Wen Wai Wang's newest full-length dance, Dialogue, premiered at the Dance Centre last night. Inspired in part by the movement history of Wang's own migrant body, the work was built on and in collaboration with six talented young male dancers in the city: Ralph Escamillan, Andrew Haydock, Arash Khakpour, Tyler Layton-Olson, Nicholas Lydiate, and Alex Tam. As I understand Wang's process, each dancer was invited to bring aspects of his own dance training and personal story to the work. The result is a unique and deeply engaging meditation on what it means to communicate kinetically across cultural identity and individual experience.
With the house lights still up, five of the dancers--Escamillan, Haydock, Khakpour, Layton-Olson, and Tam--enter and casually sit down on the chairs that have been positioned along the upstage wall. During the curtain speech they stare out at the audience, while alternately crossing their legs demurely (Escamillan), or lifting one up to the edge of the chair (Haydock), or manspreading (Tam and Khakpour), or slouching (Layton-Olson), each physical choice already inviting us to read their bodies--and thus their identities--in different ways. Lydiate only enters at the end of the curtain speech, pausing to stand in front of the remaining empty chair, and trading some not very friendly looks with his fellow dancers. Indeed, when Lydiate finally does sit down, this is the cue for the others to move their chairs into a semi-circle centre stage, with Tam beginning a relay of hand and arm gestures that gets taken up, adapted and expanded in turn by each of the other dancers. The gestures grow steadily bigger and bolder in their sweep out from the dancers' torsos and the arcs they make through the air, with Lydiate eventually joining the circle as the thrown movements ricochet back and forth from body to body at a faster and faster pace. It was like we were watching a seated hip hop dance circle, each dancer's ever more complicated gestures at once an invitation and a challenge to the others to top. This opening sequence is echoed later in the work when the dancers, standing now, form another semi-circle around the body of Khakpour, who has just finished a wrenchingly physical floor solo. Drawing their bodies into various Transformer-esque poses while simultaneously making lock and load sounds with their voices, the dancers now use their newly weaponized limbs to send imaginary bullets around the circle, but with each ricochet this time additionally passing through the defenceless body of Khakpour.
Much like the ethos of hip hop, the literal momentum of Dialogue accrues through the tension between these alternately combative and collaborative group sequences and individual moments of virtuosic solo improvisation. For example, early on in the piece, during a section featuring club music, the dancers groove on the spot in their own singular ways, alternately slowing down and speeding up the tempo, moving in and out of unison. But what's most striking about the tableau Wang creates here is that the two white dancers face front, while the dancers of colour have their backs turned to the audience, a simple yet highly effective comment on the politics of (in)visibility in social spaces, and one that is tellingly followed by a solo from Lydiate in his tighty whities. This dialectics of surface and depth, inside and outside, looking and being seen is further highlighted in the sequence that immediately follows, which sees each of the dancers don a hat (initially in Khakpour's case, a hair pic) that presumably somehow telegraphs an aspect of their personality, and then rotate through a series of poses as Elvis' Love Me Tender plays.
All of this builds to what I found to be the most arresting section of the dance, which immediately follows the aforementioned Transformer sequence. The dancers link arms and gather in a circle around Khakpour who, at first feeling trapped, lifts his shirt up over his head, a cloaking movement he has made before that is rich in imagistic associations we are wont to project onto Khakpour's Muslim body: from balaclava to veil. Here, however, the other dancers seem intent on letting Khakpour be seen, removing the mask and insisting on their own presence by placing their hands in turn in front of his face. This is followed by Escamillan then ducking his head and shoulders inside the circle, which sets off a succession of similar breaches by the group that gets repeated twice, with the circle eventually breaking apart to form a linked chain, the tethering of each of the men's bodies and the flow of movement that now gets passed up and down the line here suggesting balance and mutual support rather than competition and one upmanship.
I would have preferred if Dialogue ended there, but the piece--which, in my view, is about 10-15 minutes too long--continues on for a series of codas that culminates in a disco ball-infused tango duet between Escamillan (in heels) and Khakpour. I appreciated Escamillan's physical and emotional commitment to this scene, but structurally and conceptually it seemed to signal the start of a separate journey rather than satisfactorily concluding this one. Such caveats aside, Wang and his dancers have crafted a rich aesthetic and affective experience with this work and I hope, beyond its brief run here in Vancouver, that it tours widely.