It was the only time in France I felt I needed a translator. The TGV, an ultra-fast train, was rocketing past vineyard after vineyard through the countryside of the Piedmont region, on its way from the southern coast to the capital. Rectangular red dirt fields, divided into horizontal rows by parallel gray wires until they looked from our vantage point like giant sheets of lined notebook paper. And the foreign letters that required translation on those pages? They were formed by nothing more than the gnarled black trunks and twisted branches of the grapevine plants regularly spaced across the fields.
Were they characters in Arabic? Hebrew? Sanskrit? Our train moved so quickly, it was impossible to tell. Yes, the plants, their fruits, and the wine that came from them would ultimately tell their stories—given time. They'd disclose much about the land and its history; what the people who lived there had done to it and with it, and what they were doing with it now. But at our velocity the blur of symbols in the unknown hand danced past my eyes, darting on and off the stage: Beautiful, dazzling, clearly meaningful—and all but entirely beyond comprehension.
Reason enough, all told, to take extreme care upon hearing people refer to dance (or anything else, for that matter) as "the universal language." And that's before the cavalcade of international choreographers that have regularly appeared—and just as regularly baffled summer audiences—at the American Dance Festival.
The Chinese choreographer Yin Mei performed her enigmatic solo, Ink/Paper/Body/Scent, before two relatively small audiences in the main causeway of Duke's Nasher Museum of Art on Saturday, Nov. 11. Twilight had just ended as Ms. Yin stepped, barefoot, out onto a long crème-colored rectangular mat that stretched across the center of the marble lobby, just beyond the steps leading up to the auditorium. On the mat, a long strip of paper, some 40 feet in length, lay positioned between two shallow pools of liquid. The pool at the left was black; the one at the right, bright red.
At the center of the strip, a smaller, perpendicular path of paper led to a thin, spotlit wall that had been set at the base of the stairs. The path of parchment proceeded up the wall, ending in what appeared to be an oversized envelope suspended at the top of the structure.
Prominent choreographers have recently explored the body as a literal source of language. In a Barcelona performance of Another Evening, Bill T. Jones had a dancer embody the individual letters of the words, one after another, spelling out the answer to a question he'd posed in a mid-piece monologue.
Similarly, at the start of Ink/Paper/Body/Scent, Ms. Yin's character wakes from sleeping, in what appears to be a pose in the form of a Chinese ideogram. At first, her economy of expression recalls that of Eiko and Koma as Yin writhes and contorts slowly, voluptuously at times, across the surface of the paper. Significantly, though, the coolness of that famous couple's glacially paced works is replaced here by something substantially warmer.
Much as Shen Wei's company did at the opening of Connect Transfer, two summers ago in Reynolds Theater, Ms. Yin's character experiences—and writes—her passions during her transit. We'd say the letters linger at first only for the moment they're drawn, but that's not entirely true. Even without the ink that waits in the pools off-page, an impression of red, lipsticked lips are left, published on the paper when her face comes into contact with it.
Ultimately, Yin baptizes herself, at first in black ink, donning a spaghetti-strap black dress that had been soaking in the pool of pigmentation. As she stands, kneels, and then arcs her way back across the path of paper, a record of the transit is brushed across the parchment.
Again, those who saw the human paintbrushes—dancers with ink-infused gloves—negotiate the middle passages of Connect Transfer noted the differing patterns when the entire body splayed and spattered the ink across the surface, slinging her inky, long, wet hair in glancing parabolas about her—a nod, perhaps, to the work of Tatiana Baganova.
But the process of this physical writing, imprinting the paper with the emotional facts of the one crossing it, inevitably left the character stained, unkempt. Squeezing the hem of her garment gathered between her legs, at one point she seems to be desperately trying to bring more ink out from her very core, in a gesture that crosses the border between labor and sexuality.
But ultimately this document of her passage—and all that has been experienced during it—was muddied, both literally and figuratively.
The paper ultimately disintegrated in places from the liquid and the pressure brought to bear upon it by the dancer's body as it rubbed, sidled and suddenly whipped across the surface. Though the sounds of crickets effectively opened the work, a later montage of sound effects—in which a car arrived, a door opened and footsteps crossed gravel, a sequence that reversed at the end—bordered on non sequitur.
In a similar vein, off-stage technicians jumped repeatedly—and randomly, it seemed—from live close-ups of the performance to pre-recorded video of an earlier, different work.
Since the sightlines for the audience hadn't been adequately thought through and most of the viewers found their view obstructed by the first row of observers, the live feed was helpful—if not downright necessary—for the majority of those in attendance. Any other connection with the work in progress was obscure at best.
In the final, vivid sequence, Ms. Yin fingered the suspended envelope into cascading a stream of powdered green tea upon her saturated form. At first the hues of green, red and black intermingled before Yin emerged, all but coated in the material.
Spotlighted from above, the aromatic tea appeared to steam off the surface of her body, as she kicked even more of the powder into the air at her feet. Literally infused and immersed in the experience, she slowly slid down the papered surface of the wall behind her.
It was to be the next to the last record of a woman's troubled passage. The final one came when a single tear wrote its way down the surface of her face, painting a saline path through the just-created surface of green powder.