Flying White, a new collaboration between Wen Wei Dance, Turning Point Ensemble, and members of Taiwan’s Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra, is guaranteed to be full of surprises—as one might expect from such an international and interdisciplinary cast of characters. But the biggest surprise of all might be that the idea of mixing calligraphy with music and dance didn’t come from Wen Wei Wang.
“It’s kind of interesting,” the Beijing-trained dancer turned choreographer explains in a telephone interview from his Mount Pleasant home. “Because I’m Chinese, everybody thinks I should know, or I have to know, calligraphy. But I grew up during the Cultural Revolution times, so mostly when we went to school we just studied Mao’s book, the red book. We had no tradition, no history to learn. They banned everything, so calligraphy was part of what had been banned—everything cultural. So, actually I don’t know much about calligraphy, but it is part of our history, our culture. It’s everywhere.”
For Wang, Flying White—the title refers to a particularly stark and expressive form of Chinese calligraphy—is a chance to pick up some new moves based on the centuries-old art of ink on paper. And for Turning Point’s cofounder and conductor Owen Underhill, who joins Dorothy Chang in composing music for the piece, it’s an opportunity to expand on his burgeoning love of the calligraphic arts.
“Turning Point went to Taipei and Shanghai in the last two years,” Wang explains, “and somehow Owen got all these books and magazines about calligraphy. So when we started to talk about this project, he said ‘I really want to use calligraphy.’ He feels that the energy, the movement, it reflects sound. And I said, ‘Oh, wow, it’s like movement, too.’ So of course I said yes.”
Working with six dancers, Wang is primarily exploring negative space, with the sculptural void between the performers standing in for the unmarked paper between strokes of the calligrapher’s brush.
“I brought a lot of different kinds of calligraphy into the studio,” he explains. “I asked each dancer to look at which calligrapher they feel connected to in their body. Some [styles] are more fluid, some are more curved, some are like lines, straight and clear and short. Some are thin and some are thick. So I asked them to just look at those textures to create a movement, improvising to start. So, basically, from the improv I see how each person moves, and then we can start creating the movement.”
It’s not necessarily an easy process; Wang reiterates how nervous he was when he first started working with such an ancient and revered art form. “I was going ‘Okay, this is my culture, but I don’t really understand. I don’t know how to pull all this together,’” he says. “But I believe that when you’re really honest, you find what you really want to speak.”
Wen Wei Dance and Turning Point Ensemble present Flying White at SFU Woodward’s Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre from Friday to Sunday (January 31 to February 2), as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.