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SCRUTINY | Naishi Wang & Jean Abreu’s Deciphers Is An Exercise In Expressive Physicality

By Paula Citron on February 13, 2024

Co-choreographer/dancers Naishi Wang & Jean Abreu (Photo: Maya Yoncali)
Co-choreographer/dancers Naishi Wang & Jean Abreu (Photo: Maya Yoncali)

Harbourfront Centre & DanceWorks/Deciphers, co-choreographed and performed by Naishi Wang and Jean Abreu, Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Feb. 8 to 10. (MAI, Montreal Arts Interculturels, Feb. 14 to 17, and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, Feb. 22 to 23).

At the heart of the dance piece Deciphers is the body as a tool of linguistic expression. It is the premise of co-choreographers Naishi Wang and Jean Abreu that movement of the body can communicate as powerfully as both oral speech and the written word.

Apparently, Wang and Abreu met online by searching through contemporary dance websites. It was a meeting of like-minded dancesmiths, and a professional friendship developed to the point where they wanted to work together. Deciphers is a result of that collaboration.

Wang, who was born in China, and Abreu who is from Brazil, are both immigrants, Wang coming to Canada, and Abreu going to England. It is the immigrant experience that in part inspired Deciphers. The piece examines, as they say in the program notes, the complexities of communication, through both understanding and misunderstanding.

As immigrants, the men had to deal with a new language and a new culture, and the difficulties are reflected in the work by physicality that is, for lack of a better word, tortured. Taken as a whole, Deciphers is a physical journey that expresses a wide range of emotions from frustration to anger and back again.

Wang spent nine years as a member of Toronto Dance Theatre where he was always a most exquisite dancer. Born with a fluid, agile physicality, Wang can twist his body shape at will through a series of dazzling contortions. Abreu has a more chunky, meaty physique and so his physical lingua franca is slam, and slash, and hurling himself through space.

Co-choreographer/dancers Naishi Wang & Jean Abreu (Photo: Maya Yoncali)
Co-choreographer/dancers Naishi Wang & Jean Abreu (Photo: Maya Yoncali)

As the audience enters, the two men are huddled over a long strip of paper that contains pictures, drawings, written notes and so forth, that represent their original homelands. In a very effective image, Wang and Abreu each take one end of the paper and begin to crunch and fold it together. The paper has a crinkle sound as they gather it up, which represents a shattered world.

They finally meet in the middle with the paper crushed between them which they let fall to the floor. This uneven ball of paper remains on the stage as a broken reminder of what was, and the difficulties of what is.

The bulk of Deciphers is made up of each man showcasing different movement patterns expressing hardship through various mood shifts. Occasionally they come together in the same physical statement. For example, they both perform what I call the inch worm which grows in intensity until they are both literally crashing and bashing themselves into the floor.

At other times, they hold themselves in stillness which is also an eloquent statement of confusion, bewilderment or loss of direction. At another point, they each speak Portuguese and Mandarin at the same time, which most of the audience does not understand, and which highlights the outlier nature of the immigrant experience. At all times, they are aware of the total stage picture, and how their physicality is blending together.

And herein lies the problem. As attractive and inventive as each individual movement is, and for each dancer, it is physically very different, that is the sum total of the work. There is a sameness throughout, going from one movement pattern to the next after many repeats.

To increase the level of choreographic sophistication, the work needs to take itself beyond the initial idea, and up the ante, so to speak. Choreographers often do well with the first idea, as Wang and Abreu do in Deciphers, but finding that change up, that progression, that deepening of what they want to say, is the second step that they have yet to master.

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Paula Citron
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