Beijing Dance / LTDX premiered Earth / Quake, a contemporary dance work by well-known traditional Chinese choreographer Yang Wei at the People’s Liberation Army Theater last week to a noticeably mixed and highly enthusiastic crowd of foreigners and locals alike. This is the first time Yang has done a modern dance piece, announced good-humoured Artistic Director Willy Tsao before the show, ‘so even if you do not like it, you can appreciate the effort that she put into this trial’. The Beijing Dance / LDTX dancers could not have disappointed their audience had they tried.

A lone man walked out of the shadows into the beam of approaching headlights. An illuminated clock overhead showed 12:20. There was a twinkle of sound, the clock face went dark and a spot light revealed a veiled figure who was immediately the focus of all the man’s attention. Turning slowly, as smooth as if she stood on a potter’s wheel, she twisted herself into the swathe of white gauze: a chrysalis ready to be discovered. In the wake of an oncoming train, he (Adiya) gently surrendered himself to this ethereal female creature (Gong Xing Xing).

Their hands met, Gong allowing Adiya to follow where she led, trailing filmy white fabric – trapping him and herself in the magic of their encounter. Gong cut shapes beneath her veil, often leaving the fabric to hang in the air a second or two after she had vanished from that spot. Together they entangled one another. Adiya toyed earnestly with the huge shroud of ghostly material, pulling it out straight and tight as a washing line before allowing it to ping free. 

With a sudden overload of sound, she seemed to disappear from sight the very moment he was captured by a large cohort of strangely clad monochrome beings. These painted, tribal beasts writhed and twisted together under ultra-bright lights, moving as one mass before spreading apart and gradually coming to a halt like dominoes. They had to be picked up and put back together again piece by piece, each revived with a quick shunt from the next.

Their costumes, designed by Jemmy Zhang, were utterly marvelous. Deconstructed formal wear hung off the dancers in swathes, tailored angles of suit jackets stuck out from their bodies and five foot long oversized neckties swung as they danced. Tang Ting Ting momentarily climbed one arm and one leg into the formal jacket that had until then been her skirt. Lopsided, she explored her movement capabilities momentarily before untangling herself and letting it hang, angular and bulky, from her waist once again.

The morass of bodies seethed with manic energy, reeking of potential havoc and disturbance they might cause. They guard their territory, pulling Gong into the surging throng, ricocheting off one another while both protecting her and attacking him. Adiya was absorbed into their midst, stripped of his clothing and spat out again. Finally, he awoke from his fleeting dream. The tangible space between reality and imaginary had dissolved beneath the harsh light of the clock face announcing the return of measured time and space.

Yang is an army choreographer, so she has done a lot of mainstream Chinese dance, but has never choreographed contemporary dance before. Usually, she creates traditional dances for the entertainment of high-ranking military officials (hence this performance was held at the PLA Theater, in a military administrative zone, not in the LDTX studios downtown). Yang is used to working under strict conditions, having her work monitored and controlled. This, exclaimed Tsao, was the first time she had ever worked without any guidelines or regulation from above. Tsao gave her free reign: she had the dancers and free use of the LDTX studio for one month. ‘Sometimes’, he translates for me, ‘she worried she would not do justice to how free she felt.’ The liberty to do whatever she pleased – and perhaps the pressure to make something memorable of it – resulted in a beautiful and highly evocative piece of contemporary choreography. Earth / Quake is incredibly impressive for a first attempt.

Willy Tsao’s Beijing Dance / LDTX performed wonderfully in the premiere of Chinese choreographer Yang Wei’s Earth / Quake at Beijing’s PLA Theater last Tuesday. Yang, costume designer Jemmy Zhang and composer Ni Nan appeared equally honoured and humbled to work with Beijing Dance / LDTX who were on top form throughout their first performance of Earth / Quake.