In China, is there any theme that cuts as deeply as the conflict between collective identity and individuality? Back in the 1930s, some of the greatest American modern-dance choreographers created indelible statements on this subject, and their Chinese heirs are now renewing the debate with great daring and imagination.
The evidence: a four-part program in the California Plaza on Thursday that introduced the accomplished Beijing Modern Dance Company to U.S. audiences and reminded Americans of how potently the art can examine issues of grave societal concern.
Long before the program began, the company’s 13 dancers performed brief, personal speech-and-gesture solos throughout the Watercourt audience areas. These solos turned up later -- lumped together -- in artistic director Willy Tsao’s “I Came From,” a prologue to his full-evening dance drama “Kunlun.
Fleshed out by forceful ensemble dancing to Iraqi drum music, these passages delivered a conservative message: When everyone tries to assert individuality at once, the result is cacophony, not communication.
The dancers offered their own perspective in “Blown,” a collaborative, postmodern ensemble piece performed to traditional Chinese pipa music. Here everyone dressed alike in contemporary urban work clothes -- but nobody worked. Instead, everyone danced in and out of temporary alliances, restlessly seeking their own destinies, one by one.
Set to music from Egypt, India and Greece, Tsao’s “Prayer in the Dusk” depicted their search through an unwieldy mixture of formalist body sculpture and flamboyant technical feats. In the central duet, it certainly looked showy for Song Ting-ting to strike a Dancing Shiva pose one moment and the next an impossibly high, balletic balance in extension. But such juxtapositions undermined the work’s spiritual focus.
Nothing, however, blunted the message of “All River Red,” not even the listless, underchoreographed buildups at the beginning of both halves of this courageously politicized ensemble piece set to Stravinsky’s mighty “Rite of Spring.”
Choreographers Li Han-zhong and Ma Bo began with one dancer (Zi Wei) facing away from everyone else and then developed this theme of the outsider resisting and confronting collectivization through episodes evoking some of the more horrific periods of Chinese history.
Each dancer carried a length of red fabric, sometimes worn as a hood, or tied together to form a barbed wire barrier, or swirled madly in the air as a banner in a Maoist-style rally. It even became a kind of spine for a skeletal version of a traditional Chinese dragon dance.
And ultimately all the fabric-metaphors bound “All River Red” together as a powerful declaration of the need to cast away a heritage of mass brutality and embrace an entirely different kind of future.
Beijing Modern Dance Company
Where: Watercourt, California Plaza, 350 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.
When: Today, 8 p.m.
Contact: (213) 687-2159