Katerina Wong and RAWdance Play “Exquisite Corpse” at the ODC
By Lou Fancher
Unique among the arts, dance offers access to expression through multiple modalities. Movement, touch, neurological, auditory, and visual stimulus open sympathetic channels in the mind and awaken and reinforce body-mind connectivity. Long before the internet’s all-consuming advent, human interaction through physical signaling effectively communicated and conveyed meaning, intention, identity, social hierarchy, healing, hurt, reflexive response, and a host of other messaging.
Layering dance’s modalities in “Triple Take,” RAWdance’s upcoming performances March 12–15 a ODC Theater present new works by the company’s three artistic directors. Inspired by traditional Chinese medicine, the surrealist drawing game “exquisite corpse,” and life in the digital era, Katerina Wong, Wendy Rein, Ryan T. Smith, and the 10-member dance ensemble burrow into ancient and contemporary mysteries, imagination, and phenomenon.
Rein and Smith, working in New York’s Hudson Valley after the company expanded to dual, East-West Coast existence, together created Shadow. Presenting one chapter of the multipart work, the choreographers address the commercialization of alternate intelligence (AI) identities and what that means for future societies. Co-director Wong, holding down the home fort in San Francisco, created The Healer, a dance illuminating the history, beliefs, and holistic practices of traditional Chinese medicine and paying tribute to her recently deceased aunt.
In an interview, Wong describes her aunt as “an energy healer, an intense, fierce female who had incredible presence and strength.” The woman’s undercurrent ran rich also; observational, thoughtful, engaged, committed, steadfast, wholeheartedly invested in connecting with people. The firmness of her belief in healing practices was both comforting and challenging.
During development, Wong and the four-women cast worked abstractly to develop movement vocabulary and motifs. Chinese medicine concepts illustrated on charts involving the body’s meridians or pathways used in acupuncture and acupressure had them investigating rivers of energy, from internal organs to skin, digits, and facial features. “The liver and heart each have a pathway,” she says. “The dancers took one at a time and traced the impulse, like lifting a toe, or tracing their elbow along their knee.” Rocking and vibratory movements completed the pathways’ journey. Intersections that are considered pressure points became central areas of focus and introduced larger, global concepts of the body’s connectivity. Three dancers would press on a point; the fourth dancer responded. “Pain in the head might connect to another place in the body entirely because both are on the same meridian. We threaded that material together to specify touch in partnering and create tender, healing moments,” says Wong.
Familiar to most people are yin-yang categorizations representing two opposites that can never be separated: sun/moon, light/dark, and so on. “The frustrations of conflicting sides is where the essence of growth occurs,” Wong insists. “We improvised with doing the opposite of what something usually causes. Like shaking bones, the opposite, in a visceral way, is soft, smooth, muscular movements. How can those two opposites live together and what does that say about our experience?”
The question unveils the work’s artistic depth: A world in which people will never completely homogenize — no one would want such a world if it could actually exist — is a world with fraught connectivity and relationships. How do opposites live together? The Healer poses a vital question.
Wong says composer-musician Daniel Berkman’s commissioned score includes ambient sounds of nature that grow distorted or dissonant, electronic music, “familiar sounds but not what you hear with a symphony,” and passages integrating the erhu and guqin (Chinese string instruments). The sound of wind and the dancers’ breathing create a live, active, sonic environment with internal logic relating back to the work’s core concepts.
Closing the program, the title pending, the directors present five dancers in a dance created with intentional censorship. Rein and Smith working as a team and Wong working solo, alternated as creators by choreographing three-minute sections. Passing only the final 30 seconds across the country, each “player” in the game then linked their new three-minute section to the 30-second excerpt and repeated the process. The approach was a riff on “exquisite corpse,” a parlor game invented by surrealists André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and others, in which participants drew a section of the body and folded the work before passing it to the next person, who added a part without seeing what had previously been drawn. Only when the entire drawing was unfolded did players see the “new body.”
Wong’s original nervousness that the process would be limiting quickly dissolved. “It was liberating. I wasn’t going for concepts or messages, I just focused on the given.” Recently seeing the complete work for the first time in rehearsal, she says, “I got emotional. It’s unusual to see your work framed by things you’ve not seen but still feel connected to it.”
Similarly, selected for the 2020 Leadership Through Mentorship Program, an initiative of WOCA (Women of Color in the Art) that supports women of color in the performing arts, Wong finds power in the cohort’s connectivity, generosity, safety and honesty. “As women artists, we often have to put on filters,” she says. “With this opportunity, we can strip those away and get to what it means to be human and to improve our field.”