DANCE BEAT: Getting inside Under the Skin


t is said that music and dance are universal languages. As a person with an affinity for traveling in places where I do not speak the language, I agree as long as charades is considered.

Charades, however ungraceful they may be, do get the point across. The point, of course, is the human bond of common experience.  

While I have yet to visit China, my hunch is that there, too, I would find this familiar theme.

The world would not be filled with artists, with philosophers, with revolutionaries if this common struggle did not exist. It is this relationship dynamic that will be discussed at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Saturday. The language of the proceedings? Dance.

Under the Skin examines ideas of cultural and personal identity and how the personal experience is defined by the cultural context in which it was raised.  

The concept is fascinating, the dancing excellent, and the story behind Wen Wei Wang himself, worth the price of the ticket alone.

Wang began his dance career in China, during the reign of Chairman Mao. He describes the isolation of the dance world at the time as reflective of the communist values taught to the people.

“Because we grew up in the Cultural Revolution, we did not do western modern dance because that is western culture. We were building our own work and our work was about people, about how communist gardens feed and take care of people,” he said.

By the early 1980s, changes in the Chinese dance world had begun. By 1983, the first western teacher arrived in Beijing and started a small school. After exchange visits to Canada, Wen Wei decided to leave everything he knew and immigrate to Canada.

That was more than 20 years ago.  

“When I first went back, I could not breathe because of the pollution, the air.  Second, there are so many people; I felt like I had no privacy,” said Wang about returning to China. “And politically, it is not a democracy. So those are the big ideas that are in my mind and in my work. And then the last one: to be who you are.”

When I saw Under the Skin on DVD, two things blew me away.  First, the quality of the dance is excellent. Putting together 12 dancers, half of whom are literally on the other side of the world, is a choreographic feat.  

Whether the audience member is an experienced dancer or not, it will be evident that the training and technique of both Canadian and Chinese dancers is superb.  

The second thing that caught my eye was the complexity of the story being told and the challenging questions that crept into my mind as I watched. As one dancer mechanically exits the stage, so another enters expressing his individual strengths. 

As art so often does, this piece forces us to question our own experience. At first glance, one may assume this show is only about China and the inevitable struggle of the individual in a communist country. Upon seeing the show, perhaps you will agree with me that the relationship between culture and individual is a story of universal truth.

Wen Wei Wang will be on hand for a talk-back session after the show Saturday. Don’t worry about a language barrier, you could always brush up on your charades and dance them out.