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Breaking Ground, Equal Ground

"Phantom Rose" -- a hybrid Chinese Afro-Caribbean Dance

by Margaret Chan

February 14-16, 2008 -- The Al Green Theatre, Toronto, Canada

On February 14 – 16, 2008, the Little Pear Garden Collective presented three nights of dance performances to celebrate the Chinese New Year of the Rat. Showcasing traditional and contemporary Chinese dance, six dances were performed each night at the Al Green Theatre, Toronto.

Amongst those dances, “Phantom Rose,” a hybrid Chinese Afro-Caribbean dance, impressed me as a groundbreaking piece. Addressing themes of interracial love and struggle, femininity and masculinity, “traditional” and contemporary values, this dance intricately blends and fuses movements and sounds into an aesthetic art form that is informed by diasporic sensitivities. Whereas choreographers/dancers Emily Cheung and Gary De Matas and music composer/cum poet, Gein Wong (all three of whom I had the privilege of interviewing in March and April of 2008) intensely engaged themselves in performing the dance.  They functioned as equal partners, bringing to the audience incommensurable delight, as the movements, sounds and sensual allusions unfolded.

Breaking Ground

According to Cheung, "Phantom Rose" depicts a multi-layered story highlighting the strength and courage to love. Throughout the dance, a huge red fabric, illuminated by special stage lighting, set the tone for the choreography. Deep red, symbolizing anger and romance, focused determination and inner strength, this fabric contrasted with Cheung's long white sleeves. Using such fabric as prop and costume, the artists wove together two distinct types of movement on which the dance was built, the lighter arm and upper torso movements and the plutonic lower body twirls.

The red fabric, bud-like in arrangement, was laid at the centre of the stage. The dance began with dancers moving around it. Reciting a poem, Wong drew attention to the varied meanings of the rose – its beauty that allures and the thorns that prick – symbols of ecstasy and the challenge of interracial love in the diasporic Torontonian context. Cheung then appeared, “riding” on De Matas with almost animalistic allusions. Enhanced by Cheung’s long white sleeves, their limbs entwined, creating billowing movements that kept the dancers apart and yet together. Immediately, the dancers’ roles were transformed – they became lovers to the audience as they tried to touch, three times, before they finally held on to one another. But not for long. A moment later, they were pushed apart. In agony and dismay, Cheung took refuge on De Matas’ back. Both lovers gathered courage to rediscover one another after which they leapt with joy. Cheung candidly pointed out, “to love someone who is outside of Chinese decent is not accepted in some of the Chinese communities.”

The climactic moment came when the lovers tore apart the bud-like fabric, in triumph. Cheung remarked, “I started pulling the rose apart which symbolized breaking and tearing traditional mentalities which society finds ‘normal.’” As the story unfolded, both Cheung and De Matas were reborn through the ritualistic process of passing under the red fabric to eventually emerge from it, proud and confident. Using their lower body strength, they twirled from its centre, rebuilding it to its original bud-like form. It was sheer beauty – as the fabric was splayed full-fledged almost filling the entire stage, as it was “taken apart,” and when it was ingeniously restored – almost conceptually Daoist. The road is reality itself, how things come together as they transform themselves, where chaos, change, and order are integral parts of an evolving whole. What groundbreaking merging of philosophy, lived experiences and bodily movements!

Qi-like Movements

I am especially amazed by the “silent” strength of the artists, their slow, gliding movements and ability to manipulate fabric of various sizes and weight with such eloquence. Cheung explained, “As a Chinese dance artist, I have used various types of fabric. For example, in ‘Flying Apsara,’ a Dunhuang dance, I used two very long ribbons. I used small handkerchiefs in Han Folk dances. Chinese dancers used long-sleeves even in Peking Opera. Sleeve has such a long history in Chinese art.” De Matas elaborated,  “The manipulation of the fabric demonstrates the strength of the Afro-Caribbean dance aesthetic that must meld with the grace of Chinese dance that in turn symbolically represents the difficulties that must be overcome in any inter-cultural relationship.”

In addition to idiomatic uses of fabric in Chinese performing arts, the conception of the fluid movements in “Phantom Rose” was guided by the idea of blurring some boundaries. “Female is often seen as weaker, more passive and less dominating,” Cheung explained, “and Gary and I wanted to change that by showing through various movements that a woman could be strong and powerful.” With deliberate intent, Cheung chose the long-sleeve dance movements. As Cheung succinctly pointed out, “This is a type of Classical Chinese ‘Wen’ dance style. ‘Wen’ means soft, elegant and continuous movements. The purpose of my sleeve is to enhance the smooth flow and feminine movements.” 

Equal Ground

“Phantom Rose,” an example par excellence of a genuine collaboration, came into being through an honest, democratic process of creation among the artists. The process was characterized by the time these artists spent to get to know each other’s strengths, arduous experimentation, and the non-linear creative path they took.

Such as with the music, Wong explained. “The music in ‘Phantom Rose’ is a cultural hybrid - intricately incorporating elements of Chinese music, such as the ‘Matouqin’ and bamboo flutes, with Afro-Caribbean hand drums and percussion. In addition, western musical arrangements and instruments are used to bridge these two cultures, which ultimately create both tension and resolution. At the beginning, I watched the natural movements of the dancers and saw the melody they created with their bodies. From this point, I created basic rhythms, which in turn furthered the type of movements the dancers used. The ongoing dialogues between choreographers and composer formed the artistic process on which a true collaboration occurred that blends cultural art forms on numerous levels.”

Weaving electronic sounds with drums, De Matas commented, “Afro-Caribbean movement is informed by the drum and, therefore, it was an exciting opportunity to utilize electronically composed music to create a proxy drum rhythm that enabled the two distinct dance aesthetics to merge into a cohesive whole.”

Cheung added, “At first, Gary and I would come up with various sets of movements and let Gein compose music through our dance. Then, there were also times when Gein would compose music, and we would experiment different ways of movement to fit her music. We continued to play with this idea, and the communication among the three of us successfully built a strong foundation for this collaboration.”

 

With regard to the movements, Cheung said, “One of our goals is also to link tradition with modernity. We want to pay more attention to the story, a story that will move people’s hearts, a story that will increase awareness of social struggles and personal experience rather than to concentrate on what we have already done which is to classify what are Caribbean or Chinese movements.” De Matas further explained, “It is important to recognize that the choreography deals with cultural ideals that are anchored in the principle that what is danced is danced in the environment in which the piece is performed, including its interpretation by the spectators based on their internal and external experiences. Our task was to deal with issues of importance such as what is aesthetic or authentic.”

I am grateful to these dedicated artists who totally immersed themselves in refining ideas until everything came together perfectly. A breath of fresh air – what a wonderful way to start off a new year!


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