Not dancing but falling
The curtain opened on Beijing Dance Theater’s UK debut to a gorgeously lit scene of seven motionless dancers shrouded in mist amongst a series of dangling lanterns. The curtain closed an hour and a quarter later after several beautiful minutes of nothing except snowflakes fluttering to the floor. Most of what happened in-between was rather less absorbing.
Wang Yuanyuan has impressive credentials as resident choreographer for the National Ballet of China and guest choreographer for New York City Ballet. Haze is ostensibly her response to the economic and environmental crises of 2009 but apart from the ubiquitous smoky haze that hovers around the stage the work is so abstract that it’s difficult to quantify this.
The first ten minutes or so, set to the first movement of Gorecki’s Symphony No.3, are lovely. The choreography is at its best when matching the meditative nature of the music, particularly when the dancers roll across the floor at a snail’s pace stretching their limbs up crablike to the stars. By the time the Sorrowful Songs glide in, however, you’ve pretty much seen everything and are left with an hour of endless jumps, aimless running and childlike bed-jumping.
One of Haze’s biggest assets, but also one if its biggest drawbacks, is the spongey mat that replaces the traditional dancing surface. It enables the dancers to fling themselves fearlessly about and initiate a beguiling series of novel and spectacular landings. However, doubling as a metaphor for the precarious nature of life, the mat also caused physical problems that were difficult to reconcile against its intellectual standpoint; balance was obviously awkward to control and fluid movement across the stage difficult. The effect was ponderous and heavy-going for the performers and audience alike.
The dancers themselves, strong, athletic and striking in their shapes and energy, were also messy in their ensemble work (occasionally wildly so, as epitomised when one of the dancers was so far out of position when falling backwards to the floor that he cracked his head loudly against the hard floorboards surrounding the mat, thankfully causing no apparent damage to himself).
Still, the potential for this troupe, and Chinese dance in general, is obvious and important; BDT have already come a long way in their three-year history as China’s first contemporary dance company. The selection of a work that chases Western notions of dance was a brave one but in a crowded market you can’t help wishing that BDT had presented something of theirs that delves into the vast cultural riches that their homeland has to offer.