As the eyes of the world turn towards China, first as the new economic superpower and second as the host of the 2008 Olympics, it’s an opportune time for Chinese culture to piggyback on the hefty shoulders of sport, and get seen around the world. This year’s China in London season has duly broadened in size and scope, and linked up with the national China Now festival, the largest UK festival of Chinese culture.
In terms of international understanding, though, sport has it easy: you just have to agree some standards, set out the rules, and anyone can follow the game. Not so with culture, as illustrated by performances by the Beijing Modern Dance Company. The opening piece, Oath – Midnight Rain, made you sometimes uncomfortably aware that the term “outlandish” – with all its connotations of exotica and strangeness – is at root another word for “foreign”.
Choreographed by company founder and director Gao Yanjinzi, this 45-minute work is a sequence of five portraits, linked together by an enigmatic veiled figure in red and gold. As in Chinese opera, costume plays an important role in delineating character, and the pace, too, is wilfully slow. The first solo sees a bare-bodied man in layers of net skirts, like a stamen in whorl of petals. He wraps himself into a bud, or unfurls his petticoats, sobbing silently into them as if they were sheets; then releases his arms into delicate tendrils with coiling fingers. As portraits go, this seems to balance on the knife edge between subtle and silly. The same goes for the following woman, who carries a whip with a tail of long hair that she circles and flicks in a portentous versions of a ribbon dance.
The subsequent episodes cast a stronger spell. A woman in black and red dress cloaks herself with her voluminous batwing sleeves like an imperious vampire. A man, with banners of white cloth attached to his back that stretch into the wings, marches slowly forward, flags sprouting from his shoulders and a long red moustache that hangs to his feet like a net curtain. More exotic still is the last soloist, a muscled man in red-toed slippers and a black corset, his face made up like a Chinese opera travesti player, who takes to the air in a huge swing that lets him soar owlishly above the stage. These portraits – ostensibly of a flower, grass, a fish, an insect and a bird – are alluring and baffling in equal measure. The imagery is always striking, but there’s a nagging feeling that either you’re missing some deeper meaning, or it’s just outlandish.
Hu Lei’s Unfettered Journey is a much more amenable piece, for the whole company of 10 dancers. It opens with an urban ambience: to a sputtering drum-and-bass soundtrack, a man in black sways and shudders, as cool and as self-contained as a clubber. Others join in, and they run through tightly-drilled formations that flip seamlessly between taut snaps and casual sweeps. Later the troupe become more animalistic, the sound softer. Monkey squats lead to long-limbed lopes; a squadron of men hop and crouch, or sway on all fours, as alertly and as sensitively as lizards on a branch. At the end, the dancers slip sideways across the stage, their fans snapping open like crests.
If the composition relies rather too much on unison formations, Unfettered Journey nevertheless has a mesmerising style of movement that feels curiously “Chinese”. Imagine an American company performing this work, for example, and you’d expect more raw punch. But these dancers have a very martial-arts quality – a particular combination of inner strength and outer fluidity, a balance of delicacy, poise and attack. You can see a similar quality in Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, and even in the National Ballet of China. And you certainly see it Beijing Modern Dance Company, which makes them a real pleasure to watch.