Chinese are moving ‘Heaven and Earth’

Times Staff Writer

Dance evokes the written word in radically different ways during a finely wrought program by the Guangdong Modern Dance Company of China, seen Thursday and ending tonight at the Watercourt in California Plaza.

Part of the free Grand Performances summer series, the two-part performance begins with “Heaven and Earth,” a group of six short pieces (mostly by artistic director Willy Tsao) inspired by Chinese nature poetry from the 4th to 11th centuries. After intermission, choreographer Liu Qi depicts styles of traditional Chinese script in her suite “Upon Calligraphy.”

Both works will have special resonance for those who speak the language they serve, but their pictorial appeal on the outdoor Watercourt stage is likely to start others thinking about heritage and the way literature -- its form as well as its content -- underpins so many of the performing arts.

Besides its subject, the creative use of apparel helps unify “Heaven and Earth.” Dancers in long coats form a social cadre in the opening and closing sections -- but emerge in flesh-colored leotards (bare arms and legs) for overlapping solos and other personal statements. Cords link pairs of dancers in another sequence -- a metaphor for the values and experiences that tie people together -- and elsewhere, long scarves attached to the dancers’ waists are hurled in a dynamic expansion of traditional Chinese ribbon-dancing.


Midway through, Liu Qi contributes a sequence in which Lu Yahui dramatically twists, bends and stretches wearing a black gown with a gossamer train that fills the entire stage. Under the edges of that train, four dancers manipulate the fabric to complement the water images of an antique poem by Li Yu.

In “Upon Calligraphy,” Liu Qi emphasizes contrasts in attack that suggest the differences between bone, seal, official, regular and cursive script, with dancers sometimes making shapes that resemble Chinese characters. Mostly, however, they move in ways that highlight the characteristics of the brush strokes.

“Your writing’s forcible, like ancient poets, while / Mine is in Junior Xie’s direct and easy style,” reads an 8th century poem by Li Bai in “Heaven and Earth,” and that kind of playoff gives “Upon Calligraphy” its structure.

In the second section, Yu Lijun leads a women’s trio dominated by sweeping arms and sudden, yet soft, drops to the floor. Next, a duet for Lu Yahui and Ouyang Wenliang exploits the detailed matching of energies and body shapes.

And after that, Hui Guanglei anchors a fast, rough and bold men’s quintet. Group choreography brackets these intimate sequences, and even if Chinese penmanship is Greek to you, the skill and variety of the dancing remains admirable. (This work should not be confused with the three “Cursive” pieces on the same theme by well-known Taiwanese choreographer Lin Hwai-min for his Cloud Gate Dance Theatre.)

If you had seen the Guangdong ensemble -- China’s first modern dance company -- around the time it was officially founded in 1992, you would have noticed the strong influence of classical ballet in matters of placement, partnering and the attempt to minimize weight. That influence continues and, indeed, prevails compared with the other (more distinctively contemporary) Chinese companies that Willy Tsao has led, and brought to Los Angeles.

The folk music in “Heaven and Earth” and the score by Li Chin Sung in “Upon Calligraphy” give the graceful, balleticized style a national flavor, as do borrowings from martial arts, gymnastics and the court-dance tradition. But expect movement essentially familiar, conservative and even backdated at its core -- beautifully done, as far as it goes.



Guangdong Modern Dance Company

Where: Grand Performances at California Plaza, 350 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: Today, 8 p.m.


Price: Free

Contact: (213) 687-2190 or