There’s a lot of biography behind Wen Wei Wang’s new seventy-minute work, “Cock-Pit”, but if you hadn’t been told, you wouldn’t know it. And that’s just fine. Because what we saw instead at the Scotiabank Dance Centre premiere was a very beautiful abstract work featuring two props — small translucent eggs and four-foot-long pheasant feathers – in haunting scenes of playfulness, competition and sexuality. Wang pulled off that elusive feat of making the personal into something bigger than itself.
The biography has to do with the time Wang spent as a young dance student in Lanzhou, China, when he stayed at a boarding school run by the People’s Liberation Army. Wang doesn’t try to literally re-enact that period, but the four years he spent there provides the work’s main theme of adolescent sexual awakening. This is often presented with more than a little humour, making the work surprisingly entertaining. Take Alison Denham’s first appearance on stage in the middle of a cluster of men; only her hands are visible, prodding, poking and squeezing one dancer’s bum in a frank and funny exploratory fashion.
“Cock-Pit” begins with four bare-chested men – Scott Augustine, Edmond Kilpatrick, Josh Martin and David Raymond — crouched centre stage, boyishly combative as they play a game to see who will be the last to pick up one of the four eggs clustered on the floor in front of them. Later, Martin rolls an egg luxuriously over his body while the others arch back, each one rather improbably nestling an egg over an eye.
In the very next scene, the first feather appears, strapped to the forehead of the single female dancer, Denham. With the appearance of that fascinating feather — or perhaps simply the presence of that fascinating woman, who is elusive yet compelling throughout — Wang’s creativity is unleashed. In other scenes, with different combinations of dancers, the feather is attached to the pelvis, where it curves up in phallic glory. Sometimes the dancers wear two feathers, one behind or in front of each shoulder. Kilpatrick has a solo in which a feather is strapped on just above each knee, transforming him into a wonderful creature who appears most comfortable squatting in a second position plié, shaking his thighs so the feathers snake upward in a storm of delicate trembling. The work ends with Raymond and Augustine battling each other with a feather gripped tight under each armpit (two cocks fighting in a cockpit, the most obvious reference to the title).
The warm brown feathers, richly patterned with dabs and dashes of black and white, are extravagantly long and exquisitely sensitive, quivering and curving into space, responsive to the movement of the body and to the currents in the air that passes over them. With the feathers in place, the performers were like an astonishing new species of dancer, making intriguing physical adjustments — some subtle, some more obvious — to animate and accommodate the unusual appendage.
Like the tiny red shoes in Wang’s 2006 “Unbound”, the feathers are visually arresting props that carry some symbolic weight. Wang notes in the program that feathers in Chinese opera are worn as hairpieces to denote the character of a warlord, but their use in “Cock-Pit” isn’t so specific; in this work, writes Wang, they are “extensions of the body”. As such, they are a physical inspiration for his choreography much as steel crutches and other devices were for Marie Chouinard in her “body_rEMIX/gOLDBERG_vARIATIONS”, and their “meaning” is left for audiences to intuit.
The movement in “Cock-Pit” is fresh and unmannered in a way that Wang, celebrated for his combination of western ballet and modern styles with Chinese dance, hasn’t attained before. The groundedness is still there, and the beautiful long legs; so are the articulate fingers and hands. What’s new is how the movement comes together without the sense of it breaking down into parts, a bit of this and a bit of that: it feels whole. My guess is that the lively flow of Raymond and Martin — two dancers he hasn’t worked with before – somehow catapulted Wang into making more instinctive and less cerebral choices. There are also the feathers, of course, which are in almost every scene, and the need to dance within both their limits and possibilities.
The whole cast gave stellar performances, and the group is remarkably cohesive though they vary in experience and background: Kilpatrick recently retired from Ballet BC; Raymond and Martin are just being noticed on the local scene for their youthful urban aesthetic; and Augustine and Denham are experienced artists who have worked with Wang before.
Some highlights include the way Martin devours the stage as he slides and twirls close to the floor, and Denham’s hyper-extended limbs as she crawls lizard-like across the stage. Denham also has numerous duets with Kilpatrick in which the two prove well matched: when he lifts her around his tall, strong body, he creates airborne possibilities that she capably animates.
Backing Wang was his usual team of collaborators, starting with costume designer Kate Burrows, whose beige knee-length trousers (for the men) and tiny shorts and top (for Denham) provide a good foil for the feathers. The score by Giorgio Magnanensi is subtle and complex, built with constantly changing layers of concrete sounds (including one that seemed like a cross between an alarm clock and a buzz saw). Finally, James Proudfoot’s fractured lighting, which often cuts through an atmospheric fog that wafts over the stage, helps make “Cock-Pit” a visual feast.
In 2008, Wang’s proposal for “Cock-Pit” won the Rio Tinto Alcan Performing Arts Award, which comes with $60,000 for production. The award rotates annually between dance, theatre and music, and it’s heartening to have another strong choreographic work (two previous hits were Crystal Pite’s “Lost Action” and Holy Body Tattoo’s “Circa”). The gang at Rio Tinto Alcan should feel proud to see their money put to such good creative use.