Spirits haunt the new short films by dancer, writer and choreographer Irene Hsiao. And in this time when we are suspended between longing for things of the past—gatherings, embraces, spontaneous encounters, celebrations—while desperately yearning for a future better than that same bittersweet past, ghosts trapped between worlds are not only seasonally appropriate, but an apt metaphor for our condition.
Created in response to “The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China” exhibition at the Smart Museum and Wrightwood 659, Hsiao’s project series was, like many, conceived for a live audience and, due to the pandemic, reimagined for video. Shifting to an online format was a sharp turn for dances Hsiao intended to perform in the galleries of Wrightwood 659. Hsiao said she was originally inspired to create dances in gallery settings not only because of her love of visual art, but because of the freedom visitors to art galleries feel to guide their own experience—viewing work from different angles, taking as much or as little time as they like—as opposed to dance audiences who, even when encouraged to move around and interact with the performance, can be reluctant to do so out of custom or habit. With the museums closed, Hsiao’s forced shift to isolated dance-making infused these works with echoes of nostalgia for performances that never were.
“Merely a Mistake: A Score for Your Door” is inspired by a monumental sculpture by Liu Wei, constructed from doors demolished during the modernization of Beijing. Hsiao invited fellow dancers, youth and community members to submit videos of themselves in their homes, responding to a short movement score to be performed in a doorway. The instructions were simple, including directions such as be still, enter and exit, knock, sit, and dance. Hsiao then made eleven video pairings and overlaid them, creating ghostly duets, trios, quartets and quintets of people of all ages (including infants) and their pets coming and going, reaching, resting, stretching, all in the two-dimensional confines of a doorframe (or, technically, two overlapping doorframes). It’s a dance many of us know well: negotiating limited space with cohabitants human and otherwise, walking the same hundred feet of space a few hundred times each day. In the homes beside ours, sometimes above and below ours, the rituals are taking place again and again, contained and unseen.
“Transformation” is a performance by the same name of Yin Xiuzhen’s installation of over a hundred ceramic roof tiles, salvaged from demolition in Beijing, affixed with black-and-white photographs of everyday life from the rapidly changing neighborhood, and installed in an expansive grid on the gallery floor. Vin Reed filmed Hsiao’s eleven-minute performance in the gallery, which, while originally intended to be viewed in person and for a longer duration, is all the more haunting for Reed’s deft photography and editing. True, we audience members no longer get to decide where in the gallery to look, but Reed leads the eye compellingly through the horizontal lines of the room, glides over photos that come in and out of focus, and greets the lone dancer moving hauntingly through the room. Layered images in the first few minutes of the film reference the ghostly figures in “Merely a Mistake.” Hsiao, draped in white and carrying a white umbrella, bent forward, arms raised, her straight black hair hanging past her hips, is a specter of beauty and grief, haunting a sparse graveyard of concrete squares. The white mask covering her nose and mouth would have been a powerful costume choice regardless of pandemic health guidelines. But the figure in white is a memory, invoked by a Hsiao dressed in black. And though the film starts with a figure in black and returns to her, the final echoes are the memory, lingering beyond the present moment.
Irene Hsiao’s dance films are part of “The Allure of Matter” exhibition and are free to stream at theallureofmatter.org. Hsiao will perform “Transformation” as part of the Bridge Dance Festival at Links Hall, live-streamed November 13-14 at 7pm. $20, $15 student and senior.