PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 26.2 (2004) 80-86
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Asian Dance in Chicago
Nancy G. Moore
The Living Dance Studio: Report on Body, choreographed by Wen Hui in collaboration with performers, concept and video design by Wu Wenguang, music and sound design by Wen Bin, lighting design by Nami Nakayama, Museum of Contemporary Art, April 25-27; 21 AD Asia: a fusion program of modern and traditional dances curated by Pranita Jain, Links Hall, May 9-11; Cloud Gate Dance Theatre: Cursive, choreographed by Lin Hwai-min, music by Qu Xiao-song, set and image design by Lin Keh-hua, lighting design by Chang Tsan-tao, costume design by Lin Jing-ru, Auditorium Theatre, May 28 and 30, 2003.
Chinese calligraphy is notorious for the way it keeps moving after it has stopped. Long after someone has explained what it means, it continues to invite speculation. As part of Asian-American month in Chicago, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan staged the U.S. premiere of Cursive, a beautifully designed study of the relation between writing and dancing. Its central conceit is that calligraphy is a bodily act like dancing and thus may serve as an inspiration to the choreographer. Absent from this production is the notion that written texts may obscure or distort the body, an ever-present issue in dance criticism, especially with regard to non-Western performance traditions. A return to the bodily production of language via calligraphy reminds us that dancing and writing share a common ground.
Lin Hwai-min, the choreographer of Cursive and also an acclaimed Taiwanese novelist, would probably use a different metaphor than "common ground" to explain what dance has to do with writing. The Chinese conception of chi—or cosmic energy—might be preferable since it emphasizes the charged activity of life rather than its permanence, as "ground" seems to do. This is a crucial distinction if writing is to be understood as continually productive despite its grounded look on the page. In Cursive, the dancers do not sit down and pretend to be calligraphers. Dressed in black, they perform before a series of rectangular, white screens on which we [End Page 80] see projections of enlarged calligraphic figures. Carefully modulated fields of light illuminate the dancers' limbs in a chiaroscuro of thrusts and wild scribblings. A recording of a commissioned score for cello and percussion works in tandem with the lighting to define choreographic "strokes." The spectator perceives a synchronicity in the force applied by dancers, musicians, and calligraphers. We "read" the distribution of chi.
The Cloud Gate dancers, trained in Tai Chi, martial arts, Chinese opera movement, ballet, and modern dance, studied calligraphy in a weekly class as preparation for Cursive. They improvised part of the choreography by looking at examples of Chinese script. Lin Hwai-min noted analogies between dancing and calligraphy such as the abdominal impetus for each movement, the way a given amount of energy determines shape, the importance of breath control, punctuation. What stood out in performance was the changing, emotional tenor of the calligraphy, ordinarily indecipherable to a Western eye, now made meaningful by the dancers—just as dance is sometimes said to make music visible. These dancers were not just verbs but adjectives of all kinds, conveying shades of excitation. The choreography went well beyond a simplistic rendition of calligraphic shapes to capture the syntactic and connotative aspects of language.
Against a stage masked in white, dark, dense clusters of dancers alternated with soloists, a couple, or a militant line of five—a scroll slowly opening before us. Black-outs marked off sections of the dance-text. An occasional, witty motif introduced at the beginning was the presentation of a strident, bent-kneed figure who squarely faced the audience, arms raised like angry wings on both sides, only to collapse from within as if full of hot air. A related idea involved staggered group "wind-ups," where one dancer after another spiralled into position, only to suddenly unwind like a broken spring in twenty different ways. Near the...