Resulting from far-reaching global cultural exchange, 生长 genesis brings together dancers and musicians from around the world in an intensely beautiful and evocative work. Yabin Wang commissioned this choreography created by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. She is a much-admired dancer and choreographer, known not only for her breathtaking drum dance in Zhang Yimou’s film The House of Flying Daggers, but also for her international reputation as an emerging pioneer of new contemporary dance in China. He is the acclaimed Flemish-Moroccan dance theatre choreographer who has created work in many different contexts, for example, with Les Ballets C.de la B., with the monks of the Shaolin temple and with director Joe Wright for the film Anna Karenina. Their respective dance companies, Yabin Dance Studio and Eastman, produced 生长 genesis together, which premiered in the National Centre for Performing Arts in Beijing. Since 2009, Wang produces the annual dance performance Yabin & Her Friends, which features both her own choreography and dance works commissioned from choreographers working in Asia, Europe and the US. In 2013, Cherkaoui’s Eastman had been named European Cultural Ambassador. Both these celebrated artists are not afraid to take creative risks and thrive on the true exchange of views and experiences.
Four years in the making, the choreography of 生长 genesis (in Chinese, literally Birth and Growth) explores imagery of creation and evolution via a close-up at humankind’s relationships with the surrounding natural materials, the materiality of the body, and emotional connections with other people. Where do we come from? How do we grow? What happens to us after we die? These are the universal metaphysical and spiritual questions, which 生长 genesis explores choreographically.
Scientists wearing white lab coats, gloves and mouth masks step symmetrically through a clinical space, while five plexi-glass boxes on wheels are endlessly connected, disconnected and re-combined. The dancers measure and delineate space between their hands, compartmentalising it, knowing it, taking ownership of it, almost in a machine-like body popping fashion. However, the recurring choreographic motives in生长 genesis are fluid and circular; the dancers’ limbs fold in towards and out from the torso, their spines bend back and they spiral down to and up from the floor. Eastern and Western movement influences are no longer crystallised and identifiable in this dance. Rather, the groundedness, breath, articulation and energy management of Asian bodily practices, such as Kung Fu and yoga, are deeply infused in the movement language of Cherkaoui and co. Vice versa, Wang and her fellow dancers transform the elegance of traditional Beijing opera, characterised by symbolic bodily poses and movements of the limbs, with excellent ballet and contemporary dance techniques. In this work at the forefront of cross-cultural collaboration, dance is truly transcultural, as each dancer reconciles the diverging cultural influences on the movement vocabulary in the body.
In keeping with Cherkaoui’s other works, the hands play a crucial role in the choreographic storytelling in 生长 genesis. They perform ever-shifting patterns of fluttering, swiping, folding, offering and closing, perhaps like the blossoming of flowers and the opening and withering of tree leaves. Hands also mean manipulation. The manipulation of another’s body, one of Cherkaoui’s key choreographic themes, occurs here in the form of autopsy: doctors prodding a seemingly lifeless body, zipped out of a body bag. Hovering over the corpse, the dancers’ forward-facing palms visualise its fleeting energy or soul, representing the division of cells and the evolution of species. Sculptural tableaux vivants show dancers leaning on and rolling off of each other, spiralling around, lifting each other up and pivoting through space.
Cherkaoui and Wang are both interested in the correlation between choreography and drawing to explore how theatrical dance imagery can be shaped by methods of image-creation in visual arts. Here, Wang in particular was inspired by the Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer, who in his engravings, woodcuts and prints puts into practice mathematical and geometric ideas about perspective and proportion. Through observation, Dürer abstracted the moving body like he did any other object: dots in various configurations become lines, which become faces and body shapes that shift according to changes in the variables as a result of movement. Dürer’s approach informed and inspired the representation of objects in painting and architectural design for centuries. Much like the creators of生长 genesis, Dürer was acutely interested in the role of the artist and the imagination in the creation of beauty as a relative, rather than abstract, concept. In the choreography, the dancers, who are kneeling and standing one behind the other, pass a number of crystal balls from hand to hand as points in space that are momentarily connected, dispersing and assembling them, stacking them on top of one another, undulating them in front of the eye of the spectator in endlessly shifting constellations as the light is refracted through the glass.
The musical composition by Olga Wojciechowska juxtaposes electronic sounds and live music on stage. Many musical layers come together in this transcultural exploration of breath and rhythm. Japanese, Tibetan, Indian and Congolese songs are woven through instrumental music from around the world: the piano – an instrument known for both its percussive potential and its ability to open up space in harmony, the Indian mridanga drum creating complex rhythms, and the tactility of the guitar.
Liu Kedong’s scenography is simple, transparent and clean, yet becomes completely malleable in combination with Willy Cessa’s lighting designs. The brightness and darkness of the scenic design are echoed in the costumes by Li Quing, further visualising the dualities of yin and yang.
Having come into being through unique funding, production and touring arrangements, 生长 genesis extends beyond European networks of international co-production to embrace China and the rest of the world. 生长 genesis represents a true global collaboration in its universal themes, aesthetic form, creation and production processes that speaks to diverse audiences. By bringing these performers and the spectators together in the auditorium, Cherkaoui and Wang have opened up a space for pause and reflection through this kinetically charged and recharging choreography.
By Lise Uytterhoeven, annotated by Li Hong