The Taiwanese artist Ching-Ying Chien emerges out of acres of dark fabric. Her shoulder blades flicker as if she wanted to take off; she pokes her head out and twists her limbs, looking more like a bird than a human being. Specifically, she conjures a vulture, as the title – derived from an old Tibetan myth – suggests.
Throughout the performance, boosted by live drums and an electric guitar, she oscillates between earth and sky, taking up various roles. One of them is human, when listening to the musician’s spoken pearls of wisdom – a slightly unnecessary part, which weakens the ambience she has built. Elsewhere, she becomes nearly superhuman, falling into a trance, whirling her long black mane around her head.
When she balances on one leg while gripping her hair with her toes or falls with painful-looking force to the ground, she showcases her unique, contortionist-like body flexibility. These animalistic moments are the ones that truly fascinate.
For a decade, Ching-Ying Chien has brought indelible power and articulation to Akram Khan’s works. As a choreographer, it turns out she also shares some of Khan’s strengths and weaknesses. Her solo Vulture – inspired by a Tibetan tale – is fierce, hyperphysical, often hair-raising in its virtuosity, yet it never quite finds the dramaturgy to match.
Chien can do so much with her body that at times, you wonder if that matters. It’s hard to look away as she contorts herself into ever stranger shapes. She can send a bird-like flutter through her shoulder blades, slam herself to the ground cross-legged, deploy individual toes like fingers or wings.
Still, the emotional arc remains vague, and Vulture errs into self-seriousness. The live musical accompaniment is welcome, but when the guitarist and singer Joseph Ashwin delivers text, it is hardly illuminating. ‘A man with wings is not a bird,’ he tells us. This particular woman comes close enough; all she needs is better direction.
Ching-Ying Chien is delivered from inky fabric. She’s an awkward chick – featherless. She twitches her newly-sprouted legs. Her choreography is rooted in a dialect of contortion, with smatterings of yoga-esque sequences. But she’s no bird of paradise. A sinister atmosphere builds as she gathers her plumage in a presentation of ultra-athleticism, landing with her ponytail between her toes (as absurd-looking as it sounds).
I would hesitate to call Vulture a solo. Upstage left, two eagled-eye musicians observe Chien from their perch. Plucked from Akram Khan Company (where Chien is a dancer and rehearsal director), Joseph Ashwin provides a hypnotic ocean of strings and vocals alongside percussionist James Heggarty. This connection explains the organic relationship between sound and movement. At one point, Ashwin comes forward to muse on symbolic themes of life, death and resurrection. His vocal power turns the defiant Chien mortal once more.
Cue Ashwin’s deep growl and a blackout, an angsty finale to this soaring performance.