with emerging artists competing for the limelight alongside experienced choreographers. After 24 performances, three are my favourites; all happen to be from PRC.

In a café cleared of tables and chairs, the audience sits around a space which Guangzhou-based dancer Wu Hui has marked out for her work Self-Portrait with a layer of white paper. She lays out photocopied images of her own face – simultaneously displayed on a small monitor screen nearby – in rows on the floor. This durational beginning is echoed later when she sharpens a row of coloured pencils down to stubs with a hand-wound sharpener. But what emerges is more visceral and personal than conceptual. Stripped to her underwear, Wu Hui sprawls on the floor, bottom in the air, legs splayed. She repeatedly stands and falls, with bruising impact, sometimes even backwards, onto the hard concrete floor. She crumples up the pictures of her face and tosses them behind her, then looks around with cool curiosity to see where they have landed. She clutches and manipulates her non-existent belly rolls, then shrouds herself in baggy clothes, while her voice on the soundtrack speaks of deserts, oceans, numbers and death.

If this were a work by, say, a privileged young white woman from America, it would be hard not to regard the work as a catalogue of self-hate, the body dysmorphia of an anorexic exhibitionist. But in this context, it seems something more. Born and brought up in PRC, Wu Hui spent a good portion of her life training to become a beautiful virtuosic dancer with the country’s premier contemporary dance companies. Then she turned her back on them, and struck out as an independent performer. With her flowing dark hair, delicate features, and long white limbs, she is a woman of classic beauty, doing decidedly unclassical things.

Photo by WU Jia-hao

“The good thing about dancing for Guangdong Modern Dance Company is that it gave me a strong body,” Wu Hui told me through a translator. I got the impression of a strong disciplined mind, too, mercilessly considering the effects which will hit us right in the gut. She dissects herself before strangers with an alien impartiality, and yet she is winningly human — during the performance, I see her fingers trembling slightly with adrenaline and exertion. In the end, like redemption unlooked for, she takes the pencil shavings of her wanton destructiveness, and, dragging herself across the floor, uses her breath and her body to blow and smear them onto the paper stage. We are left with the visual imprint of her living self, expressionism distilled. What in lesser hands might have been trite and declarative, Wu Hui elevates into something subtle, powerful, and brave.

This current drive towards assertive individualism among China’s youth is adopted by young choreographer Yang Zhen in his full-length work In The Field of Hope, in which he recasts China’s revolutionary history through the lens of personal rivalry and megalomania. Seven young dancers – Yang’s peers from Minzu University – play at being soldiers in black boots and quilted military greatcoats. They shout revolutionary songs and order the audience to sleep and wake. Gao Tian, another haughty classic beauty, is the leader, who delights in standing on a red chair shaped like a huge cupped hand (New China’s fondness for materialism, cast in a revolutionary hue), while her challenger, the adorable pocket rocket Wu Ya-Qi, is not above using her dimples and curves to get ahead.

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Unlike many of the young choreographers at DanceX, Yang Zhen knows how to exploit the personal charisma of his female dancers. “Women are more visible in contemporary China,” he said in the Q&A session following the performance. “More controversial when they get power, more sympathetic when they are oppressed.” In a heart-wrenching jump-rope scene, Gao Tian is betrayed by her followers – she jumps and jumps, until she inevitably trips and falls. Then they tie her to her chair. 

Yang Zhen also knows how to use movement: sparingly but powerfully. Many of the works at the Guangdong Dance Festival use movement to excess, continuing with complex intertwined routines long past the point of audience exhaustion. But the massive greatcoats of In the Field of Hope quash any attempt at delicate movement. Instead, the dancers run back and forth, stopping with a joyful stomp at the red rope line that separates them from the audience. There is a big-hearted wide-legged huge-armed stamping-around dance. The boys leap at each other in a full body slam, a combination of play and desperation. When the dancers finally shed their greadcoats, their bodies are pitifully tiny beneath.

In the Field of Hope succeeds by sticking to its guns. Yang Zhen expertly manipulates costume, props, lighting, and set, and is a dab hand with evocative music. Wu Ya-Qi does a bend-and-snap solo to a Chinese New Year song paired with disco lights. The penultimate scene is like a red-backlit mosh pit, with hardcore electric guitar. When the dancers collapse in an explosion of strobe, not a hail of bullets, Gao Tian, now a tender mother figure, attends to her fallen comrades by covering their faces with their coats. She looks towards the audience, as a final song (the title track, a hit song by China’s first lady Peng Liyuan) brings up a backdrop projection that looks like a rising sun. Or is it like being inside a lava lamp? With Yang Zhen’s sure grasp of energy and ambiguity, balancing past and present, it could be both.

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In tone and theme, Lian Guo-dong and Lei Yan’s work Encounter couldn’t be more different from In the Field of Hope. Unlike the universal approval that greeted In the Field of Hope, Encounter’s uncompromising minimalism divided the audience. For over half an hour, the two dancers, in nondescript white shirts, grey pants and socks, travel back and forth on two parallel lines: she midstage, he upstage. They never meet. There is no music, and the only light is a cool white wash from upstage, partly illuminating the audience. The work barely develops – yet it is mesmerising.

Both dancers are industry veterans, and the sensitivity of their awareness of each other seems to exist on a separate dimension. Lei Yan is tiny and sharp-featured, slight in her baggy clothes, with tipped-forward shoulders. Behind her, Lian Guo-dong is a large shambling bear in the shadows. Their movements spin an ceaseless complex web, sometimes contrasting, other times complementing. There are moments of stillness, both dancers in profile. Or he may be standing, head-leaning into staggering falls, while she slides on the floor. Often they travel in the same direction, then, without a sign, part company.

Lei Yan has a startling honesty with her body’s placement, gauging each change of weight or direction, each subtle shift of momentum, with an almost superhuman alertness. In the background, Guo-dong rumbles and bumps; in the foreground, she swoops like a bird. Tipping, falling, towards and away from each other, back and forth on their lines, building energy and letting it fall away, Encounter is like an infinite movement study. Until it ends: Guo-dong is in the middle of a solo with slicing, curling arms, when Lei Yan suddenly exits. And without her, he no longer has reason to stay.

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These three works illustrate the depth of China’s New Wave in contemporary dance – reaching across the country from Guangzhou to Beijing, and encompassing confessional performance art, interdisciplinary theatricality, formal minimalism, and everything in between. If you have the appetite and the stamina, DanceX is a great place to get a taste of these new works on the cusp of greatness, before they are snapped up by the international festival circuit.


All photos provided by DanceX.

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