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Flash Review 2, 1-10: Pourquoi "Chinese Bastard"?
Why a Duck? and Other Strong Questions from Lin Yuan Shang

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Oftentimes when encountering a "dance concert" with no holds-barred extra-dance elements, I like to ask myself: What would this dance look like stripped of the ambient sound mega-mix, the virtual reality projections, and the over-produced digital video? In its choreography, Lin Yuan Shang's "Chinese Bastard," which opened Monday night at the Theatre de la Cite Internationale and continues through Sunday, is mostly derivative and does not leave much of an impression. But Lin's indulgent use of supra-effects, all splendidly produced to such a level that much of the time the dance didn't stand a chance, raises some strong questions about the ongoing hybridization of performance, and the toll it might be taking on the actual craft.

From the moment you enter the theater and encounter Frederic Blin's ambient, muted street sounds, the special effects of this spectacle seduce you. When the concert starts -- late on Monday night because curtain was held a few minutes until the delegation from the Taiwan embassy arrived -- the two rather drably clothed human dancers are outshone, literally, by shiny little green and red computer stick figure men that race across two large portable screens, the walls of the theater -- everywhere in the black box space which, for this show, has the audience arrayed on two sides. (And, in an interesting choice, at one point each seeing just one of the dancers, the two screens separating them.) At least for someone more used to watching dance than checking out the latest advances in digital computer video-making, these charming figures, running across the screens as if chasing something or being chased by something, mesmerize, like the light from television. Add to this an amplified soundscape, mixing music and street noises that sound like they're from a Chinatown near you, and, again, it's hard to wrest your eyes and ears from all this and focus your attention on the dancers, Lin himself and Yang Wei-Chen.

When you can shut the noise out, you notice that the dancers are often, and most originally, describing insect-like movement -- not so much in the shapes they form, but in the abrupt timing with which they flitter in and out of them, and in their reflexively curious attitude towards each other. There was also some animal slithering which, while it seemed rote to me, a dancer friend found riveting. And after the fact, I see her point. These images may owe something to Lin's training in Peking Opera style and skills, specifically in the many animal dances (lion, dragon, serpent(?) ) classical Chinese dancers are trained to mimic and lampoon. Indeed the only truly fascinating moments for me, movement-wise, came late in the piece when the two performers, to faint strains of shrill Peking Opera-style singing (some on tape, some by Lin himself), began moving their feet and legs -- balancing on their heels, knees bent , backs slightly hunched -- closer to what you'd see in a traditional Peking Opera work. When to this was added the slithery arms already seen -- not unknown in Chinese Opera, but expressed with a particularly modern inflection here -- I thought, Okay, now this is something new, and that I would like to see more of.

Indeed everything that is "Chinese" about "Chinese Bastard" I liked, starting from the zoomed-in film, shown on both screens mid-way through the evening, of ducks slowly roasting in a Chinatown restaurant window, from raw to dark brown grease-dripping state. Towards the end the bottom of the duck looks like the head of a fish, crying as it is slowly roasted to death. I found myself hoping at this point that my companion wasn't vegetarian; even I started getting a little nauseated -- until I got hungry!

The strong questions raised to my French dancer companion including the one involving tradition versus modernity. Having seen the U.S.-based Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, I don't think it's inevitable for a Chinese, Peking Opera-trained choreographer living in the West to have to struggle with these questions. Where Lin appears not yet to know his own voice -- or at least afraid to show it to us in quiet isolation, judging by the way he's front-loaded "Chinese Bastard" with other effects -- Ms. Chen draws on her diverse background in choreographing both types of works, using dancers trained in both contemporary and classic Chinese traditions. She offers the dragon and lion dances for Chinese New Year's and for school audiences, but then she has her (more interesting, I think, because expressing more of an original vision) contemporary dances. What's nice about watching her in this vein is that despite the inevitable type-casting by some presenters, Ms. Chen doesn't feel the need in her contemporary creations to prove she's Chinese. Mostly, the influence of her Peking Opera background shows itself in the catholicity of dramatic elements she utilizes, including spoken word and dancers making oral sounds. Unlike Lin, though, she doesn't give the appearance of forgetting she's a choreographer first. In her works, it's the dance which always speaks most clearly.

Lin Yuan Shang may have something interesting to say as a choreographer -- in the quieter (in terms of toned down video and music) second half of the evening, I noticed some dance images worth a second look -- but in "Chinese Bastard," anyway, the volume of everything else tends to drown the dance out.

P.S. More on the topic of hybrid performance: As I send this off, an article has come to my attention which provides some perspective. In "Paradis: The Tethering of Terpsichore and Technology," Vanessa Manko, analyzing Jose Montalvo's use of film in his recent "Paradis," reminds us that this question has been considered as far back as the turn of of the 19th-20th century, when "American modern Dancer Loie Fuller, with the aid of the most recent technological developments of the age (electricity and radium) became a veritable electric light show (and) whirling flame in Danses Lumineuses and Fire Dance, respectively." Writing in SITES: The Journal of 20th Century/Contemporary French Studies (Cinema/Video/New Media--Volume 4, Issue 8, fall 2000), Manko continues: "In the latter part of the century, Alwin Nikolais experimented with light and sound, producing surreal creations such as Prism or Video Game (1957)."

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