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Flash Review 2, 10-3: Skin Game
Tan Dun, Dou-Dou Huang Drum Chen Zhen's Mind

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Before you've explored the work and seen other artists engage it, the therapeutic intent of installation artist Chen Zhen's "Jue Chang" can set off alarm bells. The goal of art should be aesthetic, and besides, artists aren't licensed to practice medicine or reconcile warring nations. But there is such a thing as serendipity, and an artist who knows how to articulate in his medium can issue creations that engage the spirit and the mind. With "Jue Chang -- 50 Strokes to Each," a winding bank of suspended beds and chairs whose surfaces of stretched animal skin make up the drums, commissioned by the Tel Aviv Museum in 1997, the late multi-media artist Chen Zhen drew on an aspect of the Buddhist tradition to prescribe a tonic for the Arab-Israeli conflict that called for the two tribes to bang the drum repeatedly. When it came to issuing prescriptions, Zhen had some street cred, and not just because he'd begun studying Chinese Medicine; he'd been dying since 1987, finally succumbing to a form of anemia in December 2000 at the age of 45. "Jue Chang"'s performance capabilities were revealed Wednesday at the Palais de Tokyo, with the premiere of "Jue Chang -- Dancing Body / Drumming Mind," a ten-minute piece composed by Zhen's friend Tan Dun, with choreography and dancing by Dou-Dou Huang.

The problem with many multi-arts creations is that the different forms involved may connect, but they don't always fertilize each other. A dancer sauntering over to a bass and simply plucking on the strings is not really meeting it, instrument to instrument. A dancer is not a musician, so there's no value in her simply trying to play. More interesting is if she engages the instrument with all her (or his) capacity for movement and reaction. This is what Huang has achieved in his choreography for "Dancing Body / Drumming Mind."

Huang makes his approach clear by beginning with his feet up on the canvas of one of the larger (bed) drums, in effect making it the stage. Back on the real floor, he doesn't just beat the drum with his hands, but caresses it with his whole body, slithering laterally.

Watching the spectacle Wednesday night the jam-packed audience had to be on its feet, literally and figuratively; this is one of those shows where you follow the performers as they move from drumming module-bank to drumming module-bank. Huang lags behind, finding his way in the middle section to an arena surrounded by the drumming modules, where he actually has room to move, and does, without the drums, in the least imaginative, if virtuosically performed, section of the choreography, showing an obvious martial arts influence. I was watching from an interstice in the circle, and suddenly had to step aside when the dancer slid under it to the next module, where he turned on his back and kicked his feet up and on a sort of hammock-drum, rocking and beating it. At this point, the audience became part of the performance, a sort of corps. Because there were so many of us, we had to crowd close to Huang in order to see him; when he wanted to move to the next module, we suddenly rippled out to give him space and follow.

There was more room to watch when Huang arrived back at the beginning to join the two other percussionists, Haruka Fujii and David Cossin. I say 'other' because Huang was one too, but you could definitely tell who was the dancer by the way his hands didn't just direct the drumming surfaces of a row of suspended chairs, but responded to them, his fingers curling and spiraling out. Throughout the performance, skin had met skin, both reacting to the sensation, thus making a big point in a brief dance.

"Jue Jang -- Dancing Body / Drumming Mind," the performance, a co-production with the Festival d'Automne, continues through Sunday at the Palais de Tokyo, with shows starting precisely at 1, 5, 7, and 9 p.m. (There's no announcement, so be sure to be at the end of the Jue Jang closest to the museum's entrance.) Spectators can continue to view and play Jue Jang, as well as view several other large-scale works (check the 378 drawers of Chinese Herbs, which you can actually open and sniff) through January 18, 2004.

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