The 29th edition of the Dancing on the Edge Festival (DOTE) kicked off last night with the Canadian premiere of Beijing Modern Dance Company's Oath--Midnight Rain. The company's artistic director and the choreographer of the piece, Gao Yanjinzi, has been to Vancouver--and DOTE--before, having previously collaborated with Wen Wai Wang and Sammy Chien (who translated for her from the stage) on Made in China. The piece she presented for us last night, which first showed at the 2006 Venice Biennale, explores concepts associated with the Buddhist wheel of life, or Samsara, a temporal cycle of suffering that encompasses death and rebirth, but also the liminal or threshold spaces linking binary pairings of night and day, black and white, ending and beginning.
Gao investigates these spaces of transformation through a series of linked movement studies in which four male and one female dancers incarnate, in turn, a flower, a blade of grass, a fish, a mosquito, and a bird. For example, in an opening sequence which put me in mind of Anna Pavlova's dying swan, a male dancer sits centre stage amid a swath of blue tulle, which he will eventually gather up around and then over his head, spreading his arms out to the sides to effect a kind of blooming. But he also shows us the stem of the flower by rolling over from the floor onto his shoulders and raising his bare legs to the ceiling in a series of developpés. With the exception of the winged dancer caught in a web of cloth and dripping a beard of blood (and also a whole lot of talcum powder), I confess it was not always clear to me which of the aforementioned non-human figures or elements the dancers were personifying. Were we meant to see the swaying in the wind of a blade of grass in the second dancer's snaking on the floor and through the air her horse-hair wand? The darting of a fish through water in the third dancer's gracefully flowing arm sleeves? And the rest and flight of a bird in the coquettish poses and oscillating swaying of the fifth dancer on a swing descended from the rafters? In the end, I was glad that the choreography eschewed overt mimeticism, with Gao clearly incorporating some of the abstract gestural vocabulary of classical Chinese opera into each section (and also, it seemed, some of its gender-bending conventions with the costuming and make-up of three of the male dancers).
However, in the movement of the sixth dancer, a kind of hungry ghost figure veiled in red who serves to link each section and also occasionally interacts with the other dancers, I detected some traces of classical Indian dance. The music in these sections may have also contributed to this sensation, but it's also a reminder that the idea of Samsara (a Sanskrit word) crosses various Eastern religions, including Hinduism. At the very least, the mix of classical and modern traditions in Oath (including in the utterly mesmerizing sound score) can be seen as another way in which Gao is exploring this idea of liminal transformation.