It’s the individual movement that stays with you: bodies, male and female, unfurling legs and arms, flattening their torsos forward, winding and reaching like exotic plants trying to face the sun or growing in all directions in fast motion right before your eyes.
Wen Wei Wang’s “Tao (The Way)” is a carefully crafted, beautifully performed, seventy-minute work. The complexity of Wang’s vocabulary is a joy to watch: he moves bodies in space with what has become a sophisticated fusion of cultural styles. There’s the Chinese dance, evident in the angular limbs, and in the rich, organic shapes of the hands. There’s a kind of martial arts lunge that Wang adores: it grounds his dancers, and allows them to safely rest; it also gives them a place of strength from which to move in any direction, with any dynamic. Ballet’s elegant arms are glimpsed, an arabesque here and there, some quick, pointed footwork. There are also those long, long legs that kick impossibly high, like even the most chaste ballerina can’t resist doing nowadays. It all happens so fast, seamlessly.
Some biography, to explain the wealth of influences: Wang was born in China, where he danced professionally with the Langzhou Regional Dance Company. He first came to Canada in 1986 on a cultural exchange to perform and teach classical Chinese dance. He returned in 1991 and stayed, becoming a member of Judith Marcuse’s modern dance company before joining Ballet British Columbia. He choreographed for a workshop mounted by Marcuse in 1992, and then for a number of youth companies, beginning in 1997. In 2000, the year he became an independent dance artist, he received the Clifford E. Lee Award, which allowed him to create “Snow” at the Banff Centre for the Arts. He has since choreographed for Judith Garay’s Dancers Dancing, for Ballet Jörgen in Toronto, and for his own pickup groups. Recently, he performed an elegant improvisation with Peter Bingham at the EDAM studio/theatre.
“Tao” marks the next step forward, not just in terms of its increasing evidence of Wang’s own vocabulary, but also through the fact that its performed by his newly founded company, Wen Wei Dance.Karissa Barry, Christopher Duban, Desirée Dunbar, Paulina Kee, Chengxin Wei and Wang himself are a surprisingly cohesive group of dancers. Despite their different backgrounds — for instance, Barry is a Ballet BC mentor program graduate, Dunbar is a graduate of Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts, Wei is a Chinese dance-trained, ex-Ballet BC dancer — they all find a home for their talents in Wang’s culturally generous choreography.
The stage is bare except for an upstage screen on one side on which a Chinese symbol is projected and, later, a film by Dustin Lindblad and Felipe Verdugo. This short, abstract film interlude comes around the show’s halfway point, with flying English letters and numbers alongside flowing streams of Chinese characters. The screen is actually constructed of slats, which are sometimes opened to reveal another element of the dance. At one point, for instance, Kee is revealed behind the opened slats in a black satin Chinese robe. The lighting by James Proudfoot is another significant element of the design. Proudfoot uses red spotlights to create solid crimson circles that either cover the stage floor or highlight a single dancer; at other times, a blue wash creates a colder contrast.
Contrasts between hot and cold mark the score by Giorgio Magnanensi as well. Magnanensi, the artistic director of Vancouver New Music, has created the kind of spare, enigmatic score that appeals to Wang, who uses music as much for the space between notes as for any rhythmic drive. The appealing and surprisingly musical score varies from the dripping water, harsh clangs and warm violin of the opening, to industrial noise, undecipherable vocalizations and Spanish street buskers, to the final bird song.
Wang uses the music to support but never to define his choreography, which is a circular journey that begins with him alone on stage, and ends with his separation from the group, alone once more. In between, a series of duets and ensembles create evocative scenarios. The dancers, in simple black shorts and, for the women, beige halter tops (by costume designer Kate Burrows), crash through the first jerky, automaton-like grouping, one that takes them to the floor in crazy, kamikaze poses, with fast and furious finesse. Later, in red and black tulle skirts, the group forms a tight, inward-facing circle and they twitch their feet, or break into ill-matched couples (the men crouch down, making them too short to comfortably partner) and attempt a waltz.
The duets are mostly hot. The male-female pairings are sensual and sexy, allowing the women to indulge in air-born power through the support of their partners, who are always dynamically engaged. The duet for two men, Wang and Wei, was a highlight of the evening. It showcases male power and grace through the whirl of curving arms, torsos and legs of these two well-matched men, despite Wang being about a decade older. The rough-and-tumble when they are together, and the lighter, freer energy when they dance side by side in unison, was superb.
The overall structure of “Tao”, however, could build more compellingly. Admittedly, the chosen form is an episodic one, but even within that, a pattern can be created so that the choreography builds to reveal a larger, increasingly meaningful whole.
There is also some tension between the formal demands of Wang’s choreographic interests and the dramatic ones of his desire for epic expression, as described in the press material. The narrative he outlines there about China during the Cultural Revolution and his mixed feelings about becoming westernized was not visible from my point of view, nor was there sufficient dramatic expression to illuminate that story at a more abstract level. For example, the emotion of alienation is expressed through tight faces and shifting eyes, but rather timidly, and hence unconvincingly. Also, the expression of animal instincts, when one trio sniffs another, was so brief and chastely done it was almost invisible.
At this stage, the personal core in terms of what the choreography actually expresses, i.e., “what the dance is about,” is still revealed only cautiously. Yet there is another, more formal element that is nonetheless “personal” — that is about Wang expressing himself — in his choreographic vocabulary. What Wang has beautifully begun to develop is a personal style of movement, which so many choreographers strive for and cannot quite discover.