Mixed Media Performance: Qi

‘Qi’ by the UAL Performance Laboratory at the Edinburgh Festival fringe 2019

**** (4 stars)

Five, white-clad, young performers stand meditatively around the stage, still and grounded. A simple inverted V shape stands at an angle in the centre, a hill peak perhaps, throwing a shadow on the floor. Birds sing. With eyes sometimes closed as they sit cross legged, or inhabiting monk-like patience as they carry out tasks – bending and lifting, sifting and gathering – the cast arrange and rearrange images before us, conjuring at once a paddy field or the patterned sand of a Zen garden.

UAL Performance Laboratory's performance of Qi at the Edinburgh fringe
Creating a Zen garden effect

In Qi (say chee, or ki) from the UAL Performance Laboratory, conceived by Anqi Zhao , sound and light are as important as the mostly pedestrian movement. The show was devised collaboratively and recalls the everyday actions of early Trisha Brown pieces (as part of the early Judson Memorial Church in New York, she is currently performing at Jupiter Artland). The company have drawn on Chinese philosophical concepts: Yin and Yang, life mirroring nature, and this peculiarly indefinable idea of qi. Qi is believed to be the building block of all of creation, and bestows the moving, transforming, holding, protecting and warming functions to the body and the wider Universe, ideas which were clearly used in the choreography. 

The show is innovatively designed. Rectangles of foam are manipulated to form variations of the i ching or the various strokes of Chinese calligraphy. As the actors carried and rearranged them, they made both pleasing sculptures and the various aspects of the pictograph for qi which can be translated as ‘vapour ascending from boiling rice’. There are layers of subtle references: Yin and Yang were originally described as the sunny and shady sides of a hill. When you add ‘hill’ to the sign for qi it starts to resemble the one for yin (of yin and yang fame). After adding a horizontal to the up ended V, it looked more like an A and was moved and put above the electrical steamer which was cooking away and produced the bowls of rice which were eaten with obligatory chopsticks. 

Calligraphy
The Chinese pictograph for Qi with an almost A shape above 4 individual grains of rice and a waft of vapour

Grains of white rice are the key element in this show. They are drizzled and thrown, used to mimic water for washing your hair, and highly effective as sound effects. There is an initially interesting, but latterly, laborious part where small handfuls of rice are placed, one by one, on a long, cardboard tube, and one of my fellow audience members resorted to her mobile phone, but all of the rest of the show was mesmerising and mindful. The scenes slowly fade from one to another, then the pace varies and there is a fun section where a woman walks while others rush along beside her pouring rice around her feet. As she picks each one up to move forwards (from where I was sitting, the light shone magically between her toes), she leaves an inverse footstep, redolent of the ancient hand shapes found in the Lascaux Caves in France. It is a pleasing and enjoyable hour and the light, peaceful atmosphere stayed with me for a long while afterwards. 

Two performers put rice around another's feet in Edinburgh Fringe show
Using grains of rice to create the outline of her feet
Orange pigment with hand and fingers shapes
Ancient Lascaux Cave hand shapes

Qi is part of China Focus at The Old Dr Bells Baths in Leith. Last performance 16 August 12 noon. Free by donation.