Dancing the unspoken: Chang Xiaoni’s Elephant in the Room

Studio Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
March 21, 2019
(part of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Contemporary Dance Series at the Hong Kong Arts Festival)

David Mead

Elephants and rooms: obvious problems or difficult situations that no-one wants to talk about; truths that cannot be spoken. There are times in Elephant in the Room (沒有大象) by Beijing choreographer Chang Xiaoni (常肖妮) when there didn’t seem so much one pachyderm as a whole herd of them.

It features six dancers, dressed somewhat symbolically in gleaming white, the colour of purity. Spread around the 20 chairs that make up the set, the burst into uncontrollable laughter. It’s not funny, though, because it’s not real, and we suspect immediately that it’s all just a cover; and as we soon discover, whiter than white inside, they are not.

Everyone, it seems, has something hidden away. Don’t we all? And as the evening progresses, the six each interpret and perform their own ‘elephant’, the fact that it happens in the same time and space creating particular relationships. Chang and the cast do not show us their elephants. While they loom large, we cannot see what is behind the emotion, the action and the outbursts.

Li Bin in Elephant in the Room by Chang XiaoniPhoto Terry Tsang
Li Bin in Elephant in the Room by Chang Xiaoni
Photo Terry Tsang

At first, they dance freely and easily. An ensemble section with a lot of unison work is neatly constructed. Before long, they switch to the sort of boogieing one might see at a late-night party. Neither is particularly exciting, the latter not even really engaging, but it does set up what follows.

Li Bin (李斌(甘肅)) sets things off. He is smacked, grappled and held down. One of the women is repeatedly ‘glided’ over him by the others. With him now down to just a jockstrap (literally baring almost all), a subsequent duet involves a lot of pushing and falling. Is there a relationship here that has gone wrong somewhere down the line or one of those consequences of finding themselves in the same time and place?

Elephant in the Room by Chang XiaoniPhoto Terry Tsang
Elephant in the Room by Chang Xiaoni
Photo Terry Tsang

Birds are a repeated symbol in the work, most notably wings on sticks that are ‘flown’ at regular intervals; actually a rather effective device.

There’s a lot of speech, and a lot of everyday movement. In many ways, Elephant in the Room is a lot closer to what most people would think of theatre than dance. ‘Physical theatre’, maybe, if you need a category. Particularly effective is Chang’s halting of time, when five of the cast freeze while the remaining performer acts or dances out something.

Elephant in the Room does have other powerful moments too, almost all quieter ones, especially silences where they avoid even looking at each other, where you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. But stories do not unfold clearly, because they can’t; that is the whole point. So, while there are moments when it all seems to make sense, there are times when the audience is left to figure it out for themselves. It also feels like a collage, a not always easy collision of ideas, of elephants even, which given the significant input from the cast, is precisely what it is.

Eventually, bodies finish up in a heap. Those 20 chairs likewise. It would have made a super ending, as indeed would a parade shortly afterwards that included a tiny toy duck being pulled along on a string. But there’s a problem: we are only at 55 minutes. So, in search of that magical 70-minute mark that all non-interval pieces must be these days, Chang pushes on.

But one sense she struggles for material. One scene is repeated with different performers, including once speeded up. Why is unclear. There’s a feeling it’s supposed to be humorous, but that doesn’t fit with the mood of the rest of the piece; and it’s not anyway. There’s also some truly poor mime. And as if to prove the point, sure enough, bang on seventy minutes down go the lights and we finally draw to a close, although one senses that those elephants are still there, hiding away in dark corners.