Beijing’s urban sprawl inspires dance about the human cost of progress

Beijing's relentless urban sprawl inspires adance piece about the human cost of economic progress, writes Xu Donghuan

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 6:07pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 7:41pm

Moroccan-Flemish choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui 's latest work, Genesis, is inspired by the sprawling and chaotic megacity that is Beijing today.

"When I see China growing and it's always growing, I feel like this is crazy," says the Antwerp-based Cherkaoui who has been flying in and out of the Chinese capital for this project since 2012. "There are so many people in Beijing and the cars and the pollution. All of this made me think. Good things happen because we grow; bad things also happen because we grow. Genesis is about the good and the bad in [development]."

Chinese dancers are fantastic. They have such an incredible discipline

The 90-minute performance, set inside what looks like a research laboratory, is also the result of a meeting he had with award-winning dancer Wang Yabin, who is also the producer of the show.

Genesis opens at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing on Thursday before moving to Guangzhou and Shanghai.

Cherkaoui says the collaboration has changed the way they looked at their own artistic practice. Wang, for example, was intrigued by Cherkaoui's more natural approach when she saw one of his shows in Japan in 2009.

"I change her and she changes me. We develop and grow … it's influence and exchange," says the 37-year-old choreographer, who has collaborated with an array of international artists, including Akram Khan, a British dancer of Bangladeshi descent, in the dance duet Zero Degrees, which won the Laurence Olivier award in 2006 for best new dance production.

Of the seven performers in Genesis, four are from the mainland and the rest - an American, a Greek and a Japanese dancer - are from Cherkaoui's company Eastman. His ability to work with artists from different cultural backgrounds has a lot to do with his upbringing. Having a Moroccan father and a Catholic and Flemish mother means he had learned, since a child, to look at things from different perspectives.

"When I was young, I always understood that there is another point of view and my point of view is limited. I always wanted everybody's opinion. It gives you another vision, another pair of brains and eyes," he says.

Cherkaoui belongs to a new generation of Belgian contemporary dance choreographers whose works are a popular fixture in the Sadler's Wells Theatre dance season in London.

He says he is impressed by how natural Chinese dancers are in executing each move: "Chinese dancers are fantastic. They have such an incredible discipline in how they move, very flexible, fast and natural. They don't force; it just happens. I think this is connected to acupuncture, the meridians and lines of energy in the body. And they understand when I talk about lines in energy much quicker than Europe dancers. I think this is also because in traditional Chinese dances you have the flow."

The choreographer continues: "My way of moving, which is sometimes difficult to copy in Europe, Chinese dancers find it very natural. This is exciting for me. I feel we are not so different or I am not so different. I feel connected."

Cherkaoui's way of guiding the dancers is also refreshing to Chinese dancers. "He is able to see the unique potential in each dancer and bring it to full play. This is different from Chinese choreographers that I have worked with," says Wang Yabin, who has two solos in the show.

Language has never been a barrier in such a varied group of dancers and artists, because most of them understand some English. But at times when language does fail to communicate ideas, a dance move can be more efficient in the communication than words.

On the stage, there will also be live music and singing on the stage, including electronic music from a Polish composer, music from a traditional Indian instrument of percussion and primal singing from a Congolese male singer.

"In Europe, we say the world was born in Africa. The young African man sings so beautifully and his voice is like the beginning of time. It's such a contrast with the stage being a clinic," Cherkaoui says.

This is not the first time that Cherkaoui has come to China to make an original dance production. In 2007, he worked with a group of 17 Buddhist monks from the Shaolin Monastery in Henan and created Sutra in collaboration with British sculptor Antony Gormley, which received rave reviews.

Last February, Cherkaoui brought his work TeZukA, a tribute to Japanese manga creator Osamu Tezuka, to Hong Kong as part of the Arts Festival.

With Genesis, Cherkaoui says he wants to use choreography to bring about a new perception about life.

"I want people to see life differently after they see the show. I want them to see how extremely unnatural we have become. Our genesis is in the most unnatural environment. And we created this for our children," he says.

Next year, the show will travel to Antwerp and other cities in Europe.

Genesis, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing, Nov 14 and 15; Guangzhou Friendship Theatre, Nov 21 and 22; Shanghai Oriental Art Centre, Nov 27 and 28