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Flash Review 1, 10-20: Undelivered
"365 Ways of Doing and Undoing Orientalism," Unclearly

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2005 Maura Nguyen Donohue
Photography by Steven Baillie

NEW YORK -- Hong Kong's premiere dance troupe, City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), was in town last week at Hunter College's Kaye Playhouse with the comprehensively titled "365 Ways of Doing and Undoing Orientalism." Deemed the "artistic soul" of contemporary Hong Kong, CCDC is also the only full-time professional modern dance troupe in town. There was no doubt left after its performance last Thursday night that this is a team of pros. The soul, however, was a bit harder to detect -- not absent, but not abundant either. Perhaps this was meant as one way of doing the inscrutable Oriental thing.

I've maintained a peripheral relationship with CCDC over the past decade, having first glimpsed bits of my future in a Muna Tseng/CCDC collaboration at La Mama called "The Pink." Five years ago I rambled on here about the contemporary Hong Kong scene, primarily CCDC and its artistic offspring. This November/December I'll be in HK collaborating with a couple of these "kids" and teaching company class at CCDC. So I was quite thrilled that the company had made it back to town after so long an absence.

CCDC is diligently led by its founder, or as I like to think of him, Ultra China Man. That is to say, if you want to talk modern dance in China, then Willy Tsao is your man. He's currently artistic director of three, count 'em three, Chinese professional modern dance companies: Beijing, Guangdong and CCDC. So when an artist like Tsao decides to address the politics of representation, I'd expect he's got a lot to say. And he does say a lot in his notes in the program for the performance (as well as in an interview for a piece by the DI's Jennifer Copaken, also published today). But artistically, Tsao doesn't reward the dangling carrot of the titillating title.

I expected better. This is a company full of skilled dancers and commanding performers from a city that I have long adored as a big boss for things contemporary and Asian. As a younger choreographer I found Hong Kong an inspiring hotbed of artistic activity, with CCDC at its nucleus, generating multiple generations of sophisticated dance artists. This particular work just didn't do the company its greatest justice to a New York dance audience.

The evening-length work was co-choreographed by Tsao, resident artist Xing Liang and Tibetan dancer/choreographer Sang Jijia. I'm told that it is tongue-in-cheek, meant to poke fun at enduring stereotypes of both ancient and modern China. But "365 Ways," in total, plays out like a Splendid China review, brought to the US compliments of the HK Trade Commission. They do Oriental right and the stereotypes endure.
Hong Kong's City Contemporary Dance Company in "365 Ways of Doing and Undoing Orientalism," choreographed by Willy Tsao, Xing Liang and Sang Jijia. Steven Baillie photo copyright Steven Baillie and courtesy CCDC.

The evening is divided into three acts. The first, "Earth, Water, Fire and Wind" is a long slow solo by Xing that is interrupted at points by quick dances. Sand, a large ice block and a flame serve as the first three elements while Xing portrays the wind. His body curls and uncurls on the floor before rising to move with contractions, collapses and butoh-esque inward turned feet. A duet bursts into the space and shifts quickly between brief pauses. A woman congas in followed by four men in tuxedos who then surround her, abuse her, and carry her off. Four 'ballerinas' in tutus and mandarin collars perform a variation on "The Dance of the Little Swans." Tableau. The score simmers with edgy impatience, creating a suspenseful momentum that is prolonged in an interminable drone. Xing dances beautifully but eventually the movement simply washes past as it sustains an unchanging dynamic quality. The interruptions are meant to show the occasional disturbance of Western modern dance. Clearly the downtown scene hasn't wafted that way yet.

Act Two links the seasons with concepts of culture. Autumn, an accumulation of ethnic culture, runs through a series of Beijing Opera-inspired bits. Dancers enter and run through wusheng and wudan (male and female warrior) routines with flags, knives, swords, spears, etc. Janet Chang and Joann Chou dance in mesmerizing Fengkuan (Phoenix cap). The long pheasant feathers arching up from the headdress appear electric and alive. Chang appears later and handles a spinning spear with assured familiarity and speed. Chou, Noel Pong, Qiao Yang and Wu Yisan all do a lovely job with the long sleeves, but it's hard to surpass these elements as they have been repeatedly romanticized and choreographed to staggering beauty in film. There are a few moments of departure from the form, enough to keep my friend the ex-Peking Opera Troupe No. 1 happy with its modernization, but I wonder if their simple Asian-ness is supposed to make these players any better at performing a form that isn't their own? How much would I belittle a crew of honkie modern dancers attempting to claim Peking Opera as their own?

Spring, an ecstasy of folkloric delight, runs like a commercial of Pearl River's inventory. We get a look at red instruments, red drums, red fans, red parasols, red handkerchiefs, red masks, red lanterns, a red Lion dance and a red Dragon dance. The props just keep on coming. Summer brings us into an intimate space, opening with the image of Xing pressed over and Wu wrapping her legs around his waist while lying on a bed. They move slowly and erotically together before being surrounded by an army of revolutionary-clad dance soldiers. The encircling of the couple hints at the menace of the time and brings a level of emotional electricity with the implication of danger and betrayal. But the chorus of dancers begins moving in such a hokey spoof of the old propaganda ballets that it belittles the enormous destruction of the time. The two dancers continue with a duet that is vibrant and rousing, full of explosive tosses and bounces off the bed. It teeters with lustful abandon and presents a highly palpable evocation of hot summer nights in small crowded quarters.

As we arrive at winter, we finally see the entire company dancing in customary style, flashing technically excellent and appropriately cold solos one after another as they each carry on a previously used prop. The dancing is world-class, even with an endless store of high leg lifts, but the undoing is unclear and the departure insincere. Each dancer simply gazes at a prop and exits. If the undoing of Orientalism can be considered the doing of Occidentalism then there is a reciprocal relationship of misperception at work. I find it ironic that fast, sharp, highly formalistic and linear movement should be considered the antidote to tradition. There is a pace to life on the streets of Kowloon, Saigon and Tokyo that even the Big Apple cannot match. Plus, it's intrinsically American to be adamantly informal; but to be fair, "365 ways" isn't officially supposed to be a piece about the Chinese view of the west. It's more of a response to questions of domain and authenticity among its own community.

For further information on CCDC, please visit its website.

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