The Power of Silence
In Beijing Dance Theater (BDT)’s new work, Wild Grass, silence is once again more powerful than any words. When the lights were turned down in Tiaoqiao theater, the performers shuffled between shadows and dim lights to represent through movement the words of Chinese author Lu Xun — “In silence I feel full, with speech I sense emptiness.”
Wang Yuanyuan, artistic director at BDT, said “Lu Xun’s silence is not silence, but using another way to influence people. With a sign, Wang added, “Lu Xun’s work can also reflects the present time. Perhaps, our time is worse than his time.”
Founded by Wang in 2008, BDT is the first dance theater in China to combine ballet with modern dance. Whilst dancers feet move elegantly in ballet step, their upper movements still embody the freedom of modern dance.
Wild Grass opens with the scene Dead Fire – an imaginary cold world with a melting iceberg, a yellow moon. The dancers are dressed in flame red, ice white and burnt black, and the floor is scattered the white, dry leaves. There was soft power under the elegant beauty of the scene. The piece was accompanied by live piano. The music, composed by Su Cong, included constantly repeated notes to stress the emptiness, quietness and death. Su Cong is the first Chinese artist to win an Oscar for Best Original Music, for his score to Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Last Emperor.
Lu Xun, who died in 1936, is the undisputed master of irony in China. He gave up his career as a doctor to become an author after he realized that curing the spiritual ills of his compatriots was more important than curing their physical diseases. His witty words are incisive and convey both sympathetic engagement and ironic detachment. Chairman Mao was a big admirer of Lu Xun’s work, although there are still heated discussions deliberating whether Lu Xun would have survived or faced persecuted by Mao’s regime had he still lived. Wild Grass, published in 1927, is a collection of Lu’s prose poetry. It depicts Lu Xun’s inner struggles and frustration with the real world.
The second dance scene, Farewell, Shadows, is painted black. Blending techno grooves with dark textures, the music was on the edge of electronic and experimental music. The dancers performed as couples. The female dancers acted as puppets or robots, controlled by male dancers before their bodies were set free. The conjunction and transition of power between two dancers was smooth and sensual. The female dancers’ feet tapped the floor in a style reminiscent of the ballet move frappé, seamlessly matching the beats of the music.
Dance of Extremity, the last scene, accompanied by a duo of violin and cello, was the closest adaptation of Lu Xun’s Wild Grass. All dancers were in black, and were dragged onstage by other dancers. “It reflects how (the environment) stops you thinking, stops you talking, stops your language, and people’s power of speech is limited, your silence is exploded in death,” said Wang. “It is the heaviest one among the others.”
Wang began dancing at the age of nine years. Before she became a professional dancer, Wang was a professional synchronized swimmer. After wining the first of her many international dance competition awards in Paris in 1994, Wang decided to create her own style of body language. She was formerly a resident choreographer for the National Ballet of China. From 2000 to 2003, she went to study at the California Institute of Arts School of Dance to find fresh approaches to modern dance. Following her graduation in 2003, she was invited to serve as guest choreographer at the New York City Ballet.
Wang became an international household name in the dance world after two collaborations with renowned film director Zhang Yimou on the ballet adaption of the movie Raise the Red Lantern and the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
It was second time that Wang Yuanyuan and her company of 18 dancers recreated the spiritual world of Lu Xun after Haze, which was inspired by another of Lu Xun’s books, Pang Huang, and explored the sense of security and the meaning of life. Haze was created in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake.
In the last five years, led by Wang Yuanyuan, BDT has performed around China, as well as touring many art festivals in Europe and the U.S. Their repertoire includes the company opening show, Diary of Empty Space, as well as The Prism, a collaboration between BDT dancers and three international choreographers, Golden Lotus, which depicts the sensual and erotic love story of the Chinese Don Giovanni Xi Menqing and her lovers, and Colors of Love, which explores the lives and struggles of women aged 20 to 40.
It is a group of young, and passionate dancers. They have been trained to the highest standards and fulfill all movements with technical brilliance. However, it is still not easy for young dancers to fully understand the work, as it requires more life experience. Wang, using her personal connections, invited different guest choreographers to create work for her dancers. After five years, the dancers are able to perform various type of dance. They have become more mature, sensitive, and flexible in balancing their body and using their energy and emotions to manifest the work.
Wang Shanshan, a skinny, teenage looking girl is the principle dancer. Her process sets a good example of the growth of dance theater. In Wild Grass, her emotions were tuned to the work, her eyes connect with the audience and her facial expression on the stage was very impressive, compared to her performance five years ago. When she moved, the audience could feel the Qi flowing from shoulder to arm and hand and up to her fingertips.
Wild Grass was created after Wang launched Golden Lotus, which was described by reviews as a ‘living oil paining’, when it was performed in the 2011 Hong Kong Festival. Instead of presenting explicit sexual movements, Wang’s choreography aims to arouse the imagination of the audience and awaken their inner desires. However, the work is not allowed to be performed on the Chinese mainland, due to its controversial content.
As a Chinese artist, the fact that her highly acclaimed work cannot be performed in her motherland makes Wang feel quite depressed. “We all read Lu Xun’s books when we were at school – at that time, it dug my hidden feelings out of the depths of my heart”, Wang said, “with some words, you want to express something, but you do not dare to say it. It makes me think I can communicate with Lu Xun’s work.”
Wang said, “I am more concerned about social problems due to my sense of responsibility. I pay attention to the way society thinks. When I feel the problems increase, I feel the crisis, and this crisis will influence my audience.”
Published on Creative Asia in 2013