Hong Kong Dance Company
Hong Kong, Grand Theatre
17 August 2012
A version of this review previously appeared in the South China Morning Post
The ancient art of calligraphy was traditionally more prized in China than the art of painting and creates an impact far greater than (and distinct from) the words of its texts. It has much in common with the art of dance – both forms convey emotions and ideas through the visual power of line and movement. A number of Chinese choreographers have created work which draws on this kinship, the most notable example being Lin Hwai-min with his Cursive trilogy for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. The latest is Yang Yuntao whose new production for Hong Kong Dance Company, Spring Ritual-Eulogy is inspired by two legendary master calligraphers – Wang Xizhi (303-361 AD) and Yan Zhenqing (705-785 AD).
In the first half, Yang produces some imaginative, fluid choreography to evoke images of calligraphy with the dancers’ bodies, which form well-defined black shapes against a white backcloth with the aid of Lin Ching-ju’s fine costumes. In an outstanding sequence the dancers run and whirl across the stage manipulating swathes of black fabric, vividly creating the effect of ink flowing from the calligrapher’s brush onto paper.
The influence of Lin and Cloud Gate is impossible to escape completely - ultimately there are only so many ways for dancers to portray calligraphy – but Yang has succeeded in putting his own stamp on the material.
The section ends with Wang Xizhi himself (elegantly portrayed by Liu Yinghong) in a dignified, lyrical dance which pays tribute to the sense of tranquillity and joy which distinguishes Wang’s masterpiece, Preface to Poems from the Orchid Pavilion.
The second half moves to a more narrative mode based on Yan Zhenqing’s Eulogy for a Nephew. The aged Yan (a powerful performance by Huang Lei) pours his grief and outrage over the brutal execution of his nephew into his calligraphy. There is some well-structured group work in which Yang conveys the fear and uncertainty of the people in a time of bloody rebellion. The high point is a stunning passage where four men perform impassioned, warlike solos in the corners of the stage, each in turn picked out by a powerful spotlight.
Some ideas don’t come off completely, such as the odd ending where a huge rock (looking for all the world like the rogue asteroid from Hollywood blockbuster Armageddon) is lowered very slowly to the stage to portentous music while Yan’s calligraphy is projected on to it. (Interestingly, the actual calligraphy of Wang and Yan is not used otherwise.)
Overall, this thoughtful piece confirms Yang as a choreographer of intelligence and originality. Design, lighting and music are all excellent, as is the dancing from this fine ensemble company.