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Dance Theatre ON and The True Story of Ah Q

“That was world class” said a knowledgeable member of last night’s audience at the Laban Theatre in Greenwich. I think I probably agree. The visual impact of the dance, the variety of music – from Korean hip hop to Mozart via experimental electronica, the extreme rhythmic complexity… all of it seemed, to an untutored eye such as mine, extremely innovative. I had tried to drag along a couple of friends, and for the first half hour I felt they were really missing out.

Why had I been unable to persuade my friends to come along? Mainly because I myself didn’t know what to expect, and so couldn’t sell it to them. The Laban theatre website, consulted on the day for assistance, didn’t even list the performance. And the press release produced by Dance Theatre ON was so badly written that I decided to omit much of it from my notice of the event on LKL. No amount of editing could salvage it: I simply couldn’t understand what they were talking about. The leaflet handed out at the theatre simply replicated the Konglish of the press release.

The dance was an interpretation of The Story of Ah Q, and here’s the detail from the press release, if you can make any more sense of it than I can.

Choreographer HONG Sung-yop’s Ah Q, which reveals both of the popularity and artistry by showing critical mind of the moderners with a fine sense of humour and various ways of expression, has been invited to Singapore Arts Festival in 2008 and drawn enthusiastic applause. Ah Q is motivated by The True Story of Ah Q(阿Q正傳) of the Chinese writer ‘Lu Xun(魯迅)’. To express ‘silliness’, the theme of Ah Q, HONG Sung-yop used a variety of items such as flowers, knives and peaked hats. His unique and witty ideas will be transferred to a symbol of human existence by refined movements of the dancers. The audience can enjoy the pleasure of sympathy and speculation as well as visual delight.

The True Story of Ah Q(阿Q正傳), describing tragic life of the main character ‘Ah Q’, who is a victim of the power and manoeuvre, is the work of ‘Lu Xun(魯迅)’, who is called the father of Chinese contemporary literature. ‘Ah Q’, as a day labourer, is extremely incapable and silly, but has much self-respect. He thinks he won against people who insulted him by his own way to victory, ‘mental triumph’. In the confusion of Chinese Revolution, ‘Ah Q’ tries to behave cunningly, but he is swept in other people’s opinion not knowing anything about the ideology and the current of the revolution and shot to death in the end.

Chinese master writer ‘Lu Xun(魯迅)’ has lived only for 56 years, but his strong spirit as author and philosopher shook and moved China and the world. He wrote The True Story of Ah Q(阿Q正傳) to bring attention to the people who were living in a hopeless life in the turbulent period. He frankly revealed the picture of Chinese people of the period without hiding anything. Therefore, when his work was published in China, it aroused so many people’s sympathy making them think themselves as ‘Ah Q’. The main character ‘Ah Q’ represents the people who have lived in the chaos, but we also find him around ourselves in the present.

The performance started with a stabbed man being carefully placed in front of the curtains, which then opened to a darkened stage full of more dead bodies. As some of the corpses were butchered with a meat cleaver, a female soloist danced marionette-like to some hip-hop in a single unmoving vertical spotlight. Subsequent scenes had a blindfolded prisoner being used as target practice for a circus knife-thrower, full size dummies (presumably representing prisoners) being used for wrestling practice, and a repeating theme of being stabbed with red flowers. All a bit gloomy and not much evidence of “silliness”.

I yearned to know what was going on. And after forty minutes I really thought it was time for a break, a stiff gin, and conversation with other members of the audience to see if anyone else was any the wiser, before returning for the second half better informed and better fortified. But I knew in advance that this was a 70 minute performance without an interval, so I tried to steel myself for the remaining half hour. There was a section where the dancers placed semi transparent cones over their faces, resembling rat-like snouts. But the scene where they gyrated their noses to a Mozart minuet overstayed its welcome, and an episode fronted by a macabre cabaret singer seemed rather out of place – unless, presumably, you happen to be well-versed in the story of Ah Q. The evening ended, as it had begun, with the stage full of corpses.

The evening held all sorts of promise – a fabulous venue, obviously extremely talented dancers and a choreographer with a vision – but was let down by the lack of accompanying information. Maybe if I’d had the time beforehand I’d have researched Ah Q’s story and filled some of the gaps. But time is in short supply1. Maybe if I was an experienced follower of contemporary dance I’d be used to interpreting what’s going on, or be content with just going with the flow. But I’m not. The audience received the performance enthusiastically, and remembering back to my own enthusiasm during the first half hour I would probably recommend this production to others. But did it have to be such hard work?


  1. And in any event, subsequent research at Wikipedia and elsewhere provides ample background to the story but is of no help in interpreting the performance []

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