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Naishi Wang and Jean Abreu

“As we got deeper into the collaboration, we were constantly trying to explain things, and we’re thinking about how meaning is transported, and that then became very central to what we wanted to do.”

Maya Yoncali

Zoe Marin

Dancers Naishi Wang and Jean Abreu are currently touring their show 'Deciphers' across Canada, having started on January 26 and ending on February 23. I sat down for a Zoom call with both of them where I got to learn more about each one as artists and the history of how 'Deciphers' came to be.

Although their Dramaturg, Guy Cools, formally introduced them in 2019, Abreau jokes that they had been “flirting” for years– following each other’s work, liking each other’s social media posts, and expressing an interest in collaborating. With Wang based in Toronto and Abreu based in the U.K., it was not possible for the two to meet in person in 2020 like they had intended. However, they still began to bounce around ideas that eventually culminated in Deciphers.

When Cathy Levi at the National Arts Centre asked Wang about projects he was working on, of course he mentioned Deciphers; this led to the NAC offering Wang and Abreu a space to “explore” this ambitious project. However, with the ongoing travel restrictions, their residency had to live on Zoom.

Over a 3-month period, the two met biweekly and presented a “letter” to each other. Aided by their dramaturg, they would each write out “whatever [they] wanted to tell each other” and base their creation around these letters. At the end of this virtual process, they finished with seven letters that centered around the idea of “translation”. Of course, this process was limiting, but it was integral to the next step of their creation– finally meeting at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Here, these seven letters were printed and splayed out in the studio space, allowing them to really visualize all the letters in relation to each other and begin to physicalize them. The theme of “translation” had permeated all parts of this creation process– translating their ideas into these seven letters, translating their at-home movements to a virtual space, and now translating those letters into what Abreu describes as “poetry of the body”. Not just movement, but creating a language from that movement.

By exploring the translation motif, the two artists began to see how each of their immigrant experiences fit into Deciphers. Naishi Wang was born in Changchun, China and moved to Canada in 2004 to train with the The School of Toronto Dance Theater. Jean Abreu was born in Brazil and moved to London in 1996 to study at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire for Music and Dance. While the two had a similar artistic upbringing and shared interests, a lot of their exploration came from the concept of “misunderstanding”.

Wang explains that: “In the beginning stages, we didn’t just say Okay, this is it. We’re going to focus on this immigrant experience. That came later.”

By working on the show, they recounted their teenage experiences of immigrating to an English-speaking country twenty years ago when translation technology was limited. This shared “perspective of misunderstanding” now started to infiltrate the creation process.

Wang explains how the entire process is “based on our experience with misunderstanding. Not everything is very clear. We don’t understand everything. We are trying so hard to find this natural rhythm of the body. Reading the body distance. Reading the tone. Reading facial expressions.”

Abreu shares that once they got over the “romanticism” of working on this project, they began to face the challenges that come with any creative process– they were just getting to know each other, they now had to translate their online work to a studio space, and they had to try to understand why the theme of translation was so important to them.

“We realized we were living in this continuous translation mode. Thinking in these two terms, between these two places all the time… As we got deeper into the collaboration, we were constantly trying to explain things, and we’re thinking about how meaning is transported, and that then became very central to what we wanted to do.”

These complimentary and contrasting experiences are reflected in 'Deciphers' through its cultural fusion and interdisciplinary elements. In addition to dance, there is also “spoken word, breath, and ink on paper”. Even the Chinese Folk Dance and Brazilian dance styles themselves are not straightforward. While Wang trained in Chinese folk dance when he was little, he now has more training and experience in a Western “contemporary form of embodiment”. Instead of being “authentically” Chinese or Western, he feels that he’s been able to form a new cultural identity as an artist by mixing the two styles. Similarly, although Abreu has experience in Brazilian dance, he’s also lived in the U.K. for over 20 years. His idea of Brazilian culture “has been so diluted that it’s hard to claim”, and still, he “can’t fully claim the UK side”. However, instead of trying to put labels on his artistic style, he has also embraced the beauty of fusing his cultures.

When I asked them about anything else they wanted to mention about the project, they chose to highlight the artists who shaped Deciphers including: Lucie Bazzo (Lighting Design), Ivy Wang (Visual Designer), Olesia Onykiienko (Composer), Guy Cools (Dramaturg), Ginelle Chagnon (Outside eye), Xing Bang Fu (Rehearsal Director), Fides Krucker (Voice Coach), Emerson Kafarowski (Technical Director), and A.J. Morra (Stage Manager)

And give thanks to Canadian support from: the National Arts Centre, the Harbourfront Centre, MAI Montréal, PuSh International Festival, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, the Toronto Arts Council, as well as U.K. support from: Fabric Dance, Dance City Brighton Dome, South East Dance, Towner Gallery, and the Arts Council of England.

A co-presentation with Harbourfront Centre and DanceWorks, 'Deciphers' runs February 8, 9 and 10 at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, 231 Queen's Quay West. To purchase tickets:

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