Chinese dancers meander through the grass without a GPS
It can be a long ride home to Baltimore from the Kennedy Center, especially on a rainy night. After last evening’s Wild Grass presentation by the Beijing Dance Theater and the Post-Performance Discussion with the Beijing Dance Theater director, Wang Yuanyuan, and producer, Han Jiang, this writer had abundant time to consider a review. My immediate thoughts: 16 gorgeous, classically-trained young dancers in bikinis; bold, exotic costumes by Zhong Jian, an innovative lighting design; imaginative sets (in the last section the stage was raked and covered with a woolly substance); and a surreal feel to the three short pieces, each set to exotic musical selections.
During the discussion, the director, dressed in NYC hipster attire, clarified the inspiration for both her company and the new work derives from intellectual writer Lu Xin, specifically his collection of 1927 Wild Grass poems. “I dream that I am racing on ice mountains…All cold. All pale,” the poet wrote as dancers meander across a stage filled with paper snowflakes in the first movement of Dead Fire. Farewell Shadows (the audience favorite) follows with stronger, percussive moves and a dramatic ending transporting all the dancers downstage – perhaps inspiration from the man called “China’s greatest dissident writer.” Dance of Extremity rounded out the trio that leaves you wanting more details than the program notes, “And there remains only the vast wilderness…”
Those infamous words of Martha Graham kept popping into my head, “If you can say it, don’t bother to dance it.”
By the time I reached home, however, I had already dismissed the thoughts of Martha (and the poet) and focused on the beauty of the dance and, especially, the dancers. I appreciate that every so often a performance rolls around that rises above the average concert and the predictability of the usual dance troupe. This time it came in the fusing of aesthetics, traditional and contemporary styles, butoh, ballet, modern dance, and more.
All the elements were there in the opening performance – earth, air, fire, and water. The dancers stomped, the dancers soared, the dancers sizzled, and the dancers flowered as naturally as a stream tumbling downhill.
Here is a dance concert that allows the viewer to escape from the problems of the world and focus on the beauty of the body, men in sleek unitards and women in black shorts and tops. Close your eyes and be lulled into a world where nothing but movement matters.
Each section of the dance uses a different set and floor surface, from the black earth beneath the backdrop of a full moon and snowy mountain peak to that aforementioned grassy slope. And there’s always one mysterious figure – a male who commands our attention. At first he is dressed in red and awakens to a circle of his admirers (or his adversaries?). Then we find him dragging the dancers, one by one, their bodies skimming the stage floor with grace and elegance. Finally he’s left alone dangling an endless rope from a high rafter, an ending that leaves us with more questions than answers.
Running Time:One hour and 40 minutes, with two 15-minute intermissions.
Beijing Dance Theater performs Wild Grass tonight and tomorrow-October 24th and 25th at 7:30 p.m. in The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater – 2700 F street. NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600 or toll free 800-444-1324, or purchase them online.