Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Critical Perspective: Under the Skin

Michael Thomas Taylor
University of Calgary

Under the Skin
Wen Wei Dance & Beijing Modern Dance Company
Theatre Junction, March 24, 2011

"Under the Skin" is a cross-cultural piece that brings together two works, two companies, and two choreographers - Wen Wei, who is based in Vancouver but originally from China, and Gao Yanjinzi, Artistic Director of the Beijing Modern Dance Company. Its fundamental message is the common humanity under our skin - its specific theme, the encounter of these two ensembles, who undertook a series of journeys together to China and across Canada in creating the work. What the program distributed in Theatre Junction didn't tell us about this collaboration, however, explains a lot about the limits of the project. Only in the talkback (or in published interviews) did we learn that the first part of the program, "Journey to the East," was choreographed by Gao Yanjinzi, while the second part, "In Transition," was choreographed by Wen Wei. (These two titles are announced nowhere in the program brochure, though "Journey to the East" does make an oblique appearance in the music credits.) Whether or not the choreographers intended this omission, it reflects a tension within the project that is not entirely productive. The choreographers certainly conceived the evening as one collaborative endeavor rather than two individual pieces and meant it to appear as such. But the two halves in fact bear unequal weight.

In its overall concept, "Journey to the East" is simplistic, even sentimental where "In Transition" is complex and deconstructive. This starts with the music. It is not clear from the program whether Giorgio Magnanensi composed new music for both of the pieces, but in any case the industrialized, decomposed, disruptive electronic sounds of "In Transitions" are a world apart from the swooshing seasounds of "Journey to the East" - the sounds of the waves, we were told in the talkback, that the performers had to cross in their journeys. In "Three Sixty Five," the work by Wen Wei that we saw last year at Theatre Junction, this kind of musical displacement was deployed against a paragon of Western harmonic tradition, Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." "Under the Skin" as a whole develops no such tight link between structure and dissonance, the basic tenor of "Journey to the East"
seemed untouched by the crosscurrents of the second piece. The stage design tells a similar story. One may question whether the video made a contribution to Wen Wei's piece at the same level of the choreography, or whether the the sudden, brutal projection of spotlights into the audience was innovative, but the range of the work's elements and the incongruity between them exposed the stage and the performers' place within it in a radically elemental, stripped-down way. It remained nearly impossible for this kind of performance to develop any relation to the mystical, immersive fogs and shadows of "Journey to the East." Most telling is the difference in the use of the two ensembles. Wen Wei has crafted a work in which the members of both ensembles fuse together to perform the differences produced by their encounters: the confusion that Western visitors experience in a modern Chinese metropolis, the reticence that can be provoked by cultural misunderstandings, and of course the potential for physical conflict and contact. In Gao Yanjinzi's piece, by contrast, the Chinese cast members do not play a major part. Instead, they are present mainly as spectral doubles - as visions behind a scrim that emerge only briefly toward the end of the work, when they trade places with the Canadian ensemble, or as citations of traditional Chinese dance. This reduction of the Chinese company reinforces the distinction between the two ensembles rather than transforming it.

This is especially unfortunate given the one thing the two works have in common, namely the extraordinary power, individuality, and creativity of the choreography and the dancers. It is the physical movements of "Journey to the East" that stand out as vividly original - a bar that is set with the opening solo, which translates the cyclical lull of the waves into an idiom of swimming strokes that deepens and deforms more precisely with each new extension of the arms. As the choreography progresses, each performer in turn acquires such an individual presence, making the changing configurations all the more striking. It is no surprise to discover that the members of the Canadian ensemble each have significant, and significantly different, projects and dance-theatre companies of their own. The members of the Chinese ensemble, as we hear from Wen Wei in several published interviews, also have their own training and customs that made the first encounters difficult. To have forged an extraordinarily charged common physical language out of these differences, in which the presence of each individual performer becomes more heightened, is the achievement of "Under the Skin." Even if the two parts don't come together and pull against each other with equal force, both Wen Wei and Gao Yanjinzi have established a collaboration that does.

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