Beijing Dance Theater: ‘Haze’ in more ways than one

October 27, 2011

The Beijing Dance Theater did a fair job of capturing the dull gloom and psychic thrum of haze in a work called “Haze,” performed Wednesday at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. The dancers wore gray tights, the air around them was smoky and, depending on whether the lighting was muddy or chalk-white, the backdrop resembled cheerless surroundings such as dried mud or cracked concrete.

The work’s opening scene could have come from “Les Miserables”: The dancers stood facing us, frozen with apparent resoluteness through the smoke and dim light, with lanterns dangling overhead. Were they going to sing about tedium and enslavement? No, but they delivered the dance equivalent, aided by a thick, spongey surface laid over the stage, which allowed them to bound into the air, corkscrew through space, dive at the floor with abandon, and bounce back up with the finesse of gymnasts finishing a floor exercise.

But the impressive effect of the first few minutes of this display and the moaning, crescendoing music that accompanied it (recorded excerpts from Henryk Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 2 Op. 64, and later, Kleines Requiem fur eine Polka and Symphony No. 3, Op. 36) faded as the work wore on. The “sense of crisis and the action of breaking out,” which a program note says is the central thrust of “Haze,” as a response to environmental and economic ills, was in fact its only motif. By the end of “Haze,” an hour and a quarter later, we had seen endless variations of sad-looking dancers making pleading gestures to the lighting grid, standing in clusters, then plunging desperately to the mat. Alternatively, they ran in clusters and then plunged to the mat. Finally, they stood and THEN they ran; snow began to fall, and, as at the beginning, the dancers gathered and stared meaningfully into the distance.

Clearly, we were supposed to be moved. Applause was tentative at first — after so much sameness, was this really the end? — but the dancers’ quiet tableau was at last met with loud appreciation. The physical stamina needed to pull off this work was indeed considerable; the dancers’ athleticism and flexibility were remarkable throughout. No haziness there. As is typically the case with Chinese dance troupes, the performers’ high technical ability, seriousness of purpose and sense of focus were immediately and consistently apparent.

But the choreography by Wang Yuanyuan, who is also the company’s director, only glided along the surface, never taking us inside these dancers as people, never venturing beyond the melodrama to authentic feeling. Given the physical talents of the Beijing Dance Theater, the realm of construction is what needs the most attention. “Haze” conveyed its theme of choking constraints on human activity in its first few steps, but beyond that it didn’t develop the idea so much as repeat it. It’s unfortunate, because developing an idea, with clarity, momentum and the imagination to sweep an audience along for the ride, is perhaps the best way to clear away the haze.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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