Terrace Theater, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC; October 22, 2014

Carmel Morgan

Beijing Dance Theater in 'Dead Fire' from 'Wild Grass'.  Photo © Han Jiang

Beijing Dance Theater in ‘Dead Fire’ from ‘Wild Grass’.
Photo © Han Jiang

Beijing Dance Theater (BDT, 北京当代芭蕾舞团), founded in 2008, debuted at DC’s Kennedy Center in October 2011. Another three years later, the company returned to the nation’s capital. This time, fresh from their appearance as part of the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, BDT performed “Wild Grass” (野草), a three-part work inspired by a 1927 collection of prose poems of the same name by Lu Xun (鲁迅), a revered literary figure in China. Although I was sometimes drawn-in by the work, more frequently I felt distant from whatever message was being imparted. I could not help but wonder how “Wild Grass” is perceived by a Chinese audience, who is more likely to be familiar with the poems and the imagery and feelings they are meant to provoke.

“Wild Grass” proved to be visually striking, due in large part to the beautiful and often astounding stage and lighting design by producer and visual artist Han Jiang (韩江). The choreography by Wang Yuanyuan (王媛媛) and the costumes by Zhong Jiani (鐘佳妮) also added to the visual appeal. As for the emotional content, what I read on the dancers’ faces in the three distinct sections “Dead Fire” (死火), “Farewell, Shadows” (影的告别), and “Dance of Extremity” (极地之舞), ranged from quiet detachment, to smug confidence, to shared agony and utter loneliness. Put it all together, and I assume you get something like life – a ride with a lot of up and downs. I would guess from the performance that Lu Xun’s poems address life’s turbulence, with a tendency to focus on the dark moments, rather than the light ones.

The first section, “Dead Fire”, grabbed me the least. The dancers looked almost bored, and the movement they executed came across as rather dull, too. To be sure, the dancers and the set were pretty. Against a black backdrop on which a white moon and some mountain tops were gently splashed in faint white strokes, dancers in nude-colored costumes tossed thin feathery white bits, which were reminiscent of icy snow, upon the floor. In the beginning, a sole figure clad in burgundy was curled in an almost fetal position, resting on the stage like a drop of blood, while a handful of dancers stood behind him swaying slightly, looking very much like ghosts. The sock-footed dancers swept around as if they were creating calligraphy. Their legs flung up to their ears making multiple exclamation points. They moved precisely, with balletic lines, but with a certain stiffness that I found awkward. The dancers, who made little eye contact with each other, seemed, well, cold and restrained. Their necks and shoulders, in particular, appeared rigid, where suppleness there would have been more natural and more flattering. And the dancing itself, with all the kicking, grew monotonous.

Beijing Dance Theater in 'Farewell, Shadows' from 'Wild Grass'.  Photo © Han Jiang

Beijing Dance Theater in ‘Farewell, Shadows’ from ‘Wild Grass’.
Photo © Han Jiang

The second section, “Farewell, Shadows,” stood in stark contrast. There were still a lot of high kicks, but the atmosphere changed completely. The dancers wore all black, the women in short shorts and a midriff-baring bandeau top and the men in matching shorts and tank tops. Lights hung low from bars that crossed just above the dancers’ heads, a white floor, and a spinning black sculpture above, made up the décor. The dancers no longer stared blankly, they aimed their gaze directly at the audience. They strutted with a surprising air of confidence, reminding me of models on a catwalk. A pair of male dancers guided and pulled a female dancer who was en pointe between them. While the dancing remained somewhat repetitive, the electronic music propelled it like a hypnotic heartbeat. Here, the dancing had a lighter feeling. I found myself smiling at unexpected moments. Much of the movement centered on leaning. A woman, whose weight rested in her partner’s arms, had her feet stretched out and crossed in front of her and then she wiggled. In fact, many times I saw pairs in which one dancer, being gently dragged backward, had her feet out in front of her sliding
from one side to the other like a beginner on ice skates.

'Dance of Extremity' from 'Wild Grass'.  Photo © Han Jiang

‘Dance of Extremity’ from ‘Wild Grass’.
Photo © Han Jiang

The final section, “Dance of Extremity”, brought more surprises.  It conjured, again, a completely different atmosphere, aided by the carpet of straw (wild grass, I guess!) that covered the stage. The straw matting appeared rough, like horse hair, and it even sent up small poofs of dirt when smacked hard. One back corner of the stage was elevated, like a small mountain, atop which a lone dancer stood, or others ran down. The three sections did seem to be tied together, despite their disparate looks. I observed a repeated element – a dancer slowly raising a bent knee straight up toward the chest – in each section. The moon returned from the first section, as did all black costumes from the second section. Robotic arm movements that looked like policemen directing traffic marked “Dance of Extremity” as distinct, as did the physical and emotional struggle that was portrayed. The music had a menacing air about it, and so did the dancing. At one point, a female dancer shaped her lips into a large circle as if ready to scream, only to have the hand of the male dancer behind her move to cover her mouth. Dancers collapsed on their sides were dragged by an arm on an angle across the scruffy stage. One male dancer pushed his female partner to the ground and subsequently held a threatening finger in front of her face. On their knees, dancers threw up their hands in surrender. Finally, the dancers formed a line and marched. Their arms engaged in a series of sign language-type gestures while they moved from the perimeter of the stage into a tight but organized cluster. Simultaneously, a single dancer atop the little mountain at the back corner of the stage pulled and pulled a long rope from the ceiling, which piled in a coil at his feet. Was the theme here exasperation? Frustration? I’m not sure, but I was thankful to have seen BDT’s “Wild Grass”, whatever its meaning.