BEIJING Tibetan choreographer Sang Jijia took seven years to finish an idea that came to him while painting one day -- the idea that other people's dark side, the part that isn't known, that makes them whole.
Three days before "Standing Before Darkness" premiered this month in Beijing, he was finally satisfied with his exploration of that spiritual shading through dance.
The result is an emotionally harrowing, 70-minute piece that starts with 12 dancers moving in unison on chairs, while the thirteenth, with leg distended and throat constricted, struggles to keep up after a sudden fall. Her increasingly distraught efforts to speak gradually infect the company, who disintegrate into a violent tangle of distorted movements and cries.
"The title came to me when I was painting in Germany in 2003. In painting, a dark color is not just pessimistic, it adds depth. If there is only light, the person becomes a screen or simply a surface," Sang said.
"So, I thought, what is knowledge of another? Won't there always be something you don't know, a loneliness?"
Sang is China's first ethnic Tibetan choreographer of modern dance, who has returned to Beijing after dancing in Hong Kong, the United States and Germany.
He works with LDTX, the first modern dance company in China to be founded independently of the state.
An earlier work, "Unspeakable," will be performed in Wiesbaden, Germany on May 22, in a homecoming of sorts for Sang, who spent four years in Frankfurt dancing with contemporary choreographer William Forsythe.
Sang left his original home at the age of 13 when instructors plucked him from Gansu Province to study folk dance at Minzu University, a school for ethnic minorities in Beijing. He spoke no Chinese.
He turned that same alienation to good use when he later lived in New York, and then studied dance in Germany.
"Although language has its uses it also puts blinders on you, you lack other sensitivity. Sometimes when you don't speak, you notice things," Sang said.
"I had to watch very carefully, I learned my eyes were very important. From this I have also learned to see my performers."
Sang now sports a graying ponytail and accentless Mandarin, but keeps a string of Buddhist prayer beads wrapped around his wrist.
His hometown, Xiahe, has changed too, with concrete hotels and busloads of tourists replacing the low cluster of Tibetan and Muslim homes that filled a grassy valley dominated by the Labrang Monastery, one of the centers of Tibetan Buddhism.
Sang is reluctant to attach any particular meaning to his work or acknowledge any messages for contemporary China, where the booming economy has left little space for the sick, the crippled, or those shunted aside by the general rush to wealth.
"You don't need to be alone to be lonely. In this Beijing of ours, a city of millions, people are lonely. People need communication, interaction, they need to find someone they can connect with," Sang said.
"Especially in a transitory place like Beijing, a lot of people come to realize their dreams but leave behind their family and friends. They lack a partner, they just work nine to five or even overtime. That loneliness will always be there."
The few moments of harmony in his work are found when small groups of dancers interact. The larger company maintains a restless, relentless momentum on a fluorescent-lit, institutional set while the ceiling lowers oppressively in the second third.
At the climax, the fallen dancer finally says "It hurts" forcing another to cry "I saw her!" while a third sobs "I believe you! But who will believe me?"
"I really like using sound, including voice, the dancers' breathing, the chairs knocking the floor. All are deliberately chosen by me and make the work whole," Sang said after the debut.
The dance is performed to raspy live music by Hong Kong composer Dickson Lee.
Sang works out the movements he envisions by painting, before collaborating with dancers to take his works from concept to final form.
The process is liberating for some dancers but alien to those who are used to the more top-down instructions.
The result is a far cry from the kitschy, Tibetan-style singing and dancing that is often featured on Chinese television, or in the "cultural shows" put on at hotels in traditionally Tibetan areas.
"So many people use Tibetan-ness as a cliche, but I am afraid of that," Sang said. "Because I love that place, I like it, I don't want to commercialize it or make it into a cliche."
(Editing by Miral Fahmy)