Friday, July 26, 2013

To move and be moved: On Xu Kun’s "Last Tango in the Square One Midsummer Night"

Dancing calls for movement. For its performers, to dance is to move; for the onlookers, to see the act is to be moved. In China, where the state regulates movement – whether individual, social, or political – by its people, dancing becomes a subversive performance — a subtle art form to express forbidden desires and passion between two people. 

This subtle demonstration, in Xu Kun’s story, of converting what is presumably an unlawful romance into an aesthetic movement is performed by an old and nameless pair, whose passion and brilliance in the dance rouses attention of the masses in the square. Indeed, the pair’s commanding presence at the center of a public square highlights the place, not as an image of China’s urban modernity, but as a historically significant and symbolic antigovernment space, where the state clashes, curbs, and curtails emotionally charged sentiments of its people. 

While the square entices old and lower income citizens usually for leisure, it also draws borders on what these people can do within the square. Though decorated with an amalgam of foreign-inspired structures, the square remains witness to how the state continues to uphold conservative values while permeating into the private lives of its citizen. In response to the state’s curtailment of expressive freedom, the pair subtly performs their subversion through dance — an art form which exposes heatedly raw passion between a man and a woman. 

Through the particularly complex steps and styles of tango, a foreign dance, the pair demonstrates, to the “unfeeling” masses, the emotional core of romance which is freedom: the desire to be seen, to effortlessly expel energy in each other, and to freely unite the bodies under one rhythm. For the pair, their unique mastery of tango genuinely attests the sensuous connection and physical knowledge of each other; by getting lost into the private realm of dance, the pair is able to symbolically transcend the imaginary and restrictive borders of the square. 

Here, the fluidity of dance as an aesthetic practice mirrors the double-edged nature of art — playful in its function to compose beauty while inspiring subtle resistance to permit changes to occur in society. Take for instance the transformed attitude of the masses towards the pair. Notably at first, the masses in the story are appalled by the “two bewitching yet vulgar strangers intruding onto their space”. However, since the pair reveals the absence of modeled desire and impassioned romance in their lives, they eventually turn the couple into lead stars of the square. 

Now, the pair – through the charismatic and artistic appeal of their dance – eventually becomes the central figure, the source of inspiration for common folks to emulate expressive moves, to lose their shyness, to combat timidity, and to learn complicated steps. From here, we ask: isn’t this a picture of how China is also led by charismatic and traditional figures throughout the course of its tumultuous history?

In Xu Kun’s narrative, the social dance in the square – without the commanding and inspiring presence of the pair – is likened to a “vast mass revelry, like a dragon without its head is but a chaotic blur without its leader”. Here, we are somewhat reminded of Max Weber’s conception of charismatic authority which transformed China’s old, imperial rule into a single party socialist state because of inspirational figures like Confucius and Mao Tse Tung. In particular, the combination of rational, charismatic, and traditional authority molds China into its modern “emotionless” and unfeeling nation, which is seen as the key problem of the current Chinese society. 

Interestingly however, the reformative solutions to this suggest that expressive freedom can be performed subversively through art to provoke societal changes. Indeed, what is suggested in the story is the need for bold appearances of “stars in the square”, who are expected to subversively perform, aesthetically educate, and fervently inspire the masses to change their ways and resist state control and oppression. 

China, like any other ancient civilizations, is a product of movements; hence, it can be said that the complex and revolutionized steps it execute in present times are comprised of successive dances it has performed and borrowed from other nations throughout its historical time. As Xu Kun brilliantly suggests in the text, to dance passionately in China’s symbolic square is to call for movement — and the message is clear: the masses wait for its stars to move and be moved by their steps. 

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