Yin Mei and Kyle Abraham Chart Life in Black and White, Plus Rainbow Colors

A woman backs slowly into a strip of light lying along the floor of the Doris Duke Theater at Jacob’s Pillow. She holds one end of what appears to be an endless piece of paper. You only realize its actual length when a man, Dai Jian, appears out of the wings, holding the other end. Facing each other, the two gradually begin to lean backward. Braced like that, with the paper a taut road between them, they could be workers in a paper-making business, but as they start to twist and bow forward and tip the scroll, you sense the beginning of a struggle.

City of Paper isn’t the first piece that Yin Mei has made about the China she grew up in during the early, cataclysmic years of Mao Zhedong’s Cultural Revolution; I still remember her exquisite Empty Tradition: City of Peonies (1998) and Nomad: The River (2005). Paper was a part of her world. Her birthplace, Luoyang, was once not only a city famed for its peonies; it was a center for scholars and for paper-making, and her family was part of that culture. Her reticent, but potent intersections of dance, media, and music in the new piece create images of how the art of papermaking and the laying of ink on it changed in a single year, when the Revolution uprooted ancient traditions, made the planting of peonies a crime, and harnessed paper production to the spreading of propaganda.

Richard Marriott’s score, Sam Crawford’s sound design, David Ferri’s lighting, and the live performance by violist Stephanie Griffin create an environment in which sweet melodies can be swallowed by crackling noises and gusts of wind. In the visual design—Tennessee Rice Dixon’s image projections and animation and the choreography by Mei and dancers—repetition gently presses pictures into your brain. A black-and white film clip of a crowd loops over and over behind the action; there’s the smiling woman again, there’s the older one tying her headscarf. In another fragment, a man, bare to the waist, pulls a wagon behind him loaded with what could be tree-trunk sized rolls of paper, while passersby in modern dress stare at him (or at the camera). The sight of him reaching behind him, without stopping, to get a jacket and put it on is so mesmerizing that I almost miss what’s happening onstage.

Yin Mei’s City of Paper, Dai Jian in the foreground.
Ruppert Bohle.
Yin Mei’s City of Paper, Dai Jian in the foreground.
Kyle Abraham in his Inventing Pookie Jenkins.
Kristi Pitsch
Kyle Abraham in his Inventing Pookie Jenkins.


Yin Mei Dance
Jacobís Pillow, Becket, Massachusetts
August 14 through 8

Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion
Jacobís Pillow
August 11 through 15

In a perfectly synchronized duet for Mei and Kanako Yokota, the women—wearing white tops and black pants—move along a sheet of heavy paper that has been unrolled with a startling snap from the wings; they repeat the same movement phrase several times, and then face the back wall and do it again. The two spool out the movement as if it were an exercise in calligraphy—their coiling hands and arms and softly sinuous torsos fluent but precise. Whether the source behind the choreography is writing or some other exacting task, the dancers are serene. At the end of each phrase, they lie down briefly, curled on their sides, as if to put a period on a thought or signal the end of their day. At this point, the seven closely aligned screens behind them show images of birch trees, a source of fine paper.

Not all the images suggesting calligraphy have that purity. When Kota Yamazaki dances two brief solos, he rapidly traces uncanny elaborations on the air; his knees swivel and bend, his stepping feet twist and club momentarily; there’s not an iota of stillness in him. It’s as if every “word” is flowering into all its possible meanings at once.

In the question and answer period following the performance, Mei mentioned going through the corridors and rooms of the compound where, I gather, her family lived and worked, and being confronted daily by the Cultural Revolution’s use of strong, slick paper for posters with slogans urging, exhorting, and cautioning the people of this brave new world. Savoring the beauty of distinct types of paper or pausing to consider the poetry of language before gliding black brushstrokes over a white surface were traditions that had to be suppressed. No longer would there be time to balance a single, kite-sized sheet of paper on end in one hand and examine it in all lights, as the dancers do (this sequence, however lovely, seems drawn-out).

Mei, dramaturg Peter L. Critchell, and the other colleagues offer no harsh critique of Mao’s political and social designs; Mei’s childhood seems to have been relatively unstressful (I thought I recognized her youthful face among a row of portraits). The issues involved in Mao’s upheavals are raised obliquely. Ocean waves acquire red froth. Clouds sometimes pass over the faces in the films of crowds surging or school children reciting. The live performers become shadows or press their faces against a translucent panel that suddenly drops down in front of them. You can interpret a duet between Mei and Jian as a sensitive calligraphy of desire or as a kind of forced re-education. When the four performers slowly cross the stage in a constantly—wonderfully— evolving cluster, you can see both a complex art and adaptations to a shifting social climate; tumbling, leaning, climbing over, slipping through, the dancers seem at peace with the need for resourcefulness. In a second duet for Mei and Yokota, the women rarely rise to standing; they fall out of unison; they switch directions. Often, when supine, they lift their heads to stare at something. Performing a remarkable solo, Jian falls like a stone into the curled-up position that the women earlier assumed so quietly.

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