2012 Melbourne Festival Reports

Out of the rubble, an exploration of humanity

Write:FAULT LINES   Time:2012/10/5   Hits:207


Out of the rubble, an exploration of humanity


Dancers from the Leshan Song and Dance Troupe rehearse their new work, Fault Lines, which receives its world premiere next week as part of the Melbourne Festival. Picture: Michael SainsburySource: The Australian
AT 2.28pm on May 12, 2008, the ground in the western Chinese province of Sichuan shook and roared. Cracks spread through the foothills of the Himalayan mountains, swallowing homes and people. Hundreds of kilometres south, in the verdant river-hugging town of Leshan, buildings shook for what seemed like an age.
At the Leshan Song and Dance Troupe, Zhang Hao and his fellow dancers were rehearsing when they felt the ground move.
"It was very strong, everything was shaking, it measured 5 to 6 on the Richter scale," Zhang tells The Australian during a rehearsal break at the company's practice rooms in Leshan. The dancers were worried: they were fine but most lived far from their families in other parts of the vast province.
Television coverage revealed China's worst earthquake in 23 years had caused untold damage and delivered human tragedy on a vast scale. Communications had been cut by the disaster and roads were blocked as authorities worked overtime to understand the extent of the damage.

Like millions of people across the province and the country, Zhang and his friends faced an agonising wait. "We kept calling and calling when we realised how bad the damage was but couldn't get through," Zhang says. When he was finally able to reach his family at the town of Mianyang, after almost three days, the news was terrible. While his parents had survived his 28-year-old cousin Chen Jian, whom he considered to be his brother, had been buried under a concrete slab. But he was alive.
Zhang was forced to watch rescue efforts live on TV and, after 72 hours, his cousin was prised free. Briefly, he became a national hero figure, "the strongest man in China". But the weight of the slab was too much for Chen's body to bear and he died in hospital from his injuries.
"I wanted to pack up and go home," Zhang says, "but the authorities said: 'Stay where you are.' "
Aching with grief, Zhang and his colleagues -- many of whom had homes, families, classmates and friends affected by what would be known as the Wenchuan earthquake -- developed a dance piece in memory of Chen and thousands of others who had died such horrible deaths.
Only two weeks after the earthquake, the Leshan dancers performed their seven-minute tribute called Hands: Rebirth for survivors in Zhang's hometown, Mianyang.
"We had the idea that hands played an important role in the earthquake," he says.
"Warm hands, helping hands, injured hands, healed hands, holding hands to comfort and help each other. The dance is not just about the shock to our souls but also about our resolution to recover ourselves. About our determination not to submit ourselves to difficulties. That is what we wanted to express."
The emotion is written clearly on the face of Zhang's colleague Xi Yi when he recalls the moment of that first performance.
"The original response was a loud cry and then tears of emotion," he says. "Every time we dance this program we cry, we worship this piece."
The piece was an instant hit and became the troupe's standard-bearer. Two years after it was first performed, Brett Sheehy, artistic director of the Melbourne Festival, saw the show. It was November 2010. Sheehy, who made a video of the performance, approached the group with an idea.
"I asked the company if they would ever be interested in working with an international choreographer to create a new work," Sheehy says. "They said yes."
For the Leshan Song and Dance Troupe, it was a big step. Formed in 1933 as a private company, it was brought under state control in 1959. The company originally performed opera -- Western and traditional Sichuan and Beijing opera -- but in the past decade has come to focus on dance with its main programs made up of traditional and ethnic folk routines, often dressed up with some Las Vegas-style glitz. The collaboration with Melbourne set them apart from other dance companies in China. Few if any of the 2500 regional dance troupes across 400 cities have collaborated with overseas companies and festivals to create works.
But it took another natural disaster, this time in New Zealand, before Leshan's international collaboration began to take shape. Just three months after Sheehy saw Hands: Rebirth, an earthquake struck Christchurch. Sheehy was in Perth, meeting a group of festival directors from Australia and NZ, soon after the news came through. "Word of the Christchurch quake had already reached Australia and the New Zealand contingent," he says. "We were very worried, as everyone was."
At the meeting, Sheehy discussed the Leshan work with Carla van Zon, the incoming director of Auckland Festival, who expressed interest in getting involved. A few weeks later, van Zon recommended Christchurch-born Sara Brodie as the new work's director. Brodie had worked for more than a decade in London as a dancer and actress, after returning to NZ during the 1990s and had become increasingly involved in directing.
"I was directing a show in Christchurch when the earthquake struck," she says. "We tried to soldier on for a couple of nights in a damaged theatre but in the end it was too dangerous."
Brodie visited Leshan in February this year to formulate the work. She says it was a risky project from the start, working with dancers unfamiliar with contemporary dance, as well as the tight timeframe involved in the project. The work, called Fault Lines, was originally set for next year's Melbourne Festival but was fast tracked so Sheehy could present it in his final year at the helm.
"The dancers did not have the training that Western dancers do," Brodie says.
"But many of them, particularly the older ones, were very keen to try new things and have been very responsive."
After an eight-hour workshop she selected 16 dancers from the 40-strong troupe. "There was certainly an interesting quality to some of these dancers," she says.
Brodie surrounded herself with industry mates from Christchurch, returning for 10 days in May with composer Gareth Farr to put together the music for the show. It also features work from another composer, Ping Gao, a Chengdu musician who has spent several years in Christchurch.
Ping provided a rearrangement of a piece, Questioning the Mountain, that he wrote in response to the Sichuan quake.
After her trip in May, Brodie left the dancers with 85 minutes of rehearsal material. She left senior dancer Zhang Yen as "dance captain", swapping notes with her via email before returning last month for a final two weeks of rehearsal.
"Hands: Rebirth and Fault Lines do have something in common but this is a new creation in both its themes and method performance," Zhang Yen says. "Hands: Rebirth was an immediate response to the earthquake. Fault Lines has come later, when there is calm. We are now trying to explore common humanity, what are our natural responses and instincts: anxiety, fear, desire for survival, people's realisation that we need to help each other."
Last month, during a late afternoon run-through, The Australian watched as Brodie guided the dancers through the opening sequences of the work during the first day of final rehearsals. She picked out key performers and explained, mainly through actions but with occasional help from her interpreter, how they needed to tweak their movements to get the desired effect. She counted through the movements in Mandarin: " yi, er, san, si, wu!"
One month on and the work is "completely on track", Brodie says. Still in Leshan but preparing to travel to Melbourne, Brodie is confident about the work that is coming to the Melbourne stage. "The dancers have two days without me to go through things, then join me for technical rehearsals in Melbourne commencing Monday," she says.
Meanwhile, back in the villages of Sichuan, life goes on. Zhang says his parents and neighbours have new houses, and locals have learned to put the memory of the earthquake from their minds.
"A lot has changed in Mianyang," Zhang says. "There is a much more short-term mentality. But new families have been formed, new babies have been born, life seems to have been renewed. But people never want to talk about the earthquake, they bury the memory deep inside."
Michael Sainsbury is The Australian's China correspondent.
Fault Lines has its world premiere at the Melbourne Festival. Previews October 10-11; season October 11 to 13.