New texts for old

Philipa Rothfield

Wu Lin Dance Theatre, Nushu, The Women’s Script

Wu Lin Dance Theatre, Nushu, The Women’s Script

What is missing from the preoccupation with tradition…is the experience of modern Chinese people who have had to live their lives with the knowledge that it is precisely the notion of a still-intact tradition to which they cannot cling—the experience precisely of being impure, “Westernised” Chinese, and the bearing of that experience on their ways of “seeing” China.
Rey Chow, Woman and Chinese Modernity: the politics of reading between West and East (University of Minnesota Press 1991)

It is a perilous path to tread. On the one side lies authenticity, on the other, the level playing field of postmodern pastiche. Wu Lin Dance Theatre (Tina Yong & Sun Ping) address issues of Chinese culture and identity. If their work is not to be placed within Chinese traditions of performance, how might it be understood? Wu Lin are themselves aware of these dilemmas, having once written a paper entitled Is it traditional or is it contemporary?

NUSHU, The Women’s Script is inspired by historical texts, written by Chinese women. It consists of a series of narrative depictions of women in China. The piece moves from male despotism to the articulation of female anger, to an envisaged sense of equality between the sexes, a familiar feminist tale. Surely the highlight of the work was Yong’s evocation of anger, a duet performed in perfect harmony with the drum player, Junko Sakamoto. This was the moment where the many incarnations of woman as object ended and women’s agency emerged. This produced the finale where the 2 sexes breathe each other’s air, moving their Chi in and out of each other’s territory, finding ground, losing ground, regaining ground.

In performative terms, it was Yong’s clarity and focus which gave depth to this piece, as well as the wonderful musical compositions of Wang Zheng-Ting. Yong was deeply immersed in the predicaments and bodily formations of the choreography. Watching Sun Ping, I wondered whether I required some literacy in Chinese acrobatic dance. The question of tradition did not arise in regard to Yong because her dance is clearly hybrid, having been successively inscribed by ballet, Indian dance and Chinese imagery.

In narrative terms, the piece was a bit jerky, consisting of episodic, staccato moments with no link between patriarchal domination, the eruption of fury, and the even-handed finale. Although some of those moments were beautiful and poignant, others looked like they needed development. I imagine that some outside direction would be of great assistance to the company. And yet, what kind of eye am I to suggest—a Western gaze, which might require that Wu Lin commodify their cultural identity as recognizably Other? If Rey Chow is to be believed, Western perspectives have already infiltrated (post)modern Chinese sensibilities. For a while I wondered where NUSHU’s final battle of the sexes was situated: in China (old or new)? In Australia? Or in Wu Lin’s own imaginary? But now I think that there are circles within circles, that we cannot sustain the old myths of China over there and Anglo-Australia over here. NUSHU is not the repetition of old texts but the emergence of a new one. If it could be clearer, it would not become a better translation but would rather move more deeply into a script of its own making.

NUSHU, The Women’s Script, Wu Lin Dance Theatre, performers Tina Yong & Sun Ping, music Wang Zheng-Ting (composer, sheng), Junko Sakamoto (drums), Dong Qiu Ming (dizi, xun), Theatreworks, Melbourne, April 12-16

RealTime issue #37 June-July 2000 pg. 8

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2000