Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s 生长 genesis – Yabin Studio & Eastman

Resulting from far-reaching global cultural exchange, 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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, genesis extends beyond European networks of international co-production to embrace China and the rest of the world. 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

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s 生长 genesis – Yabin Studio & Eastman

Why rigour in dance education is dead and we should take care before replacing it with resilience

I think that rigour is not a helpful metaphor to think about dance education and training. Rigour is what happens to a body when it’s dead. It means stiffness, rigidity, hardness. Not what dancing bodies should be like. Not what dance training should be like, unless it is modelled on military training and disciplining of the body.

I know that, over time, rigour has taken on the connotation of meticulousness and thoroughness. Academic rigour is used frequently as a phrase in higher education. Still, considering the etymology of the word, I don’t think it’s a helpful way of thinking about students’ work. What lecturers probably mean is a critical engagement with ideas and an interrogation of one’s own biases, paying attention to the constructed nature of knowledge. Why don’t we just say that, rather than use rigour as a kind of shorthand?

When we talk about training needing to be rigorous, why don’t we say instead that we need it to be intensive, intelligent, independently motivated, responsive and responsible?

I’m interested in recent developments to coin resilience as an alternative metaphor to characterise dance education and training. There is research emerging in dance psychology about resilience skills. Again, it is useful to pay attention to the Latin roots of this word: it comes from “re-“ (back) and “salire” (jump), so it literally means springing back, bouncing[1]. I like the idea of connecting that kinaesthetic concept to dance. Dancers spring and bounce through space, navigating complex situations and interactions with others with buoyancy, energy and agility.

However, in recent popular usage of the term, resilience has also come to mean the psychological ability to recover from adversity and negative experiences. Cockroaches, for example, are often represented as being resilient. They can survive almost any threat, even a nuclear blast. So what does it mean then for people to say that dancers need to be resilient?

There is a danger that the emphasis on dancers’ resilience normalises the systemic adversity and negative experiences to which dancers are exposed in their professional field. It shifts the accountability of the sector for the wellbeing of its workers onto the shoulders of the individual dancer, who just needs to be more resilient in coping with an unstable career, frequent rejection, low pay and poor working conditions. There is danger of resilience becoming a tool of neoliberal capitalism.

By buying into the resilience metaphor, educators risk neglecting the need for dancers to develop agency and advocacy. Dancers need, as much as anything, to develop critical attitudes that enable them to analyse and challenge the systems and structures around them. It’s not enough for dancers to simply be able to bounce back from setbacks over and over again. Instead, they need the skills and critical voice to blow the whistle. See, for example, the #paythedancers campaign.

I don’t think resilience is dead, but we need to be mindful of how we use the term. I do want dancers to develop useful psychological skills that will enable them to cope better with competitive and challenging environments.

But let’s drop the negative connotations resilience has accrued. This is my call for using resilience in its original sense of buoyancy and bounciness, and for being sensitive to an apparent sector-wide move to co-opt dancers’ resilience as a green light for unfair working conditions.

[1] I first became interested in the word ‘resilience’ and its etymology when reading dance anthropologist Sally Ann Ness’s book Body, Movement, and Culture; Kinesthetic and Visual Symbolism in a Philippine Community about ten years ago. I had to look up the word, as I had little experience reading academic language in English, but at least made me look at and think twice about this word.

Why rigour in dance education is dead and we should take care before replacing it with resilience

A vision for a new undergraduate programme in Dance

I see the programme integrating dance practices, somatic practices and critical dance studies. The programme works hard to continually break down hierarchies, between dance forms, genres and styles, between dance artists, between histories, between the canon and the popular, between theory and practice, between mind and body, between doing and looking. It sets up a series of encounters with and adventures in dance in its multiple facets. At the heart of the programme is a de-centred critical practice that takes account of the transculturality of dance in Britain and beyond, and the complex historical processes that shape its many forms.

Students interrogate labels and fixed genres and terms, for example contemporary dance. They experience and research influences on this fluid, slippery genre from dances of the African diaspora and Asian martial arts and philosophies, and increase their understanding of the ways in which bodily knowledge and movement practices are transmitted globally.

