Stretching a point
For Xing Liang, the opening night of Nijinsky, a piece he choreographed for the City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC) two years ago, remains a blur. The troupe's resident artist was too nervous to assess a work that he had spent more than a year on. At the second performance, however, he was more relaxed and had a clearer picture of his stage portrait of the Russian ballet legend. The dancer didn't like what he saw.
'The piece had many problems,' says the 37-year-old of his dance drama. '[Vaslav] Nijinsky had a dramatic life and I wanted to express that drama through the dancers' body and physical movements. But my choreographic expression was too simplistic. If I were to do the work again, I'd do it differently, not as superficially. After that piece, I decided to go back to the basics of dance, to explore the form anew.'
Xing's latest work, Out of the Box, is an attempt to go beyond the surface of movement. Its Chinese title, Mei You Zhu Yi, a reference to Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian's book Without ism, suggests an approach free of stylistic or ideological imposition.
Inspired by abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky, who famously discovered a new artistic expression after accidentally viewing his own work lying on its side in his studio, Xing wants to approach dance from different angles.
Just as the Russian-born artist realised the 'inner radiance' of colour and line was sufficient to express emotions without any subject matter, the Beijing Dance Academy trained performer - who counts German choreographer Pina Bausch, DV8 Physical Theatre from Britain and CCDC resident choreographer Helen Lai Hoi-ling as influences - believes movement alone should be able to arouse sensations without any grand narrative or form.
The challenge for both Xing and fellow dancers is to find the 'essence' of movement without resorting to contemporary dance cliches. The process - and result - is as abstract and organic as in some Kandinsky paintings.
'I used to think long and hard before working on the choreography. Now, I act on my impulse. I want each movement I choreograph to be original and riveting,' says Xing, who began working on Out of the Box in January.
He spent the first and second week studying just movements.
He picked up a hula hoop and asked all the 14 CCDC dancers in the show to work with it: 'And I didn't want them to use it in a simple unimaginative way; their body has to interact with the prop. From that I developed one of the pieces.'
Xing says the dancers didn't go beyond superficiality at the beginning but within a fortnight, their movement began to change. 'They eventually shed the old routine and became more conscious [to be original]. It was hard for them to adjust at the beginning.'
To help the dancers look at movement from another perspective and find its essence, the choreographer looked to Kandinsky again for inspiration and found it in Point and Line to Plane (1926), which he 'stumbled' on 15 years ago as a dancer with the Guangdong Modern Dance Company.
In the book, the painter explored geometrical elements, namely the point and the line, that make up his paintings, as well as the surface on which he drew or painted, which he referred to as a plane.
Xing applies these elements to his choreography.
'Imagine there are a couple of points, one in front of you and one behind, and there is a line linking them together. How would you move around these points and the line? How would you make use of the plane [space] around you?' says Xing, as he twists his shoulders and slightly contorted limbs in one swift, quirky movement.
'So the new work is made up of pure movements.'
Movements without narrative can be beautiful and compelling, he says.
Xing recalls touring with the Guangdong troupe in Yunnan, where he met an elderly ethnic minority chieftain who was known for his dancing.
'We wanted him to dance for us, but initially he just refused our request outright. But after much coaxing he danced for, like, 20 seconds. I had no idea what the dance was about, but I was completely captivated by his movements ... that short performance was mesmerising.'
Out of the Box, he adds, is a physical contemplation on the interaction between dancers, movement and space devoid of aesthetics.
The hour-long show will feature an intricate, multi-layered set designed by Ewing Chan and music by German composer Dirk Haubrich.
One extract is of a voice reciting a quote from Kandinsky's Point and Line to Plane: 'As we gradually tear the point out of its restricted sphere of customary influence, its inner attributes - which were silent
until now - make themselves heard more and more'.
Is Xing worried that some of these philosophical musings might be lost on less-informed viewers?
The choreographer says he is not out to seek audience approval with this work. 'It is created from my point of view and based on my own reflection of dance,' he declares.
'In this piece I do what I want ... this is more about my world.'
Out of the Box, Kwai Tsing Theatre, June 27 and 28, 8pm, HK$140-HK$250. Inquiries: 2329 7803