Yuyu Rau (with Liz Liew in the background) in 'Snapshots.' Photo © David Ball

Yuyu Rau (with Liz Liew in the background) in ‘Snapshots.’
Photo © David Ball

South Bank Arts Centre, Bedford, UK; July 26, 2013.     

David Mead   

South Asian influence in British contemporary dance is well established; just think of the standing of the likes of Akram Khan and Shobana Jeyasingh to name but two. Despite Britain having a significant East Asian community, dance from further East remains largely hidden. It is rarely seen in performance either in its own right or combined with other forms.

Enter Step Out Arts, a Bedford-based organisation that seeks to promote East Asian dance and create opportunities for British East Asian choreographers through professional development, mentoring of emerging choreographers and educational activities. Among those they are guiding and promoting is Taiwan-born Yuyu Rau. Her latest work, “Snapshots,” was made in collaboration with composer Liz Liew, and is an exploration of emotions around key moments in the latter’s life told through Chinese classical dance-influenced contemporary dance and further illustrated with short video projections.

Rau moves easily throughout. Martial arts and Chinese dance shapes merge seamlessly with the often most expressive contemporary movement It’s no easy task for a solo dancer to hold the audience for nigh on forty minutes, but she largely succeeds. The choreography is endearingly honest, with emotions clear for all to see. The most interesting sections are the darker ones where angst, worry and concern are to the fore. Here Rau is completely engaged with the subject matter, her whole body packed with expressive gesture. She often appeared bound by some unseen force, frequently manipulating her limbs in an effort to escape whatever was holding her in its grip.

Happier, more upbeat emotion is always more difficult to portray effectively. In such scenes, Rau has an unfortunate tendency to revert to Isadora Duncan like skipping around the stage and standard modern (rather than contemporary) dance class movement that lacks challenge, complexity, and much in the way of interest. The ending is also weak. As it happens, there are two very powerful moments, both in the final five minutes, both accompanied by powerful yet simple images, and either of which would have made for a far more memorable conclusion. Both opportunities are missed.

Although based on scenes from Liew’s life, thankfully she and Rau eschew any idea of a straight narrative. Episodes come and go, with thought occasionally flicking back just as memories do in real life. Sometimes the dance moves on too fast, though, not allowing a theme to develop. Ideas can overstay their welcome, and less is often more, but they can pass too quickly too.

Suki Mok’s visuals, a mix of still images and film, were effective and often very powerful, although I sometimes found the constant off-on nature of them irritating. Again, the problem was not the projections but the pacing. In fact, there were times when I wanted the video to be longer, and that says quite a lot coming from someone who feels that it is frequently overdone in dance performance. Among the more memorable depictions were that of an unborn child in the womb and a representation of a Winter Tree in a sequence about losing a loved one. The latter looked like an ash covered flower or fungus and was strikingly beautiful and really apt. Chloe Kenward’s lighting added little, though, and seemed to be almost an afterthought.

All was accompanied by Liew live on piano and violin, and even better, Dennis Kwong Thye Lee on the traditional Chinese guzheng, a plucked zither, and xiao, a bamboo flute. The piano selections were most melodic but generally left little lasting impression. Chinese classical music is often thought of as strange sounding to Western ears, but Lee’s contribution was breathtakingly evocative. His playing added depth and considerable punch to Rau’s efforts. It was also interesting to see just how effectively Asian and Western instruments and music can be combined.