Never underestimate the power of context. Watching Report on Body, the evening-length dance-theater work by this group from Beijing, I felt I was trying to decipher something written in a language I barely understood. Did I know enough about the history and culture of mainland China to have any real sense of the piece? Devised by choreographer-director Wen Hui and filmmaker-actor Wu Wenguang, Report on Body deals with the roles assigned women–and clothes play a huge part in transforming them. They’re stuffed inside other clothes to create bulging breasts, bellies, and buttocks or littered across the floor in huge piles, the detritus of cultural expectations. In a statement on-line, Wen says, “In the past Chinese women satisfied the needs of men and society by practices such as foot- and breast-binding. Today customs have changed but their offspring continue to satisfy society in other–but equally demeaning–ways. Women continue to be commodities.” Strong stuff, but not exactly unfamiliar to Westerners. What’s unclear is the significance of details: What is the string hanging from the ceiling with bells or balls attached to it? Why are food items announced in English in a voice-over? What do the Chinese characters projected on a video screen mean? What’s the principle ordering the various sections? By the end of the piece, though I had a sense of what Chinese women are not–baby machines, masseuses, prostitutes, consumable images–I still didn’t know what they are. Living Dance Studio, founded in 1994, is clearly worth seeing, however, for its uniqueness and integrity: the group exists outside the state-sponsored system for the arts, so its performers are unpaid and its performances unadvertised and free in China. Museum of Contemporary Art, theater, 220 E. Chicago, 312-397-4010. Through April 27: Friday-Saturday, 8 PM; Sunday, 7 PM. $22. Note: There will be a discussion about the piece Friday, April 25, after the performance, and another about the changing sexual culture in China Sunday, April 27, at 3 PM; both are free. Some of Wu’s videos are being shown in conjunction with the performances; see Section Two film listings under Who Is Listening for My Son? and Dance With Farm Workers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rickey Wong.