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The Rite and Harmony of “White”

The beauty of the technique of classical dance is born in the ritualistic process of endowing the body with dance, in the hope that it will enchant the soul. To quote luminary pedagogue Vaganova’s wisdom, “It is not enough to do the arabesque, one must become the arabesque.” Xing Dance Theatre’s new work “White” projects a crystalline understanding that in the art of dance, ritual begets beauty. Artistic director, choreographer and dancer Xing Bang Fu lets us feel the courage and refinement of ritual practice by phrasing the interlocking theatrical elements with passages of dance. The perilously slow crescendo of action is affecting and revealing, and essentially pure. Free from complicit seductive devices, clouds of exaggerated emotive excess and affectation, the truth about the beauty of a classical line becomes clear: the moment of perfect harmony in dance art encapsulates a moment of truth in itself, neither warm nor cold, but an Apollonian ideal. The beauty in “White” is at once pure and mystifying.

From the moment of his ghostly awakening beneath an imposing white orb, painted in white body paint familiar to butoh, Xing Bang Fu is the director of the action. There are two forces in this theatre-dance that sometimes join in a dance together, but more often the three corps dancers – Byron Beckford, Jelani Douglas and Sze-Yang Lam – echo Xing Bang Fu’s dramatic metaphors, letting them ring out around the theatre. There is harmony but a lack of empathy between the forces – each indifferently surrendered to their own dance. The three interpreters perform without reserve through the three main passages: going through the broken pieces of movement in the slow opening sequence, pulling out the edges of their swaying torsos in the complex middle section, and then driving themselves through the flight of jumps toward the end.

Ritual is a driving force behind the work of Xing Bang Fu, whose dance history traverses Chinese theatre, martial arts and modern dance. Throughout “White” he commits his sinewy body predominantly to metaphoric entanglements with theatre props: beginning by lying pronate under a suspended orb and ending half concealed behind a sparkling rain of paper confetti. However, his contemporary and classical choreography sets his dancers free, and they spread their vigorous energy under the green light with a lively innocence.
The divergent dance genres in “White” stratify slightly. Classical moments neatly tuck behind the edges of blackouts before modern curves play in the inconstant contemporary sound-scape, the effect of each remaining essentially strong and undiluted. Yet “White” is harmonized with a decidedly Pythagorean potency. From the three words of the abbreviated modern dance equivalent of a libretto: “purity, beauty, innocence” and the trio of dancers who comprise the corps of the dance, to the three instructive scenes of imagery, performed by Xing Bang Fu, the harmony of three creates the architecture of the dance. “White” is itself part of a trilogy of dances, to be followed in 2009 by “Black” and “Red”.

In the opening scene, white noise climbs to a near-unbearable timbre. The limits of comfort are risked as the spectators are swept up in Xing Bang Fu’s vision. Rewards come in a rain of beautiful metaphors and imagery, but the spectator must journey along the ritual path of dance, too. Coming together in a line, semi-eclipsed by Beckford’s towering figure, the four perform all-encompassing ports de bras from different beginning positions, in turn revealed and hidden as if by cosmic order.

The symmetry and shade of the dance are eloquently expressed through repeated lines of choreography, artfully emphasizing the harmonic qualities among the trio of dancers. Although attention to such concordance is the rule of the dance, it is nowhere more brilliantly shown than in the allegro section, the summertime of the dance. A fortissimo tattoo of gongs struck out by Xing Bang Fu heralds the action and the dancers rush in turn to centre stage embarking on repeated barrel turns and leaps. Beckford performs with decadent ballon; Douglas’ mesomorphic spring gives heart; and the deft Lam sharpens the tone in beautiful procession.

As the tempo of the dance quickens, it becomes a lyrical verse on the bodies of such strong dancers. Beckford, who strikes a commanding figure onstage, extends elastically through an arching battement en second and sails into a buckling contortion, sending his limbs wrapping like great boughs in a storm. The liaison between a proud arabesque and a forsaken, lunging plié is so soft that only the audible exhalation marks the division. Moments of imbalance are few and minor; the visceral focus of the dancers is manifest. The same appealing choreographic precision is equally evident in a pas de trois sequence – one bends like a bow, another is sharp as an arrow, and the third is set free but maintains the trajectory. When the partnered balance grows beyond itself, they all fall out and move to regroup.

The costumes by Eric Wong at once expose the physicality of the dancers and decoratively highlight the tone of each movement. Clad in a white brief that alters from a modish cut to ragged cloth-ends swathing the dancers’ bodies, Wong ensures the dance has no place to hide in his subtle design. The piece is nearly an hour and a half long; it is no wonder to see smiling but fatigued faces at the curtain call, yet Xing Bang Fu himself holds an unwavering meditative regard throughout the lush applause. For me, ‘White’ catches a deeply hypnotic sense of ritual, so much so that I look towards “Red” and “Black” the remaining two dances of the trilogy, with nothing short of compulsion.

Posted October 25, 2008