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Flash Review 3, 4-30: China Women
From Living Dance Studio, a "Report on the Body," and more

By Vanessa Manko
Copyright 2003 Vanessa Manko

NEW YORK -- The Living Dance Studio's "Report on the Body," seen earlier this month at Dance Theater Workshop, begins while the audience mills around the lobby of the Bessie Schonberg Theater. A group of six women move en masse through the pre-performance hustle and bustle, emerging from the crowd and silencing the spectators they leave in their wake. As the audience moves into the theater, so too do these six women, forging onward toward the stage where images of live audience members in their seats are projected onto a backdrop screen. The dancers then trace the shape of a man's balding head, run their fingers over a woman's eyes, and smooth out another woman's hair. All the while giggles and nervous laughter can be heard from the audience. Some audience members play with the dancers, moving away just as hands come too close to a man or woman's projected image. Thus, "Report on the Body" plunges one right into the performance, making the audience an immediate part of what is about to unfold.

The prelude is just one of the many vivid stagings created by the collaboration between choreographer Wen Hui and filmmaker Wu Wenguang for this China-based company. This multi-media work, combining film, dance, and text, paints a striking portrait of contemporary Chinese society by presenting a series of images dealing with the female body. Yet, these images are abstracted and disjointed, resulting in a collage effect which borders on the chaotic and absurd. The influence of Bauschian dance-theatre is quite strong in "Report on the Body." This is no surprise given Wen Hui has studied with the dance-theatre pioneer along with other postmodern choreographers like Trisha Brown. But the Bauschian preoccupation with sex roles and woman's place in society is particularly apparent in "Report on the Body."

Yet this brand of dance-theatre focuses on China at the dawn of a new century and evokes the excesses of consumerism and the new market economy. This is perhaps best represented through the costumes that are such a fundamental part of this work. Clothes in disarray, clothes thrown in bags onto the stage or scattered across the floor, or even swept into a square make up a great deal of the action in this piece. The garments, while representing excess, also comment on the role of women in Chinese society. Female dancers sweep, carry, fold and frolic among the plethora of attire. The weight and drudgery of household duties and everyday chores is invoked through the repetitive task of moving clothes from one area of the stage to another.

In a particularly striking moment, performers clad in elongated silk dresses of neon blue, red, and lime green raise their hands above their heads. Their bodies literally disappear within the fabric and the result is larger-than-life dancing dresses; the female body evoked, yet eerily absent. All the while, images of every-day life in China are projected onto the screen: laundry spinning in the washing machine, a Microsoft Word document upon which is written stories of a person's humble life. Later, a traveling businesswoman, with wheeling suitcase in tow, presents an incessant diatribe on the market economy in a smattering of French and English. She is then swept into a heap of clothing and another woman affixes her to her travel suitcase with duct tape.

As absurd as these vignettes are, they all have an intensity and desperation to them -- an underlying anxiety that seems to bespeak the state of contemporary China, or at least the modern China that Hui and Wenguang want us to see. The flailing limbs of the dancers as they slide and run through discarded clothing, or the sensuous duet a dancer performs with a folding chair, elicit a visceral and intimate interpretation of not only contemporary China in general, but the place of women in that society -- present, yet in the background, perhaps screaming to be heard. A particularly compelling moment in this piece occurs when a woman is enfolded into the white expanse of a cloth that is draped across the back of the stage. Her body floats eerily amid the film images that are projected onto her body. In another instance, the draped cloth is lifted to reveal a long line of folding chairs, upon which four dancers sit and march out rhythms. This soon leads to a game of jump-rope. Dancers are now clad in costumes with distended bellies and sagging breasts; the female body, representative of China, is weary and weighed down by modernity.

While "Report on the Body" is filled with graphic, startling images, it also contains fleeting moments of beauty. When a woman sits and gabs on her cell phone, a man pulls on her red silk dress which stretches in one bold band of color across the stage like a path leading to somewhere. She is then gone in a flash, dragged off the stage in one swift tug. The energy and sheer rawness of the dancers is what makes this piece such a strong statement on the modern condition, and though it deals primarily with the state of China, the images and meanings speak across cultures. In addition to Wen Hui and Wu Wenguang, the other fine dancers included Zheng Fuming, Feng Dehua, Wang Yanan, Wang Mei, and Estelle Zheng.

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