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Notions of import on freedom

Beijing Modern Dance Company focuses on extremes of life in a turbulent China.

March 07, 2005|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Originally intended as an action painting of contemporary China, the 70-minute dance epic "Rear Light" has been adapted for export into a relatively conventional ensemble showpiece: an index to the formidable power and prowess of the Beijing Modern Dance Company.

Instead of seating the audience close to the dancers on two sides of a high metal scaffold, the production enforced the usual distance -- and division -- between spectators and performers in the version seen at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday.

With the scaffold relocated way upstage, the ebb and flow of the dancing could no longer convey the sense of seeing ourselves or our surrogates appear in the various episodes devised by husband-and-wife choreographers Li Hanzhong and Ma Bo. One audience-participation sequence did remain, but it played merely as a stunt: an opportunity to boogie with the cast a la Israeli modernist Ohad Naharin and a number of audience-courting folk companies.

Li and Ma used the complete soundtrack from the 1982 film "Pink Floyd -- The Wall" (based on a record album by the British rock group Pink Floyd), to focus on the clashing extremes of urban Chinese life: at best group solidarity versus individual freedom, at worst numbing regimentation versus mindless self-indulgence.

Much of their choreography proved brilliant in harnessing Pink Floyd's somber, sardonic music to a vision of a turbulent China trying to mediate between these alternatives. For example, as lyrics such as "We don't need no education" blasted through the Pavilion loudspeakers, images of people hammering on one anothers' heads reinforced the idea of oppressive indoctrination.

This same sequence also involved four dancers dangling from long elastic straps, as if they were puppets, their movement as forthright as the song lyrics in resisting societal constraints. After the crowd released the foursome, their straps were stretched along the floor to divide the stage into grids and then to trap all the dancers, ultimately enmeshing them in a kind of web.

A passage depicting people determined to find their own way in life and not follow an inane guide -- even if some of them fell by the wayside -- ended the piece on a feeling of cautious hope, but by then "Rear Light" had faltered badly. It began to lose its drive in an unfocused, repetitive, low-energy duet for Song Tingting and Cui Tao, and you could argue that it never really fully recovered from that lapse and a number of regrettable choices afterward.

Some of the creative slips seemed trivial: the silly costumes evoking Euro-American excess and the audience-participation boogie, for example. Not as easily excused: the inordinate amount of time that Li and Ma devoted to a playoff between an anguished individual and a hostile crowd -- something that Martha Graham did infinitely better 75 years ago in "Heretic."

A few soloists, such as Zi Wei and Lui Bin, strongly evoked the alienation of loners in a society dominated by mass energies, but the 13-member ensemble is what made the evening exciting and persuasive as a dance-theater performance.

Force and unanimity were easy to take for granted, and if the choreography seldom invoked the torso's potential for movement expression, perhaps this company and nation are too goal-oriented at present to look deeply inward.

Beyond the dancing, the banks of spotlights on the scaffold as well as side units allowed designers Huang Zhigao and Tan Keam Beng to give each section of "Rear Light" a unique and often spectacular light environment. More than just illumination, lights sometimes defined the landscape here or became something to be tossed about in a game -- even instruments of torture.

Ultimately, despite its flaws, "Rear Light" spoke with an immediacy and pertinence that shamed much of diversionary Western dance. In China it must look infinitely more daring, but even here, in a compromised restaging, it offered insights about the way societies evolve that shed light on what some consider the current erosion of our own nation's rights and freedoms. That alone made it essential viewing.

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