Smoke & Mirrors at BAM: Beijing Dance Theater Presents the U.S. Premiere of Wang Yuanyuan’s Haze

Superficial beauty abounds in Haze, Wang Yuanyuan’s new work for the Beijing Dance Theater that had its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival this week. There’s the spare but evocative set design by Tan Shaoyuan, with its billows of smoke, floating lanterns, and textured backdrops, which are all complemented tastefully by Han Jiang’s lighting design. You also have the score, which combines music by Henryk Górecki and the Norwegian musician Biosphere to produce a dramatic mood that’s both traditional and contemporary. And then there are the talented dancers, who give a marathon performance that combines elegance, athleticism, and conviction.

Haze has many strengths, but interesting steps, alas, are not among them. Perhaps most famous to Western audiences for designing the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Wang claims Haze “addresses the unsettling effects of recent economic and environmental crises” in China, yet the sleek choreography is almost entirely devoid of humanity. Haze — which is divided into three all-too-literal depictions of “Light,” “City,” and “Shore” — aims to explore the uncertainty of our times, but it’s the choreography’s purpose that ultimately seems most uncertain.

The most glaring problem is a reliance on a misused — and overused — device: The stage is covered with thick sponge mats intended to throw the dancers off balance, heightening the sense of uncertainty. It’s an intriguing idea, but in practice the 17 dancers never once come close to achieving the desired effect. They seem utterly self-assured, moving with razor-sharp precision and dancing in unison with little difficulty, so the mats are rendered an empty gimmick. It’s a tired gimmick, too. Yes, it’s striking when, in the first five minutes of the piece, three women fall backwards into the foam in a self-sacrificial gesture, but after 70 minutes — and what feels like at least 200 identical falls — any meaningful effect is lost. And when the men’s take their biggest leaps, the mats make it seem as though we’re spectators at a gymnastics competition.

The most powerful moments in the choreography — indeed, the only powerful moments — are those that appear to embrace chance. At the first chapter’s end, a cluster of men and women bask in a single spotlight, jumping at different times to pull themselves closer to its warmth. For the first time, the dancers are vulnerable and individual, finally freed from slick geometries and boilerplate steps. Later, in the second chapter, they all play a game of tag. (Paradoxically, in this version of the game, being “it” seems preferable. Everyone else is frozen in place: lifeless and trapped.) Still, when taken together, these passages fail to make a strong statement about contemporary affairs, or anything else.

Haze wisely ends with its most stunning image: The dancers, staggered through the stage, stand still while basking in a pure white light, gazing hopefully into the sky as a heavy snow falls. (Or is it ash? Smoke continues to billow from behind.) It’s one of many moments in the performance that becomes etched in the memory, but its beauty has nothing to do with time, movement, or storytelling; in other words, it has nothing to do with dance. Wang’s collaborators deserve credit for their contributions, to be sure, but Haze lacks a heart. Its staging is smoke — literally and figuratively — and mirrors.