Review: Red Ink is a “fine example of boundary-breaking dance art chiming for change”

Presented by Wayward Theatre and produced by Step Out Arts, Red Ink is a bold, striking dance piece exploring the issue of censorship in China. Created by emerging choreographer, Si Rawlinson, and featuring dancers Vladimir Gruev, Helder Delgado and Rawlinson himself, Red Ink depicts the dissident artists’ struggle between the desires of state and citizen, using the human body as a vital instrument against the unwarranted surveillance, scrutiny and perversity associated with censorship.

A crucial element of this year’s China Changing Festival at London’s Southbank Centre, Red Ink is a powerful example of dance art making a political, artistic statement about the past and current Chinese political regime.

Running from 4-7 October 2018, China Changing Festival celebrated China’s rich and diverse contemporary art scene, paying homage to both British-based and south-east Asian artists.  

Closing the festival, Si Rawlinson’s Red Ink draws attention to the current Chinese climate whilst also expressing important connections with the past. Sound is layered with hip-hop samples, ear-rending noises and recordings of traditional Erhu and Pipa, as well as a cello played with Chinese influence. Red skirts inspired by tribal traditions are juxtaposed against commercial office wear; emblems of the past paralleled with the present monotony of the Chinese political establishment.

The dance piece fluctuates between this tone; beginning with ritualistic movements featuring bamboo-pole combat and then switching to straight-laced suit and desk scenes.

In both scenes, Rawlinson is the body being manipulated. The modern scenes are eerily reflective of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s own denial of freedom during his 81 days imprisonment. Constantly watched by two guards, Ai Weiwei’s time in prison exemplifies the eroding impact censorship has on humanity.

Wayward Theatre - Red Ink
Wayward Theatre – Red Ink

The more traditional scenes feature the trio skilfully combating against one another; the choreography is a fusion of break, contemporary, hip-hop and krump. It would be an injustice to say this piece is strictly hip-hop, Red Ink goes beyond all definition, pushing the boundaries of what is considered movement. In Red Ink, Rawlinson creates choreography which cannot be pinned down – it is alive, it is exhausting to watch and equally exhausting to embody. The body is pushed, pulled and exploited from all angles in what is a testament to proclaiming the artist’s struggle to the world.

Due to its political nature, a huge amount of tension builds in Red Ink. Parts of the choreography break this tautness, a welcomed break for everyone in the room as the piece is (wonderfully) traumatic.

One of the most poignant parts is when the audience and dancers have a little respite in a darkly comedic commercial scene. Although this is a chance for the human body to recuperate, the thought behind this moment is extremely charged.

As Rawlinson sits on a desk with two men hanging over him, controlling his hand as he signs his life away, the two men place a bag over his head. The tone then changes as two other bags are introduced and placed onto the other dancers’ heads. There are now three bodies, their identities are blurred and all stand with bags on their heads not knowing what the hell is going on. When the trio shrug it off and break out into a lighter motif, the whole piece arrives at this essential question: what exactly is the point of being censored?

The confusion and the conflated identities places important emphasis on the following. What is censorship’s boundaries? And who can possibly be to blame when we are all guilty of going uncensored? This part of Red Ink really expresses how censorship is truly a futile pretence.

Wayward Theatre – Red Ink

The most triumphant moment is the final piece, as paper spanning from the back to the front of the stage is rolled out ritualistically by the two dancers, as Rawlinson carefully bathes his hair in black ink.

Throughout the piece, a recurring concept is the use of the hair as a symbol of writing and of resisting authority and control. As his body is watched and manipulated by the two dancers, the hair is completely free. Although there is more cohesion between the bodies at the end, differing from the chaotic mania in the beginning, the hair still articulates freedom, resistance and creativity. It will not be controlled or entrapped by any entity.

A striking dance piece, Red Ink tells a vivid story about Chinese politics and the perpetual struggle artists experience in the face of adverse censorship. I will end with a poignant statement from Ai Weiwei taken from his NY Times opinion piece:

‘An individual’s free expression can stimulate a more distinctive kind of exchange and will, in turn, lead to more distinctive ways of exchanging views.’

Red Ink will feature as part of CAN Festival at Rich Mix between 24-26 January 2019. Other performances in 2019 include, Bedford Creative Arts and Attenborough Arts. Si Rawlinson was recipient of Chinese Arts Now (CAN) bursary 2018, where the Southbank Centre programmed his work for this year’s China Changing Festival.

Reviewed on 7th October on China Changing Festival 2018, Southbank Centre