Scotland/China articles

Interview - Dance + maths = innovation

by Website Editor, 18 February 2013

This is the fourth in a series of interviews focusing on individuals from Scotland who have spent a lengthy period in the other country, or are very involved in Scotland/China exchanges.

Janis Claxton has been engaged with exchanges with Chinese dance and performance since 2009. She has choreographed for Beijing/Dance LDTX, Beijing Dance Academy and Beijing Song and Dance Company. Her works have been presented at the Guangdong Modern Festival, Dadao Live Art Festival (798 Art Space), Shanghai Expo, Beijing Dance Academy and Beijing Dance Festival and in Scotland, at Edinburgh Zoo. After she gave a fascinating talk to the SCA Edinburgh branch in January, we caught up with Janis and her team of Scottish and Chinese dancers during rehearsals for her next project, 'Chaos and Contingency', to be performed in March at venues in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh.

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The dancers performing in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, 23 March 2013

“'Chaos and Contingency' is about structure and pattern”, Janis explains, “I wanted a complete change after doing several projects that were more about emotion”. To prepare, she began to explore relationships between numbers and music ; looked again at John Conway's 'Game of Life' from 1970 ; and worked with David McCarthy, professor of philosophy and mathematics at Edinburgh University, to create a performance based on a grid of nine squares.

The performance is based on the study of emergent mathematical patterns. Small variants initiate change – like the famous butterfly wings of chaos theory – and patterns evolve and dissolve revealing both simplicity and complexity. The performance offers its audience different ways of seeing dance, and is designed to be viewed from different angles, including from above, something that the choice of venues will allow.

But as well as the normal challenges of preparing for a performance in three different venues the length and breadth of Scotland, Janis also has to integrate the skills and styles of four Chinese and four western dancers into a cohesive whole. “Coming from Australia, I'm more influenced by eastern styles of dance to start with”, she explains, “and Chinese dancers seem to adapt easily to my style – in general their bodies are more fluid, their movements more flowing and circular than most westerners”. The style of dance that is predominant in the UK is “more linear and more tense”.

Wan Shi Ming, one of the Chinese contingent, told us he was “very interested in how Janis creates the idea of the dance”, adding “I did not expect to be thinking like a scientist !” Ming, who is from Guangdong Modern Dance, said he hoped to bring “my own inspiration” to the performance, and to “collect and combine experiences and take movements from each other”.

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The dancers performing at Kelvingrove Art Gallery, photo by Roy Campbell-Moore

Janis explains that the Chinese style of performance development is somewhat different from what she is used to in the west. “In China, the dancers tend to get their material from the choreographer, and to focus on technical performance, while western dancers tend to generate material for the choreographer, and to focus on ownership and individuality”. Bringing these two tendencies together in a productive way is one of the most challenging, and potentially one of the most rewarding, aspects of the rehearsals.

Janis is finding fascinating new insights in the scientific aspects of the performance. “In fact, we are discovering that patterns are deep and meaningful”, Janis says, “and that chaos is everywhere around us – I hope SCA members can come and see for themselves !”

For more on 'Chaos and Contingency' and Janis Claxton Dance, see Janis Claxton's website.. The dancers are Liu Chang (刘畅), Liu Bin (刘斌), Tan Yuan Bo (谭远波), Wan Shi Ming (万诗铭), Tamsyn Russell, Adrienne O'Leary, Fiona Jeffries and James Southward. The performances were at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, 2-3 March ; Aberdeen Art Gallery, 16 March ; and the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, 23-24 March, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. We went along on the 23rd and the show was watched by a large, appreciative - and perhaps intrigued - audience of all ages (see photos at top of article). You can see the dance being performed at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery here and here.