Posted by Gareth K Vile & Iwona Wilk, Thu 06 Aug 2009
China is currently at the forefront of artistic interest. Gareth K Vile meets an Irish choreographer who wants to communicate.
Dialogue is the creation of one Irish and one Chinese dancer, with input from a Chinese composer. While not a debate about inherent differences between East and West, or a simple act of cultural tourism, it uses the dance traditions of Europe and Asia to conjure a yi jing, or contemplative atmosphere.
Fearghus O Conchuir, who developed and dances Dialogue along with Xiao Ke, brought a clear concept to the project. Rather than trying to make grand social statements, he began with the two separate visions of performance.
“The impetus for the piece didn’t come from a desire to break taboos. We wanted to work out how we, as very different artists from very different backgrounds, could create a common ground,” he says. This was further defined by the specific characters of the two dancers. “I am very keen that our differences are recognised. I am tall and lanky and angular. Xiao Ke (which means ‘little precious stone’) is small, grounded and sinuous. She’s a woman. I’m a man. These are the bodies we inhabit and, short of gender re-assignment and extreme body modification, these differences are fixed but that doesn’t mean that we can’t work together.”
Dialogue is an experiment in how different people can work together, despite the almost opposing approaches that they represent. “While I usually design quite specifically my choreographic material, Xiao Ke is more accustomed to improvising,” O Conchuir elaborates. “The choreographic structure we arrived at is a framework for us to continue investigating and negotiating our relationship. The structure allows to understand better each other and, unexpectedly, ourselves, so that the piece is something that develops and grows with us.”
In this sense, ‘dialogue’ is a fitting title for the performance, where dance replaces verbal communication and strives towards a deeper appreciation of both shared and diverging perspectives. This organic process allows the piece to take a fresh look at intercultural exchange, and has directly grown out of O Conchuir’s professional relationship with Xiao Ke.
“I saw Xiao Ke perform when I was in Beijing in 2006. She was with the ZuHe Niao collective. I spoke to her after the show and arranged to meet again in Shanghai. After that first encounter, I went back to Shanghai in 2007 to spend some time working together.”
This led to a series of duets that consolidated their bond. “We did a long improvised performance in a studio and that was the first time we tried to figure out what physical language would make sense between us. We just tried something and went with our instinct, but it was useful to look at the footage afterwards as we could see what connected us.” Gradually, they integrated their movement, seeking to reconcile “the designed, muscular roughness” of O Conchuir’s style with Xiao Ke’s “grounded, flowing, improvised approach.”
The Orient provided the foundation for Dialogue, as the pair used elements of traditional Chinese philosophy to guide the structure of the piece.
“We’ve explored the energy states associated with fire, metal, earth, water and wood and we’ve referred to the grid system of Luo Shu to structure our use of the space.” Yet even such a precise inspiration is only part of what the dance seeks to demonstrate. “The idea that informs the piece is inseparable from this history of our working together, exploring a potential relationship between us,” O Conchuir insists. “These influences serve only to underpin the relationship between us that evolves in performance.”
Once again, dance serves as a far more effective method of communicating a relationship than language. Any sort of dialogue based on words would have to negotiate translation, either allowing one tongue to dominate (perhaps depending on the performance’s venue) or leaving the performers speaking in different languages. The body, however, can be trusted to explain itself through a sympathy between the dancers and shared dance techniques. The question becomes one of possibility and union, rather than a struggle to impose one form upon the other, as O Conchur confirms.
“In choreographic terms, it becomes an interesting challenge to work out, in a formal way, how two different bodies can share the space. Can we do unison material? Can we do partnering? What can we risk? What do we avoid? The process is not to eliminate differences but to work through them. What starts to emerge, when we’ve done that, is the quality that draws us together, that connects us despite our differences, but recognising that connections will never diminish the differences between us. Nor should harmony depend on diminishing difference.”
In recent years, the ongoing migration of art and thoughts between Europe and China has become critical, as both cultures expand and explore the other’s ideas. In its early stages, this migration runs the risk of being imperialistic or exploitative, and it is a sign of maturing interplay that allows works like Dialogue to be more than decorative chinoiserie or blunt political comment.
Dance becomes a way of suggesting fruitful collaboration; a strategy to build a commonality without excluding or oppressing either party. As a study in communication, Dialogue is peaceable, inclusive. That it strives to conjure a contemplative rather than combatative atmosphere is a natural expression of the work’s personal and historical genesis.