Students engage in critical thinking and discussion about the ways in which the body, identity and culture intersect in dance. The programme equips students with useful concepts and models that they can use to critically engage with dance and life, but does not offer easy answers. Rather, the programme encourages students to find new ways of questioning, of inquiry. It cultivates an open, curious and receptive mind and body.

Students develop their own responses to continually shifting insights into dance through creative practice and writing. They find new and innovative ways to integrate theory and practice. Dramaturgy is developed both as collaborative practice and as fundamental to spectatorship and analysis.

Students develop approaches to navigate the tensions of the dissemination of dance via digital and online spheres, and critically and constructively address writing, photography, film, and social media. They develop ways in which to participate effectively in these public spheres as citizens.

The programme enables students to develop the skills they might need to negotiate complex and tense situations with agency, agility and confidence. Working independently and working with others are both important. There are opportunities to work collaboratively in a team, to create dance collectively, and to develop leadership in dance.

Like a spectator who might engage with dance works in dramaturgical ways, the student engages independently with the learning opportunities in the programme, and makes sense of them through her or his own subjectivity. Rancière also pointed out this parallel between spectatorship and education; his work on the emancipated spectator stemmed from his thoughts on the ignorant schoolmaster. Through reflective practice, the students develop their awareness of the skills they are building and the ways in which their mind sets and approaches are transforming. They become resilient and able to make adjustments to their processes where needed.

The programme facilitates transformational learning; it invites students to step out of their comfort zone and creates a safe environment in which they learn to rake risks. In this, I’m influenced by Paul Kleiman’s approach based on chaos and complexity theory: on the edge of chaos, where things threaten to be pushed off-balance, is where there is tension, where there can be anxiety, but also where creativity happens. As dancers, the metaphor of going off-balance works really well. We understand that creativity cannot arise from stasis.

The programme would prepare students for a wide range of possible careers. It enables them to develop their own voice, vision and processes as dance practitioners. In order to build a career in dance, graduates need a broad knowledge of different dance and movement practices and an understanding of their role in culture and the community. Above all, they need the ability to engage independently with new styles and approaches.

Students also develop transferable skills, which are valued by employers in dance, the arts and beyond, and are based around communication and working with others, creativity, problem-solving and risk-taking. A strong emphasis on developing research skills encourages students to develop related personal qualities such as openness, curiosity, dedication and tenacity.

In summary, the programme enables students to develop independent learning and increase their sense of autonomy and confidence. Overall, the teaching team works together with students to discover different ways in which dance can fulfill its potential for social change, and what individual agents can do to make this happen.

A vision for a new undergraduate programme in Dance

When a dance scholar kept a rock star choreographer in check…

Saturday morning I stumbled upon an irate Twitter post by Hofesh Shechter. Shechter is Associate Artist at Sadler’s Wells and has just premiered a new work, Untouchable, for the Royal Ballet. The tweet, no longer there, was a response to Cloud Dance Festival promoting an article, which announced the launch of Hofesh Shechter Company’s youth dance group, called Shechter Junior. Cloud Dance Festival referred to the developments as ‘Hofesh Youth’, which Shechter read as a direct parallel to the Hitler Youth. He called Chantal Guevara racist and swore at her. A quick retort from Guevara gently suggested to Shechter that this was a misguided attack. After all, the article she promoted was neutral, if not supportive, of the youth company launch. For some reason, I couldn’t agree with Article 19’s suggestion that both parties delete the tweets and forget about the whole thing.

