Made in China is a personal, engrossing gift

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      A Wen Wei Dance production. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Wednesday, February 18. Continues to February 21

      Four artists are serving up a delectable Chinese candy box of artistic expression, just in time for the Lunar New Year.

      This personal gift to Vancouver audiences starts out so warm and casually you might be caught off guard by some of the transcendent interdisciplinary imagery it comes up with.

      At the beginning of the show, local dance artist Wen Wei Wang arrives on-stage singing with Beijing Modern Dance Company performer Gao Yanjinzi, pipa player Qiu Xia He, and video and sound artist Sammy Chien. From there, the mood is fun and easy: when Wang announces they’re all “Made in China”, Chien begs to differ, because he’s from Taiwan.

      Each of them takes turns addressing the audience, telling us how they got into their art form, from He’s mother coaxing her into music to avoid being sent to the country to work to Chien talking about how he used to play with his dad’s camera.

      But Wang’s true story about seeing his first ballet at six in China and coming home to try dancing, draped under one of his mother’s scarves, leads us into a dreamlike realm where the rest of Made in China dwells. To the sounds of He’s haunting singing, the one-time Ballet B.C. dancer moves like a graceful ghost under a cloud of gauze.

      Amid other striking imagery, the supple Gao throws a huge silhouette on the back screen, articulating her fingers in the most exquisite bit of hand-shadow-play you’ve likely ever seen. And Wang shows the imagination for using traditional props that we saw in his hit works like Cock-Pit, with its phallic pheasant feathers, and Unbound, with its foot-binding slippers: in one segment, he and Gao dance with giant, fluttery fans fastened like alien masks to their faces.

      Chien’s live-manipulated video and sound techniques bring a contemporary richness to it all, from the calligraphy-like blotches that move with Wang’s shadow in one segment, to the walls of static that blow apart from him and Gao as they clang cymbals. Seeing Chien sitting on the stage, working his technology, is also cool in juxtaposition with He, strumming her ancient four-string pipa.

      Through the vignettes, you can read references to the participants’ pasts in China. In some cases, these are painful: just watch when Wang, working a pair of chopsticks into gorgeous arcs through the air, repeats hypnotically “I’m hungry. I’m always hungry” in Mandarin and English. From past interviews, we know that he’s referring in part to the constant pangs he felt as a child growing up in Maoist China, when he would often live on small amounts of rice. But this mesmerizing segment, like so many of the interdisciplinary studies here, takes on a larger metaphorical meaning as it progresses.

      What comes across most about Made in China is, first of all, how wrong the mass-produced presumptions played with in the title are: as these four artists show, the culture has a diversity and richness that we never fully get to see or appreciate here in the West. And then there’s the generosity of these talented performers, sharing a bit of themselves and their heritage in a way that’s by turns surprising and spellbinding. Think of it as a Chinese New Year celebration that’s an intimate world away from the dragon dances and parades that will be going on in nearby Chinatown this week.

      Follow Janet Smith on Twitter @janetsmitharts.