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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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