Eun-Me Ahn Company, Barbican

Western dragons are often greedy, capricious, and warsome, think Tolkien’s Smaug. But in the East, they embody a sacred and spiritual energy, power, and longevity. Previously reserved for kings, now symbols of composition, multiculturalism, and freedom.

So Eun-Me Ahn explains in an interview with Thomas Hahn, when talking about her new work, flapping into the Barbican and now the Lowry. Associate artist for Théâtre de la Ville, choreographer of the 2002 World Cup, and creator of such internationally famous works as Princess Bari and Let Me Change Your Name. Directing her genre-bending mind on the elderly (Dancing Grandmothers) and then middle-aged men (Dancing Middle-Aged Men) her focus now is the youth, spread across 5 Asian countries. Dancing with Gen Z? No, Dragons!

Everyone’s least favourite global virus wrecking balled many a theatrical project. But like finding a seam of jade in this case it crafted a “pandemic miracle” with the rehearsals continuing via Zoom. Plus the necessity of technology allowed the 5 original dancers (stuck in various lockdowns at the time) to be projected over the live performers of Ahn’s company.

What we get is a fusing, sci-fi, surreal, youthfully energetic, and kaleidoscopic experience. A multinational, multidisciplinary, blend that rises and falls like the undulations of…you guessed it snaking dragons back. Visually Ahn knows what grabs attention. Dismantling our idea of the human body, limbs balloon, shoulders hunch, the humaniform blurs and in many cases disappears, very much like the work of Polish theatre maker Tadeusz Kantor. Hoover boards, capes, and spindly accessories fudge the lines between human and other even more. Long worm-like bodies of silver venting tubes dangle as the 3 walls of the space. They also crop up again and again (was there a sale at the Korean version of B&Q we wonder?), draped around shoulders or concertinaing out as giant hands. Standing tall like rearing centipedes with screens for faces, the dancers floating heads winking and gurning. Think if Doctor Who met Pina Bausch and had a very odd baby!

But it’s not all silver snake suits (although there’s quite a lot of them). Flowing robes of black, with flashes of underskirts in beetle multi chromes that peacock like an animalistic defense or courting ritual. Hypnotizing as the terse bodies turn around and around, and around and around (there’s a lot of spinning).

A heady blend of traditional with modern choreography, as classical dance from Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and Taiwan find themselves crushed against TikTok and Hip-hop heavy routines. Repeated sequences like the cup dance in Pitch Perfect performed on their knees mirrored by the ghostly forms of their projected colleagues. Musically and physically contagious it will wind its way into your mind, imprinted on your sleeping eyelids for the next couple of days. Part utopian cityscape part Berlin sex club, the corporeal language of the show is a constantly shifting artistic desert.

The dancers spring over one another, turning hands into jagged darts, stylised yes, but with a refreshing sense of freedom. The older more set movements of their traditional dances melding with the flexibility of more contemporary influences. It’s as if you swung a handful of ideas at each other and then built a show from the shattered remnants, picking up the sharp shards of history in your (hopefully) gloved hands. Hyekyoung Kim, Jeeyeun Kim, Haejin Yun, Gaon Han, Sunjae Jo, Uiyoung Jung, Deokyeong Kim, and Yongsik Moon cope well with the fragmented nature of the piece. Reveling in the connotations of the costumes but not allowing themselves to be swamped by them. Throwing themselves headfirst and quite literally into each other, everything looks like a world of fun, which is a much-missed element of dance. Its enjoyability.

Jinyoung Jang’s lights are primary colour dominated and although fitting with the costumes are randomly sequenced. Snap-changing states without much link to what we are seeing on stage. Furthermore, Taeseok Lee and Minjeong Lee’s video/motion design is clunky at best, and gives little to the piece, despite some pleasant backgrounding of the young dancer’s story. The only time the projection adds anything is a moment when various solos are trapped in gigantic soap bubbles. Other than that, it feels outdated. Yes, unfurling blossoming trees and splashes of lake water are pretty but what is their place in a piece resolutely urban and synthetic in theme?

Eun Me-Ahn’s solo, although springing about like a satyr, is unconnected, and indulgent. Its edition at the end is unneeded and tacked on uncomfortably to the overall show. Flowing skirts, futuristic costumes, and frantic movement are the rules of the day.    Those looking for a more nuanced exploration of youth, or in fact, multiculturalism within Asia might be disappointed. I however love a good 75 minutes of undulating bodies, flashes of shocking colour, and the spinning scales of dragons, so was grinning from ear to ear throughout. Joy being infectious, I am sure you will be too.

Grab your tickets for the Lowery show, HERE!