It was about three years ago that Muna Tseng and Tan Dun first started talking about paper. Tan, who emigrated from China to New York in 1986 to pursue a doctorate in composition, had been experimenting with creating sounds from unlikely natural materials; Tseng, a Hong Kong native who’s been part of the east-coast dance scene since the late 70s, was moving toward conveying “tactile sensations” in her choreography. In fact, Tseng recalls, “both of us had just emerged from our “water’ phase. Tan had presented his Water Music right around the time I came up with my Water Mysteries. We met, and he said he had been thinking about papers. Paper costumes, paper sets. The sensations of sounds linked to paper.”

Tan remembers playing with paper as a child in rural Hunan. “It was so much fun creating noises with an everyday object that cost next to nothing.” While studying at Columbia University he followed the orthodox route of composing orchestral music in Western idioms, but his heritage beckoned. “The ancient Chinese grouped instruments according to their natural sources–earth, water, and so forth,” he says. Five years ago he gave a concert devoted to ceramic folk instruments; then came Water Music, which used jars of water to create sounds. Not one of those traditional elements, paper nevertheless followed.

Knowing Tseng’s interest in eroticism and sensuality, Tan suggested adapting Jin Ping Mei (most correctly translated as The Plum in the Golden Vase), a landmark in Chinese literature for both its frank depiction of sex and its harsh indictment of the merchant class in the corrupt Ming dynasty. “I’d never read it, but I knew its reputation as a dirty book that was banned periodically,” Tseng says with a chuckle. When she did read it, she was struck by the variety of euphemisms used to describe sexual organs and activities–and by the power play between men and women. One of the wives in the household, Golden Lotus, triumphs over her lowly social status through sexual wiles.

But the pair’s finished product, a 75-minute dance called The Pink, is neither overtly political nor X-rated. “It’s definitely not an advocacy or political work about the lot of oppressed women,” Tseng avers, “and it by no means stresses nudity.” Paper turned out to have a plethora of associations with their project: it was invented in China, it’s a transmitter of knowledge and emotions, it’s the medium on which their source material was written. On top of that, says Tseng, “it can be blown, shredded, ripped, puckered, waved, popped to convey moods ranging from tenderness to yearning to violence.”

Tan finished the first leg of the collaboration, coming up with a draft of a score filled with “notes, graphics, and chant words.” Tseng then worked out a choreography to match the paper sound collage, which requires the participation of the dancers. “It’s not improvisational,” she emphasizes. “The movements are structured, and the whole piece has a fluid narrative logic.” Still, it’s more a mood piece than a dramatization of the book; only students of the novel are likely to detect its protagonists.

Elements of Chinese traditional dance abound in The Pink. “I took movements from the lotus walk–you know, the dainty way women with bind feet walk–and five-foot water sleeves that you swirl with the flick of the wrist. And dragon dance is in there too,” Tseng says. “Instead of nudity, I draw attention to the arch of a foot, the nape of the neck, those eroticized regions of the body. A lot of my choreography is derived from chi-gon [a form of t’ai chi] and kundalini yoga, [which are both] supposed to harness sexual energy.” Similarly, Tan adds, the music incorporates traditional Chinese elements: “guttural, paganistic outcries, peculiar tonalities and pitches.”

But above all the score calls for reams of paper: rolls of recycled newsprint, paper boards, cardboard boxes, bread bags, and a flute made of two sliding paper tubes. In last month’s New York premiere, 20 copies of the New York Times Magazine were torn apart for blowing, whistling, and swinging. “We put the Times to good use for once,” says Tan.

The Pink runs Thursday through Saturday, November 10 through 12, at the Dance Center of Columbia College, 4730 N. Sheridan. Starting time is 8 PM; tickets are $14-$16. For more info, call 271-7804. For Paper Music, a CD of the score, write Parnassus Records, 134 Henry St., New York, NY 10002.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Peter Barreras, Ringo Chan.