So, I barged in to call Shechter up on his aggression towards Cloud Dance Festival. Soon enough, Shechter sent me a reply reinforcing his point with a link to the Wikipedia entry on the Hitler Youth.  I write that I don’t interpret the tweet like he sees it. Shechter explains that he reads the post as anti-Semitic and demands an apology. He even accuses me of endorsing a racist comment. Judith Butler asks: ‘When we claim to have been injured by language, what kind of claim do we make? […] To be injured by speech is to suffer a loss of context, that is, not to know where you are. Indeed, it may be that what is unanticipated about the injurious speech act is what constitutes its injury, the sense of putting its addressee out of control. The capacity to circumscribe the situation of the speech act is jeopardized at the moment of injurious address. To be addressed injuriously is not only to be open for an unknown future, but not to know the time and place of injury, and to suffer the disorientation of one’s situation as the effect of such speech.’ Shechter felt injured by Guevara’s tweet. Yet he chose to respond with more injurious language. To say he overreacted is an understatement. When asked how I would react to a ‘violent racist suggestion made to a Jew on Twitter’, I reply: ‘non-violently’. When asked whether I think he should simply walk away from the incident, I suggest instead using non-violence, dialogue and conversation, without using even more injurious language.

Shechter’s choreographic work too resorts to aggression. After seeing the new work he presented as part of The Associates at Sadler’s Wells in February, I vowed that I wouldn’t see another. Shechter employs an aggressive mode to address the audience. We are prevented from really seeing his dance; there is too much smoke, not enough light or too much light, making it painful for the eyes. We are not allowed to think and talk about the dance; after all, ‘it’s only a dance’ – he tells us so in this work. We are never allowed to see the dancers get into a flow of moving; instead we see them paralysed and tense. Shechter seems to dislike the dancers’ ability to move skilfully and gracefully. He devalues the training that they embody, and is concerned with undoing it and replacing it with a frantic, flailing, hunched over, uber-contracted choreography that mocks their cultivation of an elongated spine and limbs. He overpowers the dancers and treats them as docile puppets. Maybe the only thing Shechter likes is the Baroque music that drifts in and out for all too short moments. But then again, he does distort and overpower the music with white noise, so the audience is again prevented from really enjoying it. I feel judged by Shechter for seeking out an evening of entertainment and engagement with dance as art. It felt that he was teaching us a lesson. This choreography of hatred left me empty and angry. I felt injured by Shechter’s choreography. The only way in which I can respond is through writing.

Dance tends to suffer from its ephemerality and non-verbal mode of communication. It’s easy to overlook and dismiss, as there is no artefact to admire and it can be hard to translate our dance experiences into words. There is a mismatch between dance and the word, a distrust even of logocentrism. Words cannot do justice to the experience of dance. But without trying to articulate our thoughts about dance and form bridges between dance and language, we are unable to participate in politics, democracy and economies. If words are what we use to communicate with each other, we need to choose them carefully. If movement is what we use, we need to choreograph it attentively, with a generosity of spirit towards dancers and audiences. I am suggesting that the disorientation that stems from injurious language or injurious choreography is less than helpful for dance in this context. In short, I am critiquing Shechter’s mode of address.

What does it mean for Arts Council England, Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Opera House to give funding and opportunities to a choreographer who thinks nothing of injuring others in this fragile dance world? What if this choreographer indeed sees himself, his work and his discourse as untouchable? What if critics and scholars are disabled through this continuing distrust of the word? What if the supremacy of the choreographer roams free, unchecked without access to the discursive tools needed to call him up on his actions that injure others? Dance audiences are merely left to consume dances as they are churned out, without access to a critical apparatus to engage with them.

In the Twitter conversation, when I sense Shechter is finally coming around and opening up to my point of view, i.e. I’ve talked him down, I can’t resist pushing his buttons just a little more to really put things right. He keeps insisting that Cloud Dance Festival should apologise and delete the tweet. I agree with him that that might be a good idea, but then suggest he goes first. He concedes, deletes his tweet, but then simply writes ‘done’, neglecting to give an actual apology. Nevertheless, I am pleased at this outcome. The world is already filled with violence. The last place we need it is the dance world. Instead, cooperation is key. At a time when dance as an art is under threat, choreographers (edgy, rock star, enfant terrible, bad boy, or not) and dance writers need to work together to help dance survive and thrive, one moment of engagement at a time.

When a dance scholar kept a rock star choreographer in check…