‘City of Paper’ slowly unscrolls an evocative tale
BECKET — “City of Paper,’’ performed by Yin Mei Dance this week at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, begins with Mei herself walking backward from the wings, unfurling, very slowly, a long scroll. It is as if she is unfolding the tale we have come to hear. As her deliberate pace thickens — a subtle tension develops the farther out she gets — the audience seems to lean in, attentive to what Mei wants to tell us.
Mei, who was born in the 4,000-year-old Chinese city of Luoyang, where the program notes say paper was invented, uses, as underlying themes, both her country’s reverence for paper and the upheavals it experienced because of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution. A tale both ancient and prescient, “City of Paper’’ is a world of ideas, and Mei uses contemporary media — still photo and video projections and body sensors — along with pre-industrial arts — calligraphy, dance, and (some) live music — to explore them.
And, of course, an abundance of paper.
Scrolls are draped over bars, then lifted to hang vertically from the flies or flung out onto the stage floor like bowling balls down an alley. At one point Mei and her three dancers, Dai Jian, Kota Yamazaki (the two men also collaborated on the piece), and Kanako Yokota, each juggle a stiffened piece of paper, its rustling movements like an upside-down kite. A large screen is abruptly lowered — a jarring moment in this otherwise meditative piece — and the dancers move behind it, their images now ghostly in its translucence. When the screen is lifted, Mei is standing with a bucket in front of Jian and Yokota, kneeling, their now-shirtless backs to us, heads bowed. Mei tips the bucket and pours, the dark liquid snaking down their spines like a tattoo drawing itself. Thus anointed, they push and crawl along the large sheet of paper on the floor, trailing patterns behind them.
The fragility of paper (and the trees that produce it, and our increasingly tenuous connection to nature) also serves as metaphor for the evanescence of time and memory. “City of Paper’’ grieves for the loss of slow beauty, and rightly so. Unfortunately, its thoughtfulness often becomes ponderous. Many segments are too drawn-out, undeveloped, or simply disconnected to the dance. Though the live viola lends a wistful tone, the onstage presence of musician Stephanie Griffin, who weaves in and out of the dance, feels like pedestrianism amidst the poetry.
Still, many images are beautiful and evocative, as are some of the dance phrases — particularly the women’s two duets, filled with tautly feline arches and swirls. Yes, there is much to savor in “City of Paper,’’ and maybe it should be viewed in the looser vein of performance art, rather than dance theater. Or maybe there’s a moral to this tale, and it has something to do with our 21st-century’s propensity for impatience.
Janine Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org