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Beijing Modern Dance Company

by David Mead

October 19, 2005 -- National Theatre, Taipei

Every so often you go to a performance that promises so much, yet fails to meet your expectations. That was certainly the case with the recent visit of the Beijing Modern Dance Company (BMDC) to Taipei.

The company was in the city as part of the Cross-strait City Arts Festival, in which a range of performing arts groups featuring music, dance and drama, from both Beijing and Taipei, performed in each other’s cities. They certainly came with a fine reputation, having been formed in 1996 and now one of the leading two modern dance companies in Mainland China, the other being the Guangdong Modern Dance Company. Sadly, from a choreographic viewpoint at least, it was a reputation that was not upheld.

The first half of the evening consisted of a series of relatively short works. Up front was “Red and Black”, a work by Jin Xing from the company’s earliest days. There was ample movement from Chinese dance and of course the obligatory huge long red ribbons. In amongst the whole group sections were many short ones. It almost seemed as if the choreographer had decided to give each dancer their own twenty seconds to show what they could do. Which is fine, if there is some sort of connection, but like so much of what was to come, it promised but never delivered.

“Flower” was a ten-minute excerpt from Gao Yanjinzi’s recent work “Midnight Rain”, made for the 2006 Biennale de Venice. Gao is a leading dancer and choreographer-in-residence at the company. “Midnight Rain” is divided into five parts: flowers, grass, fish, birds and insects, all common elements in Chinese painting. The flower depicts beauty and this certainly was a stunning solo. The male dancer, sadly not named in the programme, used the large layers of tulle-like fabric that surrounded his body from the waist down to great effect. Very cleverly the fabric was used to hide his legs and so to focus our minds on the sensuous movements of his upper body. At one point he stood in a headstand, so all we could see was his legs, dancing like the tentacles of some sea anemone. Excerpts do not always stand alone, but this one definitely did.

“4 Happy Women” opened with the four ladies lying on the floor, close together, centre-stage. They were staring out, their glum faces contrasting strongly with their brightly coloured costumes. Suddenly one would look happy, as if recalling some cheerful memory, only to just as quickly fall back. The movement was often quirky, with limbs slapping the floor or bodies contorting. Despite their close physical proximity, they seemed so apart in their thoughts. Or were they having different thoughts about the same event? As a work, it promised much but did not develop in the way it deserved to be developed.

Last up before the interval was “Silence”, another creation by Gao Yanjinzi from 2003. Nine dancers emerged carrying what appeared to be candles in jars and arranged themselves in a V-shape on the floor. They never moved from their positions as each mostly moved only their upper bodies around the light in front of them, often in unison, but always in harmony with each other. It was supposed to present dance as a spiritual experience, and the links to religion were clear. Nice enough, but not exactly full of interest.

The evening concluded with “Awakening”, a 45-minute duet choreographed and danced by Gao Yanjinzi and her mother Luo Lili. The work reflected two generations and languages of dance, one bound by tradition and the other striving for freedom, and two contradictory cultures which cannot escape each other. The work is presented in six scenes: "Copying", "Inheriting", "Chaining", "Variations", "Breaking Apart", and "Nothingness". Each explores the dancers’ personal take on how tradition develops into the modern. What seemed to come out of it was that no matter how hard we may try, it is almost impossible to escape our past. Our heritage shapes what and who we are today. Gao constantly tries to escape but is always being brought or held back, sometimes physically, sometimes by huge swathes of material bound around both bodies, and sometimes by some unseen force. When she does finally escape, she realizes that she is alone. She looks for her past and comfort, but it is too late. This theme of escaping the past is a powerful one, and at first quite gripping. But it did get rather self-indulgent and went on too long.

The company looked like it had some fine dancers; the problem was that we never really got to see them. In a recent radio interview, company director Zhang Chengcheng talked about “trying to find our identity.” I was hoping the performance would inform me more about the company, but I only came away confused. On this viewing it seems as if, as a company, they have yet to really discover who they are for themselves. But they are only ten years old and modern dance is still relatively new in China.

BMDC says they aim to “integrate traditional Chinese culture with influences from abroad, resulting in a repertoire of that reflects these diverse elements.” If this evening was anything to go by, they still have a long way to go. Yet it seems they do have more modern, contemporary works in their repertory, which led me to wonder how much the programme was specifically chosen for Taiwan. If ever a piece yelled ‘Chinese’, it was the opening “Red and Black.” However, the evening was certainly disappointing and tame fare compared with that regularly served up by Taiwanese choreographers and companies, something reflected by the applause at the end when all the dancers appeared for their curtain call, which could be described as ‘polite’ and little else.

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