NuShu (women’s writing) is a variation of Chinese script developed in the remote Jiang Yong Prefecture of the Hunan Province in China. It was created and used exclusively by women, but is now understood by only a handful of people and indeed is threatened with extinction. NuShu’s interesting history and culture are the inspiration for choreographer Hui-Chen Tan’s new dance work, NuShu, performed by her company Water Reflection Dance Ensemble, and which is part of both Dance Base’s Festival programme and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s Tawain Season.
Tan uses the form of the characters of NuShu, which are rounder and thinner than those of Hanzi, as the basis for the dancers’ movements. The choreography also has connections to traditional Chinese dance, perhaps most obviously in its incorporation of a fan dance, but also more subtly, for example, in the hand gestures it uses; occasionally there are almost acrobatic elements to it too.
The dancers are perhaps a little slow to gain their full momentum, but very quickly get into their stride. A set of low, tessellating tables, are used very effectively throughout. When these become broken apart, for example, they become a symbol of women’s forcible separation from their family and ‘sworn sisters’ (Jiebai Zimei), once entering (an arranged) marriage. NuShu was often used to express the sorrow and emotion of such experiences.
NuShu is a work that slowly draws its audience in, and its ending is moving and beautifully realised. The story of this secret script is absolutely fascinating, and Tan’s work is a thoughtful and well-crafted response to its story.