A Beijing Modern Dance Company production. A Dancing on the Edge presentation. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Thursday, July 6. Continues July 7
The hypnotic Oath-Midnight Rain is one of the Beijing Modern Dance Company's signature works, rife with tai-chi-like movement, references to Buddhist symbolism, and haunting Mandarin songs. So why does it remind you so much of Japanese butoh?
It may be because the characters seem to inhabit the same pain-ridden territory, a sort of purgatory between life and death, moving oh-so-slow in each solo. But it's also because this piece (commissioned by the Venice Biennale way back in 2006) might be best enjoyed, like butoh, by embracing the nonrational, letting go of literal meaning so that you can just lose yourself in this strange fever dream.
Each of Gao Yanjinzi's elaborately costumed and made-up dancers represents a symbol from Chinese culture, especially those from the journey of the soul in Buddhism. Flower has a billowing blue-black gauzy skirt that the male dancer can pull up and over himself, like a morning glory's petals closing up for nightfall; sometimes he upends himself, his legs emerging from the fabric mass like flailing stamens and stigmas. Grass wields a long hemp whip, Fish flutters a black and red scalloped silk cape, and Bird is a gruff, red-bearded warrior whose fabric "wings" tether him, tied high up at each side of the stage.
The most fascinating of the bunch is the weirdly alluring, corset-wearing Insect, sad, curious eyes fixed on us as it swings sensually on a trapeze, its bizarre long braid sweeping the floor.
If the show sounds like a parade of cute anthropomorphized animals and plants, think again. The characters come and go like apparitions in the night, often tormented by burdens they seem to be trying to unload: witness the nightmare-inducing silent scream of Flower or Bird's violent struggles to unleash its wings. The soundtrack, a mix of almost throat-singing-like grunts, Peking opera vocalizations, rain sounds, and indie-ish singer-songwriter anthems, adds to the feeling of delirium.
The dancers are wildly charismatic, honed, and committed.
Gao, whose work we last saw here in the collaborative Made in China, excels at creating atmospheric imagery. Sure, a little of Oath-Midnight Rain might get lost in translation, and the slow, meditative pace may take some getting used to. But Gao's conjured exactly what she set out to: that liminal, eerie place between night and day and life and death, a strange carnival of souls. Lose yourself in the delirium if you can still get tickets.