Leave it to Vancouver dance artist Wen Wei Wang to turn something as everyday as chopsticks into a gracefully expressive metaphor for hunger and his distant past in Maoist China.
The scene, just one in an ambitious new collaborative project with three other Asian artists, finds Wang swirling the sticks through the air like calligraphy brushes to the haunting strains of on-stage musician Qiu Xia He’s pipa, while video and sound designer Sammy Chien’s projections of inklike washes of colour expand and contract behind him.
“Everybody knows they’re Chinese, so they are a symbol, but on the other hand nobody dances with chopsticks on-stage,” the affable dancer-choreographer tells the Straight from Victoria, where the wryly titled Made in China has just premiered. “But for me they’re a part of life. Food is so important for the Chinese. And I remember, when I grew up, I was always hungry,” he adds, referring to the days of hardship his family faced after the Cultural Revolution. “At that time we didn’t have breakfast. So I link that in to being an adult, and I’m still hungry—but not for food.”
Over the past few years, Wang has worked with Beijing Modern Dance Company artistic director Gao Yanjinzi (who also performs in the piece), Silk Road Music’s He, and Chien to dig into their pasts and create an intimate multimedia show about some of their deepest experiences of living in the East and bringing their art to the West. Aside from Chien, who hails from Taiwan and represents a new, younger generation and imbues the production with a contemporary technological edge, the artists had a common experience to explore. “We all grew up in a Communist country,” explains Wang. “We all know how freedom is important and how there is still not the freedom to make your artwork in China. And we all studied arts at an early age.”
For all three, it was a way out of the rigid system, a form of escape. For Wang, for instance, it meant training and performing for the Langzhou Song and Dance Company and eventually finding his way to the West and into the ranks of contemporary companies like Judith Marcuse Dance Company and Ballet B.C. For He, Wang says, learning her ancient instrument was her mother’s way of getting her to specialize in something unique so she wouldn’t be sent to the countryside to work under the Maoist rule.
Wang hasn’t danced for the past few years, but has been choreographing large-scale works for the likes of Alberta Ballet, Ballet B.C., and Vancouver Opera, as well as for his own, critically lauded Wen Wei Dance. But the return to the stage in such an intimate, interdisciplinary work has reinspired him. “I think it’s really about four Chinese artists and how they work,” he says, pointing out it’s the intricate, multilayered opposite of the cheap, slapped-together connotations of the words “Made in China”. “We’re all doing things we’ve never done before: I’m playing music, singing, and talking as well as dancing, and others are dancing for the first time.”
Even as it breaks new ground for Wang, Made in China takes him ever further back into his past. “After 24 years in Canada I realized I’m still Chinese. Chinese blood runs inside my body and it’s getting stronger,” he says with a laugh. “Now I see how rich my culture was and how much I learned. Why follow something that’s already been done in the West, rather than dig deep inside myself to create something different? This is a chance to understand ourselves and open it all to share the stories.”
Wen Wei Dance’s Made in China is at the Firehall Arts Centre next Wednesday to Saturday (February 18 to 21).