Bound. Restrict. Weaken. Disable. Chinese foot binding began with the court dancers of the Song Dynasty who had their feet wrapped painfully tight to keep their “Lotus Gait” and ensure tiny steps and a swaying walk. By the 19th century, the majority of women in all classes had their feet bound. This feminine daintiness was a sign of status and wealth; disallowing women the ability to perform manual labour. With status came sex appeal, and during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), sex manuals included 48 ways to play with these sexualized 7cm (3″) length feet.
Unbound, a contemporary dance performance by Wen Wei, a work that brings the theme of foot binding to the stage, came to Art Spring this past Thursday, 63 years after the end of the disabling tradition. Brought alive in the moving human form, this performance dealt with the juxtaposing forces of strength and weakness, male and female, caucasian and asian, freedom and bondage. The talent and flavour that each dancer embodied enhanced the tragedy and beauty of the work that sparked a deep inquiry into the purpose of foot binding and the human ability to adapt and strengthen in the face of restriction. The universality of male-female power play was clear with scenes of female weakness and frailty and male dominance and brute strength. This tension changed in scenes where female dancers showed mastery in the tiny shoes, having worked within their restricted framework, adapting and finding strength despite the disablement. Release was achieved with the shedding of shoes, feet free to root and empower free movement.
Choreographed to the sophistication of Italian-Canadian composer, Giorgio Magnanensi, the work grew and climaxed in a continuous yet unpredictable fashion. This unpredictability was both stimulating and unnerving and appropriate for the delivery of the artist’s message. Wen Wei took a memory of his grandmother and pushed it to new levels. At a time of re-emergence of the divine feminine, Unbound is timely in its unraveling, and allows us to question the past as well as the present.
By Jaime Murdoch