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January 13, 2014 5:26 pm
International collaborations have been a driving force in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s career, and 2013 saw him clock up quite a few air miles. In addition to sampling tango in Buenos Aires for M¡longa , he returned to China, where he memorably created Sutra with Shaolin monks seven years ago. His latest work, 生长genesis, was born between Beijing and Antwerp, where it had its European premiere last week.
This time, a Chinese dancer initiated contact: Wang Yabin, better known in China as a film and soap opera star. In Zhang Yimou’s 2003 film House of Flying Daggers, she was the dance double for Zhang Ziyi, wielding her long, flowing sleeves like intricate weapons. She has a background in Chinese classical dance but has also worked to bring more contemporary dance to China, and headlines an annual programme of creations, Yabin and her Friends.
Cherkaoui was the guest of honour for the fifth edition. True to the name of his company, Eastman, the Belgian choreographer has met his hosts halfway with 生长genesis: the creation pits three of his own dancers against four Chinese performers. The music is another hodgepodge of influences, with a piano, an Indian mridangam (drum) and other instruments on stage to complete Olga Wojciechowska’s electronic score. The result is a work of gentle beauty, ambitious in scope but more subdued in dance terms.
生长genesis’s early working title was Growing, but growing up is a bleak prospect in this stage world. Cherkaoui spent a lot of time in hospitals as a child, and the “unnatural” environment he associates with birth and death becomes a house of mirrors in Liu Kedong’s set design. As the evening starts, dancers in white coats and surgical masks move between glass boxes like shadows in hospital corridors. There is a sense of menace in this sanitised, neutral environment, which individuals strive to escape – in vain, clearly, as doctors become patients and vice versa, examining each other every step of the way.
As the dancers search for answers, 生长genesis occasionally stumbles into heavy-handed monologues about Adam, Eve and God, but Cherkaoui offers redeeming dance images. Flitting hands are a recurring motif, offered like bouquets when dancers take off their surgical gloves, as if the sense of touch was the first sign of humanity. Chinese symbols also feature: Wang dons her long sleeves again and, as fellow dancers stretch them out, becomes an eerie, witch-like figure.
Wang returns for a delicate, sculptural solo near the end, dancing with her luxurious waist-length hair as prop, wrapped around her shoulders like a shawl. Her performance gives us Chinese and contemporary dance as yin and yang, but 生长genesis doesn’t investigate further, sadly, before returning to its grim medical world.
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