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Naishi Wang and Jean Abreu convey immigrants’ feelings through words and movement in Deciphers

Jean Abreu and Naishi Wang's immigrant experience informs Deciphers. Photo by Maya Yoncali –Michael Johnson.

Deciphers is an unusual international dance collaboration. Its two co-choreographers and dancers—Toronto-based Naishi Wang and London-based Jean Abreu—share remarkable similarities, even though they grew up on opposite sides of the planet.

Wang was born in Changchun in China’s Jilin Province. He moved to the larger city of Beijing to learn some English before immigrating as a teenager to Toronto.

Abreu, on the other hand, was born in the northeastern Brazilian city of Imperatriz, also known as the “Gateway to the Amazon”. He, too, moved to a larger city in his country, Rio de Janeiro, before immigrating to London, England as a pre-teen.

“Both of us had a goal of learning contemporary dance,” Wang tells the Toronto Spark over Zoom. “We…talked about this experience from this ‘dance’ or ‘physical practice’ point of view. Then we realized that we wanted to make poetry to celebrate our experience as immigrants.”

Abreu, who’s also on the Zoom call, reveals that when he arrived in London, he spoke very little English.

“So, my first six months of experiencing the world in the U.K. was totally visual,” Abreu states. “It was a blur. My understanding was through misunderstanding, in many ways. I could probably read things by experiencing them, but not quite understanding.”

This led to feelings of isolation and disequilibrium.

The dancers address how words and movement can lead to understanding and misunderstanding. Photo by Maya Yoncali– Michael Johnson.

Deciphers unites both artists’ passions

Wang experienced similar sensations after moving to Canada in 2004. In those days, there was no Google Translate to ease his adjustment to the country.

“I used my observations to study people’s movement rather than trying to understand the immediate meaning,” Wang says. “I kind of read the intention, the body distance, the tone, the Canadian way of laughing, [and] the Canadian way of keeping distance.”

They both overcame language obstacles and succeeded brilliantly in their adopted countries.

Wang, a longtime member of Toronto Dance Theatre, co-choreographed three projects with Berlin-based Christopher Winkler. Wang also premiered his own works, such as Taking Breath and Face to Face, which reflected his keen interest in how bodies communicate.

In London, Abreu founded his own dance company in 2009 and his works have been performed in many countries. According to his biography, he has an “ongoing interest in utilizing the body as a powerful tool to articulate arresting emotional and complex ideas through dance”.

Through Deciphers, Wang and Abreu demonstrate how bodies communicate and articulate complex ideas. They do this with the help of poetry.

Their Canadian-British collaboration will have its Canadian premiere at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival from January 18 to 20. That will be followed by performances in Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa.

Photo by Maya Yoncali –Michael Johnson.

Poetry becomes part of performance

Wang says that Deciphers incorporates traditional Chinese martial arts and Chinese folk dance with Brazilian salsa dance. But what also sets this international mélange apart is the spoken-word component.

Wang translated Mark Strand’s poem, “Keeping Things Whole”, into Mandarin. In performing the piece, Wang, who’s of mixed Korean-Mongolian-Chinese ancestry, will repeat this phrase in Mandarin during the performance.

Meanwhile, Abreu will speak a famous verse by Brazilian writer and poet Fernando Sabino in the performance. Abreu says that Sabino’s text speaks to the idea that people have to continue even after everything is destroyed.

“It’s kind of the immigrant experience in that way,” Abreu adds. “There’s a sense of you must keep going back to that, even when it’s never enough.”

For his part, Wang emphasizes that immigrants often feel that they’re never doing enough.

“If you don’t have a friend and if you don’t speak the same language, maybe you have more anxiety,” Wang relates. “Those are the small things we try to capture within the movement development. Of course, we are also adding a little bit of emotion—this frustration.”

In Deciphers, interactions between dancers depict understandings and misunderstandings that can occur when people from different immigrant backgrounds try to interpret sounds and movements in a new country.

The National Arts Centre and Canada Council for the Arts united the two dance artists in 2021.

Artistic residencies enhanced Deciphers

Wang and Abreu met online in 2019 through a mutual friend, and discovered their similar histories. They decided to collaborate, but could only do this virtually for two years due to the pandemic.

“After the first email exchange, it was very clear that we wanted to be in a studio together,” Abreu says.

Their first in-person meeting came in 2021 during a four-week creative residency offered by the National Arts Centre and Canada Council for the Arts. That was followed by two five-week residencies in the U.K. in 2022, where they sharpened Deciphers.

Wang and Abreu eagerly credit their collaborators. Ivy Wang oversaw visual design for Deciphers, with Guy Cool providing dramaturgic advice and Ginelle Chagnon serving as the outside eye. Lucie Bazzo created the lighting design; Olesia Onykiienko composed the music.

In contemporary, fast-spaced capitalist society, Wang feels that there’s an accelerating global harmonization of culture. To illustrate this point, he mentions that he can buy Chinese tea in Toronto and ship it to London within two days.

The co-choreographers, on the other hand, wanted to slow things down in Deciphers to reveal the confusion and the sense of isolation that immigrants often feel as they try to fit into a new country. According to Abreu, translation is often seen as a linguistic term, but it can also encapsulate what’s going on in the body.

For example, when he arrived in the U.K., he could see that the British were far more reserved than Brazilians. And there was far less touching and physical closeness in London than in his native Brazil. Moreover, the format of his dance school in Britain came as “something of a shock” to him.

“I come from a culture where dance is something that is experienced everywhere,” Abreu says. “It’s something that is in the sphere of Brazilian culture. It’s something quite free.”

Watch the trailer for Deciphers before it premiered at this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in Vancouver.

Naishi Wang and Jean Abreu will perform Deciphers at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre from February 8 to 10. From February 14 to 17, they’ll perform Deciphers at MAI (Montréal Arts Interculturel), followed by shows at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on February 22 and 23. Tickets are available on the Jean Abreu Dance website. Learn more about underrepresented artists on the Toronto Spark website.


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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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