Bodies sprung from the ground then disappeared behind dislocated limbs, evoking images of a larva. Watching this human-constructed insect in metamorphosis, audience all felt their hair raised. This collective group response is exactly what Anthony Égéa explores with his Urban Ballet (Act 3) staged at Sheung Wan Civic Center on May 25, 2012.
In near darkness, limbs continually stretch and withdraw, liberating and imprisoning the body. As light dawns, a woman appears with her head on the ground, her body upside down in a head-spin position of break dance. Two men lift her up, one with each leg, and the three turn into a constructivist human pile. As a whole, they transform into various shapes by moving their body parts up and down, to and fro, left and right. The three figures build an animated sculpture that constantly twists, trembles, and grows – an insect! As they embrace each other, roll over each other’s torsos, collapse onto the ground, and climb on top of each other in a human chain, the dance depicts an insect’s journey from fetus to adulthood.
United as one, the trio seems to be cross- manipulating each other’s bodies. At one point, the female lifts her leg on to the male’s shoulder before turning her face away at the other male; the first male then stares at her leg which is raised to draw a circle as if he were controlling it. This multiplied by 12 creates an illusionary whole that requires excellent coordination among the three. One second too slow or one inch in the wrong direction, the “sculpture” would have crashed like a Lego tower.
This strange dance penetrates the microcosm of insects, accompanied by Hitchcock–style music. Screaming high strings, horns blowing like howling winds, resonated by a deep, ominous double bass- I can feel them piercing my body. Fear and anticipation are further incited by the slow tempo which corresponds with the dancers’ slow-motion steps.
Instinctively juxtaposing these Butoh-like convulsive steps against Margot Fonteyn’s graceful lines, I can’t help asking: is this even beautiful- as one generally expects from ballet? This is beauty in common sense “qualities that give great pleasure or satisfaction to see, hear, think about, etc.” But to ask “what is beautiful?” is an artistic question as much as sociological. Art does not exist for pleasure alone, but for a social purpose; the purpose is not only to delight, but to educate and inspire.
As “ugly” as this insect dance might appear to some, it makes a fine example of group dance. The “group” nature demands from its members fastidious coordination and military control. It is only through collectively geometrizing and stylizing their bodies can dancers exhibit the desired sculptural quality. The choreography calls for painstaking precision and coherence to display multiple as one. Group dance, therefore, is an act that explores group consciousness. A strong sense of group engagement is the foundation to constructivist dance- making.
This constructivist dance is reminiscent of Pilobolus which evolved an entire genre by grouping dancers into a dazzling array of shapes: elephants, skyscrapers, fungus, you name it. For the individual, such concentrated image- making takes to an extreme the body’s magical power to transform itself. On a group level, it allows the dance en masse to move through space, enlarge its scale and complicate its design. When dancers multiply, all the rhythms, shapes and lines are distilled into much more powerful forces. Pitching the thrill of bodily movements to a higher level, choreographers can paint their boldest compositions with dancers’ collective skills.
So what does group dance, with its bold composition, grand scale and sophisticated design, have to offer when it comes to social relevance? Rudolph Laban, for one, believed that group dancing “promoted a basic need in human society: sharing, relating and constructing together”1. A dance theorist and architect, he created Movement Choir, a choreographic format dedicated to cultivating solidarity and excitement among participants and viewers alike. Members nowadays work toward many humanitarian causes, such as environmental protection, with group dance repertoire. Audience tend to be more engaged by group performances thereby more likely to unite behind a common cause.
With Laban, Isadora Duncan shares a belief in group dance. She sees it as “an expression and model of harmony in an inharmonious world… Dancing is not merely a training ground for the stage but for life itself.” Her constructivist aesthetics was apparent in Red Army and Revolutionary Russia. The bodies, strongly grounded and sculpturally massed together, exhibited a contrast between weighted mass in the front row and an aspiration upward in the back row, symbolizing heaven versus earth, freedom versus servitude2. Freedom is a dream shared by all men. The collective endeavor to achieve this ideal is best represented by group dance, particularly in Communist Russia. Be it dance or revolution, individual members need discipline to forge unity, mutual trust to leverage bond, and coordination to effect the desired outcome. Thus group harmony brings together art and social reality: art not only reflecting social reality, but promoting its advancement.
While Laban and Duncan succeeded in constructing multiple human bodies into a larger and greater whole, Urban Ballet stands out in a unique way. Égéa has moved beyond analyzing, breaking up and reassembling human bodies; his new experiment is in two-fold. First, it is the choice of insect as subject matter. Historically insects have often been featured in visual arts as symbol of social harmony, from ancient Egyptian murals to modernist photography. As Allen Roberts points out:” The bee works hard and tirelessly, not for himself, but for the swarm… He works in complete cooperation, and without dissention, with his fellow bees. He protects the Queen, refuses admittance to enemies, builds, makes honey, and lives in a society ruled by law.” 3 So even though the steps make dancers look nauseating, the strategic choice of insect has enriched the choreography’s symbolism. Social relevance elevates art to a higher level.
Second, it is the larger- than- life representation of microcosm. A total of three bodies are deployed to form one insect. Given the size ratio – a grown up honey bee makes up approximately 1/4320th the size of a 6ft tall man, audience are in effect placed in front of a 1: 12960 microscope to examine every detail, scrutinize every movement. The group dance thus requires the most exacting choreography, flawless execution and utmost team spirit. Otherwise, one mistake would magnify by 12,960 times – apart from the disastrous tangle of arms and legs and potentially life-threatening injuries. As a result, the trio literally has to move and breathe as one- and they did, very well. Thanks to group harmony, bodies that tumble riotously resolve into pure balance, mass energy of anarchy dissolve into clear form, angry brushings of limbs turn into tender embraces. Smiles appear on audience’s faces as rupture becomes harmony, chaos resumes order.
Watching the human-constructed insect in its flipping antenna, tilting head, leaping arms and crawling legs, I become increasingly appreciative of the dancers’ collective efforts in grouping their bodies into a coherent whole. Yet, reality is such that mankind as a whole have had a difficult time attaining social harmony. Be it economic rivalry, political struggle or ideological divide, we seem to be preoccupied by inflated egos and short- sighted self- interest. By contrast, if we are willing to rise beyond the “self” to the “universal self”, and identify with a bee so industrious and dedicated to the group he belongs to, then we can bring mankind closer together, closer to harmony and happiness.
1. Martha Eddy, CMA, RSMT, Ed.D., 2011, Contemporary Movement Choirs – Dance in Public Spaces: connecting people, place, and sometimes ‘issues.’ (Adapted from publication in Laban Links EUROLAB Berlin, Germany 2010)
2. Ann Daly, 1987, The Continuing Beauty of the Curve- Isadora Duncan and Her Last Compositions, Critical Gestures
3. A.E. Roberts, 1974, The Craft and Its Symbols
Date: 25th May 2012 8pm, Sheung Wan Civic Centre, Theatre