Fruitful Collaboration with Chinese Results in Absorbing Dance Programme

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various Composers, Liang/Maliphant/Wheeldon – An Evening featuring Yuan Yuan Tan and Feng-Yi Sheu:  Sadler’s Wells and National Center of Performing Arts, Beijing, Sadler’s Wells, London, 14.11.2013 (JO’D)

 Finding Light 
Dancers: Yuan Yuan Tan, Damian Smith
Choreographer: Edwaard Liang
Music: Vivaldi – Concerto in B Major
Costume Designer: Mark Zappone
Lighting Designer: Adam Carrée


Dancer: Fang-Yi Sheu
Choreographer: Russell Maliphant
Lighting Designer: Michael Hulls
Composer – Original Music: Andy Cowton
Music: Donizetti – Una Furtiva Lagrima


After the Rain

Dancers: Yuan Yuan Tan, Damian Smith
Choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon
Costume Designer: Holly Hynes
Composer: Arvo Pärt – Tabula Rasa and Spiegel im Spiegel


Five Movements, Three Repeats
Dancers: Fang-Yi Sheu, Clifton Brown, Yuan Yuan Tan, Damian Smith
Choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon
Lighting Designer: Mary Louise Geiger
Costume Designer: Reid Bartleme
Composer: Max Richter


Two x Two
Dancers: Fang-Yi Sheu and Yuan Yuan Tan
Choreographer: Russell Maliphant
Lighting Designer: Michael Hulls
Composer – Original Music: Andy Cowton


In the second paragraph of his article in the programme, freelance dance writer and critic, Graham Watts, says, ‘If Britain is now “the second largest European investor in China”…, it may perhaps already have a decent claim to be in a similar leading position as China’s European arts partner of choice.’ One has the feeling, before the curtain goes up on this co-production between Sadler’s Wells and the National Center of Performing Arts, Beijing, that there are other things at stake here apart from dance.

It goes up on Shanghai-born, classical ballet-trained, Yuan Yuan Tan, and Australian dancer, Damian Smith. Although both have danced at San Francisco Ballet at the same time, they appear slightly ill at ease as they move through Edwaard Liang’s Finding Light. Their gestures look stiff and almost awkward until the very end, when the final, ‘skimming’ lift lets her impossibly long legs take impossibly slow, graceful steps in the air diagonally across the stage. The movement in Russell Maliphant’s solo PresentPast is, as the choreographer himself said when talking about his work at Sadler’s Wells earlier this year, ‘in the body rather than through space’. The body of Martha Graham technique trained Fang-Yi Sheu (described in the programme as ‘a native of Taiwan’) turns on itself in silence at the start of the piece, then in wider circles to a scratchy recording of Enrico Caruso singing Donizetti and, finally, to composer Andy Cowton’s more pulsing beats. She is lit from above by Michael Hulls, who at the same Sadler’s Wells talk said that good lighting is ‘the other side of the coin to good darkness’. In his chiraoscuro, the dancer’s moving arms create a ‘persistence of vision’ effect that becomes hypnotic.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith return to the stage for Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain. It is not only her leotard and loose hair, his bare torso (a woman in the row behind me sighed), that makes them appear less tense. Their movements now are harmonious, intimate to the point of sex. Balanced on one leg on her kneeling partner’s thigh, she looks into the distance with the steadiness and ease of a figurehead on a ship’s prow. When he lifts her backward bent body, she keeps her arms and legs rigid like a table. Her feet, in a break from classical ballet tradition, point in a horizontal rather than downward position. Even before the applause and the cries of ‘Bravo!’ the dancers were smiling.

Although choreographed six years later than ‘After the Rain’, in 2011, Wheeldon’s Five Movements, Three Repeats is based on a more classical vocabulary. American dancer, Clifton Brown, joins the other three for this piece that mixes Yuan Yuan Tan’s pointe work (‘bourrée’ in a backward direction) with the strength of Fang-Yi Sheu Martha Graham-developed core muscles. As with Wheeldon’s ‘Poylphonia’ (2001), when it was performed by the Boston Ballet at the Coliseum in July, I felt at times that classical ballet movement was being deployed, expertly, across the stage, but that it was not really going in any definite direction. There is, however, the startling moment when Yuan Yuan Tan reaches down and places a hand on the stage floor (which, for a dancer in pointe shoes, must be an ultimate ballet solecism). There is also the intriguing gesture (one that Wheeldon repeated in this year’s ‘Aeternum’ at the Royal Opera House) of the male dancer placing a hand behind his partner’s knee as if gently to help, or to make, her bend it.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Fang-Yi Sheu appear together, without either of the men, for the second Maliphant piece, Two x Two (also lit by Michael Hulls), and the last of the evening. In dark-coloured clothes and in their own, separate square of light on the stage, each dancer performs movements that are similar, but which their different dance training prevents from being identical. To music by Cowton, this circling movement gathers momentum. By the end, the hands and feet of both dancers flash like fireflies as they pass in and out of the shafts of light around them.

John O’Dwyer

Leave a Comment