If much of 20th-century Chinese history reflected the ideal of groupthink over individual expression, then the three contemporary dance companies that performed this weekend at the Kennedy Center triumphantly presented just the opposite. Judging from the works at the Terrace Theater, personal vision has a firm hold on modern China.
The bold images etched onstage neither drew directly from ancient dance traditions nor obviously borrowed from Western innovations. Modern dance, so new to China, has been given a distinctive form by the dance troupes in that nation's capital, in the province of Guangdong and in Hong Kong.
Li Han-Zhong and Ma Bo commented directly on the status of the Chinese dancer over time in "All River Red," set to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." This work, performed by the Beijing Modern Dance Company, turned on the dancers' adroit use of the bright red scarves they carried, shrouding their faces with them, like mindless servants of Maoism, or using them to bind and gag one of their own who, in a scene of vicious violence, had dared protest, and finally tying them together to play jump-rope.
Yet the lighthearted ending, with dancers laughing audibly as they toss the knotty rope in the air, felt jarring against the crescendo of tension that had carried the rest of the work. And while the use of the scarves was inventive and eye-catching, especially against the dark backdrop and streamlined costumes (long shifts for the women, trousers for the men), the use of the familiar score, whose every ominous thrust had a visual echo, was stodgily predictable.
Guangdong Modern Dance Company (named for the province where it was founded as China's first such troupe) framed its comment on society in a fresher way. Liu Qi's "Upon Calligraphy" paid tribute to the artistry and slow perfection of Chinese writing, in contrast with the rushed pace of modern times, with the instant ease of the keyboard. At first blush the prospect of distilling four ancient styles of Chinese writing into movement may seem like a mere parlor game. Yet when you consider the long-standing Chinese beliefs that calligraphy is connected to the divine and that a person's handwriting is infused with his creative energy -- that the distinct qualities of his brush strokes spring from the makeup of his very soul -- the correlation between calligraphic technique and dance technique is clear.
Indeed, Liu proves the link to be astoundingly fruitful, for this piece was full of meditative grace, sharp, cut-crystal physicality and languid dignity. Lighting and costume design underscored the artful blend of old and new.
In the first section, "As the Form of the Bone Script," referring to the oldest known form of Chinese written language, dating back to 4,000-year-old carvings on animal bones, the bronze-clad dancers moved in soft light with a slashing, choppy, martial-arts quality. "As the Form of Official Script" reflected the smoother, flowing quality of this more standardized school of writing, with a man and woman dressed in gorgeously draped silver trouser outfits, moving with liquid deliberation, alternating controlled collapse with composure. The techno-boinging music of the first section was replaced with the resonant plucking of a single string.
Five bare-torsoed men in shorts brought out the square, architectural quality of the "Regular Script," while the swift, light touch of the "Cursive Script" was embodied by four women wearing white. The only off-note was sounded in the overlong finale, which blew away the delicacy of the previous sections with a jangly electronic score and frenetic pace, making its decline-of-humanity point over and over and over again.
Hong Kong's City Contemporary Dance Company bundled together several years of repertory in "Silver Rain," excerpts from six works by different choreographers including Willy Tsao, the dance dynamo who founded this troupe in 1979 and has had a hand in running all three companies on the program. As a whole, the works shared a vibrant sense of theater and strong visual imagery.
Take, for instance, the man in unadorned white trousers and tunic who performed a series of slow postures and gestures reminiscent of tai chi, oblivious to the dancers rushing around him, in "Wanderings in the Realm of Lightness." "Le Beau" depicted another man in his own world, an elegantly suited gentleman whose exercises at a ballet barre took him into ecstatic realms. Then there were the two women in "Lost in a Melodramatic City" encased in extravagant red gowns, one of whom lip-synched a Chinese aria while the other strolled elegantly downstage and jumped off (to the surprise of the folks in the first row of seats).
Raining confetti played a prominent part in the last three excerpts. It was prettily scattered and swept into new drifts by a dreamy woman with a parasol ("Eulogy") and by a crowd of Mao-era workers who broke into break dancing ("Show Your Colors"). The ending, "China Wind, China Fire," brought the dancers together like a round of white-robed angels under a baptism of glitter, large bright squares that gleamed under the lights like shards of chrome. A bit of beauty, echoes of the past, quirkiness and a hearty dose of spectacle capped a program in which these three elements were in frequent and alluring play.