Body Work

Short comments on two dance pieces that I saw at the OCAT contemporary dance festival 2010. Both pieces were intensely personal responses to objective reality – here, objective reality in the sense of “can not be changed”, and personal response as “adapting to” and eventually “overcome by” said reality.

First, 朗诵 (recitation or reading) from 纸老虎喜剧工作室 (Paper Tiger Theatre Studio, 2010). Here, objective reality to the form of tests, descriptions from medical textbooks, lists, newspaper articles – printed matter that is taken to accurately represent reality. Direct Tian Gebing’s (田戈兵) response subjected five, young and amazingly fit young men to difficult motions that they repeated until the men were obviously exhausted. In one movement series, for example, the dancers stood at the back of the stage, back to the audience, arms and legs stretched into an X. While one or several read the text, one or several would bend from the knees backward until collapsing with a thud onto the floor. He / they then pushed themselves forward, leaving a wake of sweat. He / they abruptly jumped up. Returned to the back of the stage. Stood in the X position and began again. And yes, the thud was important. Most of the sound for the performance was thumping bodies. For over an hour. Through a rain storm. All the while the dancers clutched pages of text that they continuously read out loud. Until two pairs of dancers sat on two chairs, cradling the partner, who continued to read. Between, around, and behind the seated pairs, a lone dancer continued to dance.

Second, 治疗 (medical treatment, 2008) from 生活舞蹈工作室 (Living Dance Studio). In this piece, objective reality was the suffering and eventual decay and death of the human body. Choreographer Wen Hui (文慧), Wu Wenguang (吴文光), several other studio members, and Shenzhen residents performed the experience of dying and growing old despite medical treatment. The spark for this piece was the last 12 days of a mother’s life. The piece began with a young girl playing with motorized shoes that hummed around the stage throughout the show. One by one, studio dancers and audience members came onstage and then painstakingly moved from the back of the stage to the front. While watching I felt caught somewhere between Noh and Waiting for Godot because dancers held contortions effortlessly, with the end result of relentless pessimism. Indeed, I felt distressed not only because performers used over an hour to move about 50 meters, but also because by the end of the show about 30 or so slow moving, contorted figures had overtaking the space where the one girl – and halfway through the piece it was clear she was the only young, healthy body onstage – continued to keep the motorized shoes moving.

Youth exhausted. Spent in industrial repetitions. Relentless pages of knowledge that never made the movement easier. A single girl. A slow, determined, frightening accretion of misshapen, yet still oozing forward bodies.

Interestingly, although these two pieces provide insight into the experience of China’s boom, I am more interested in how these pieces continue and expand upon the general nihilism of modernist art, when its not being over the top utopian. Living in Shenzhen, we are used to this relentless exhaustion of bodies and the seemingly unlimited replacement bodies that slip onstage and remain unnoticed except and until a critical mass forms. But Shenzhen also thrives on the experience, the energy before one steps into the vortex of change. The threshold moment, when we turn from the past and leap into all that is possible – plans can’t keep up with change, here.

I keep thinking about sighs and the expression 没办法 – no way out as the experience of work and meeting the demands of family and friends by way of exhausting work situations. And I’m wondering when all this exhaustion becomes something other than resignation and nihilism. In this sense, I remain skeptical of any assertion that the only response to “objective reality” is resilient adaptation unto decay. Noticing this reality, yes, step one. But I yearn for alternative second steps.

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