Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells, London
June 5, 2018
Portraits in Otherness, a celebration of difference is an inspired idea from Akram Khan and Farooq Chaudhry revealing new pathways in dance through a quartet of unique artists. Maya Jilan Dong and Dickson Mbi, the first pairing, come from different inherited and learned dance traditions but each has a body that is a finely tuned expressive instrument.
In Whip, Dong takes as her inspiration one strand of the numerous Bai folk dances of her homeland, the Yunnan province of China, inhabits it like a magic garment and makes it her own. The detail in shape and colour is exquisite. A slash of red fabric, slicing the stage diagonally, has the dancer enfolded at one end and the cellist seated at the far end. It will later become a train and, for a while, another dimension in the dance. The lighting finds its own trajectory, sometimes bathing the entire space in a wash of red light or more subtly dividing the stage into neat geometric shapes. The colour even finds an echo in Dong’s brightly painted fingertips adorning hands that feature so eloquently in fluttering bird-like patterns.
Dong is a riveting performer whose quiet intensity held the audience. Her costume, her hair and a long pole all became part of the dance. The pole beating out the pulse or deftly tossed from one hand to another, balanced effortlessly on her head or secured in a coil of hair to swing in circular rhythm. The ritual of these elements gives shape and direction to the dance. The movement reflect their Oriental provenance, the undulating torso, the fluid running steps that appear to set the dancer on wheels and her whirling body that builds to a point of ecstasy. Shaping the dynamics and disparate elements into a staged piece is a challenge and only briefly did it lose flow during the long solo. The music was a unifying force, musician composer, Joanne Clara, seated back to the audience was a constant presence, her playing augmented by recorded sounds, an evocative blend of tradition and modernity.
Dickson Mbi, renowned artist in the world of hip hop and body popping, takes a courageous step into a zone of self-disclosure in Duende. The theatre is a place that revels in the dichotomy of reveal and conceal and Mbi manifests this in his dance. The lighting illuminates the uncertainty in roving pools of light and bursts of brightness that contrast with the sombre space, matched by the dark sounds from Roger Goula’s recorded track, music that only find harmony approaching the end.
Mbi’s body has the heft of granite but like Rodin, he invests the solidity with acute sensitivity. The lightness of spirit is expressed in muscles so fluid they flow like silk and weight that defies gravity in unexpected leaps. It is a tortuous journey where truth is extracted reluctantly from inner depth and self-revelation comes at a price, but it is a privilege to watch and share the journey.