The Beijing Modern Dance Company created the piece Red Light set to the music of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It toured the U.S. back in 2005, and has haunted me ever since.
For most people in the United States born after the 80’s, The Wall is something you see and listen to in high school. Many people adopt it to provoke and encourage all the rebellion they’re going through. It’s a natural desire to break away from your parents and become you’re own person, and these lyrics are great for it. Over time, though, the lyrics no longer have the general punch they used to. They became solely about dealing with teenage rebellion and nothing more. They became a cliché. “Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone!” is a perfect excuse to stage a walkout and go sit in the sun and smoke under a tree.
I didn’t think much about this going into see Red Light. I liked the film, even though it had been awhile since I watched it. But it never dawned on me what cultural preconceptions I had when I entered the theatre.
For the first half of the performance, I cringed often. The whole thing seemed coupled together from stock modern dance moves, with some Flashdance thrown in. The set was scaffolding, uplight hitting dancers twirling around poles and leaning out from them. It seemed pretty awful.
But then something happened.
As the title song The Wall (pt. 2) started, I had a sense of dread. We’ve heard the song so many times, why should this be on stage? Will they pantomime stealing liquor from their parent’s locked cabinet and getting drunk in a friend’s garage?
The dancers came out in lines, to me reminiscent of video I’d seen of Chinese training schools. These schools have hundreds of students in one class, lined up outdoors in strict formation, exercising or practicing martial arts.
Then the lyrics, which for so long had meant nothing outside of high school, played out
We don’t need no education.
We don’t need no thought control.
Outside the context of my comfortable U.S. suburban childhood, suddenly this song was not just daring, but dangerous. We had all seen the videos of tanks against students in Tiananmen Square. Dancing to this song, to this whole soundtrack, at it’s heart about standing up to authority in any of it’s guises, was an act of courage. I had been naive, comfortable and lucky. I had to rethink my perspective, and understand this wasn’t about teenage rebellion. It was about breaking free of real authority and control.
I still feel some of the choreography itself was stuff I’d seen before. But good art should take you out of your own shoes, shift your perspective. Rarely has it happened as strongly as when I watched this work.
I know China is opening up to many new things. It’s hard to tell what news outlets are passing on here, how skewed or limited it may be. It’s clear though that artists in China are taking risks, and the government is allowing it. Risky art is important for any culture, helping the people to reflect on what they do and who they are. As more risky art is created in China and shared with the rest of the world, the more we all benefit, artists and audiences, from being pushed into new ways of seeing China and ourselves.
Buy Pink Floyd’s The Wall
posted by Trout Monfalco