In Portraits in Otherness, Akram Khan Company unearths a new generation of dancers bringing curious, raw, quirky energy to the stage, both in terms of dance ability and choreographic ideas. Supporting two programmes across two nights, Khan and his producer Farooq Chaudhry give four dancers the luxury of space to dream up their own work and perform at the Lilian Baylis Studio.
Thursday’s double bill opens with Ching-Ying Chien’s Vulture circling around ancient Chinese myths associated with the bird. Filling the space with acres of black material billowing on the floor in the dark like a dangerous black ocean, Chien is a magnetic force hiding within. Composer and musician Joseph Ashwin stands to one side while odd shapes creep and crawl under the cloth. Gradually the shape gets bigger and we understand that there is a body beneath.
As Chien unravels herself from the material and emerges as part-human, part vulture, using the black fabric as wings or a tent to mask her from reality, it feels playful in an unsettling, Hitchcock’s The Birds kind of way. The jerking, aggressive, struggling, bird-like movements are familiar – like watching a young chick struggling to stand on two feet for the first time.
Throughout most of the 33 minutes, the dancer jolts, shudders and pulls her limbs into such extreme positions, it looks painful to watch, much in the same way as a circus contortionist or a trapeze artist. You can’t watch but you can’t help it. Displaying such hyper-mobility is extraordinary in an alien being kind of way, and when Chien’s hair is scraped off her face, her eyes and mouth appear enormous like an ultrasound scan of an unborn baby – not quite in proportion with the rest of her body. It makes for disturbing, if not compulsive viewing.
Timings of movement sequences are noticeably compelling. There is a struggle in her movements – an internal struggle to be still – in between the jolting that only adds to the drama. Often undulating in slow motion or freeze-framed, it builds on the idea that we are watching a creature in some kind of birth or evolutionary state. Towards the end of the piece, the dancer hovers holding one leg somewhere up around her ear and balancing on the other, while fanning out her long silky hair with her free hand. Chien retains this posture without so much as a wobble and you wonder just how long she can keep going. A good five minutes, it turns out. It’s a beautiful image that that etches its way into your brain, more so because of its static contrast to all the frenzied movement.
Some sequences prove less convincing. When musician and dancer merge in a moment of awkwardness, the guitar playing Ashwin lurches forwards with microphone, leading towards a writhing, jerking, half-human Chien, where they intertwine momentarily. Chien, in her uncompromisingly superhuman self, wriggling across the floor appears more vulnerable, no longer on the verge of flight, more likely pinned down by the weight of the musician and grounded. She momentarily looses her otherworldliness. Vulture works better when they are separated and strengthened by their own artistry.
In BABAE, Joy Alpuerto Ritter fully embraces the rituals of her background, yet at the same time spirits them away. Inspired by Witch Dance from expressionist dance pioneer Mary Wigman, BABAE shows the dancer moving from ancient customs, arriving on stage carrying bowls balanced on her head, then placing them on the floor in some kind of order unbeknown to the audience.
Ritter soon changes pace, takes out her lipstick and releases her hair from its restrictive place. (Hair swinging is a feature in both pieces – there’s something about freeing hair pinned to the scalp that liberates both performer and actions once set free.) Hands are employed as expressive communicative objects – tools somewhat dislocated from the rest of the dancer’s body. When Ritter pulls her arms above her head, her hands wiggle with such precision – they have personalities in their own right – like two puppets in dialogue operating as a separate entity.
Drawing from her roots in Philippine folk dance as well as her classical training and the vocabulary of hip-hop and voguing, it’s clear to see that Ritter has amalgamated such techniques into mesmeric sequences, pulling us hypnotically into her rhythms of movement. In the same way that Khan draws on classical Indian dance for inspiration, historical folklore proves rich creative fodder for both performers, allowing them to investigate themes of identity through movement.
Particularly intriguing is the appearance of red glitter that Ritter spills out like sparkling water from one of her pots, covering her body and stage in the stuff, as if disco meets folk dancing in one exciting big hair-swinging mess. Folklore or fun, this is a joy to watch.
Portraits in Otherness was at Sadler’s Wells until June 9th. For more details, click here.