Q&A with Jean Abreu and Naishi Wang

How can the body be used as a instrument to say things that go unsaid? This is one of the many questions that Jean Abreu and Naishi Wang’s new work Deciphers asks. Embarking on its international tour of Canada next year, Deciphers uses dance to detail the migrant/immigrant experience.

We caught up with the two of them to find out more about Deciphers ahead of its Canadian tour.

DAJ: Tell us about yourself.

Jean: I’m a dance artist and director of Jean Abreu Dance, originally from the North East of Brazil, Estate of Maranhão, but living in London. Jean Abreu Dance is a company based in Luton, and I make work locally, nationally and internationally. My work involves translating emotions through the body and using the body as a way to honestly articulate human emotions, identity and our human nature. 

Naishi: I’m an independent dance artist based in Toronto, Canada. My artistic journey revolves around the exploration of movement as a meaning to discover and express the essence of the 21st century. I’m originally from China, and I met Jean in 2019.

DAJ: Why did you decide to create Deciphers?

Jean: Naishi and I met online, we started to follow each other and there was a natural connection and attraction for each other’s work. And a mutual friend of ours made a kind of official introduction, and that was clear our common desire of coming together in the studio, spending time together and seeing what would come from that. I suppose Deciphers was born from this desire of being together in the studio.

Naishi: Deciphers is an international collaboration between Canada and the UK. And it all started from a general conversation, when Jean and I realized that we shared some similar aspects in our life journeys. One originally came from China and settled in Canada; the other from Brazil and relocated to the UK, both of us starting as international dance students to become dancers in dance companies, had transitioned into the world of independent choreography in these other countries. Before long our discussion developed into the realm of translating cultural disparities and adaptation, how we realized that the language of dance transcends all barriers.

Jean: And I think it became very clear after our initial conversations that we both were interested in exploring how our languages evolved in this nature of ongoing change and transformation due to us being constantly traveling, changing, being able to evolve as artists in these new places. So, the transitory and transitional kind of nature of our life journeys became the source of our investigation, to really see the differences in our similar paths… Coming from two big countries, Brazil and China, so different culturally, but nevertheless we share the journey of moving from one big country to new spaces. That became central in our research.

DAJ: Tell us about Deciphers and the coming-together of different dance styles and mediums (i.e. spoken word, ink).

Jean: I guess, for the both of us, Deciphers allows us to explore how dance can be transformed into something new, how the body is the departure point for any other way of communication, any sense of connection. So, the body is always the central point into how language is transformed from culture, how it absorbs different information and turns into communication. For me, I started with ballroom dance in Brazil, it was where my movement journey began, and also traditional Brazilian dances, that reflect how much a culture evolves. That kind of background, then training dance and practicing contemporary and ballet for the first time… The body had to adapt all of a sudden, being very focused and resilient, I suppose. So then that shock immediately shows how movement changed. So Deciphers take from our traditional dance backgrounds to use the body as a funnel – what kind of processes you created, responses to cultural changes.

Naishi: We wanted to make poetry in Deciphers. So all the elements used, such as spoken world or other medium, is to serve this purpose of making poetry. From my background in Chinese folk dance training, like Mongolian dances, Tibetan dances, Chinese classical dances and Tai-Chi, martial arts and Qigong background, all combined together build the backbone of Deciphers. Aside from dance I also practice visual arts, other elements such as Chinese calligraphy and drawing were part of this poetry creation.

DAJ: What was the making/choreographic process like?

Jean: Deciphers has been a long journey, it’s taking enormous amounts of commitment and focus, especially because this started as a pre-pandemic project. We were supposed to meet when the Covid-19 pandemic started, when the world completely changed. That made us start the whole work online: we exchanged virtual letters, we started to communicate with each other through images, poetry, writing, video. We start bringing together different mediums to work on the creative process remotely. And when we managed to be together, that change demanded a lot, how the process changes every time we are physically together, what changed. It welcomes a continuous journey in that sense, capturing Deciphers as an ongoing process of geographical distance and closeness.

DAJ: Dance, as a linguistic tool, enables cross-cultural and intercultural communications. Why do you think dance can do this?

Jean: My perspective on what dance means is something quite plural. Not a practice in one form, but the body is the key to understanding how to grasp different languages, cultures. It’s a source that absorbs and understands the world based on motion and emotion itself, it does not denote a sense of moving from one place to the another so the present of movement is integral to our sense of self. You can connect with all different backgrounds, cultures, languages. I know it’s a cliche, but dance really is a universal language. 

Naishi: As a body of linguistic poetry, Deciphers also highlights misunderstanding and making nonsense. Unlike other linguistic tools that focus on understanding and making sense, I feel that dance can also try to make nonsense, focusing on the immense potential with connections between the interior or exterior of the human body, which putting into words might not make sense, but they can be translated into movement forms or energy forms or meditative states. While it may not directly provide answers or explanations, dance reflects culture, intercultural communications, and on some level, it amplifies those subjects because we share life experiences and one common body.

DAJ: Your work details the immigrant or migrant experience. Why did you decide to focus on this? What has it been like to tell this story through dance?

Jean: Our immigrant experience is sort of a departure point in this work. As we mentioned, it made sense for us to investigate this further using the body to communicate our experiences with the outside world. As an immigrant, a person who has moved, transitioned to a new place, new house, new cultural environment, that experience is very insecure, it’s quite challenging you know, imagining yourself outside of your own space, in another place that you chose but that it’s not your own. I wanted to dive in further into that subject in terms of understanding the insecurities we can carry, but that can also be – and I personally feel that – a driving force, something that pushes us forward, constantly having to relearn, inform ourselves. This is something that gives me a lot of energy, a lot of force. It’s been very interesting to translate these ideas into the movement in Deciphers.

Naishi: We are interested to talk about immigrant and migrant experiences because, first of all, this is also our personal experience. And this is also one of the biggest topics of the 21st century. You know, willingly and unwillingly millions of people leave their countries as migrants, sometimes you have to leave as a refugee seeking for safety and help. 

In Deciphers, the body linguistic translation narrows those immigrant experiences on moving from our comfortable home to different countries, becoming the movement inside of us. In my end, of course, we highlight our impressions and abstract emotions through language and movement of the body.

We wanted to highlight the journey, we’re not trying to go exactly the same pattern, but we have our different ways. Like, you know, Jean is Brazilian and moved to the UK, and I’m Chinese, moving to Canada. First of all, the UK and Canada are two different countries. And we come from two very different cultural backgrounds, and we have our own ways of dealing with dance and the body. We have our own answers, we celebrate what is similar in our journeys, but attending to our individual experiences.

DAJ: On this tour you’ll be presenting Deciphers in different places and to different communities. Why is it important for Deciphers to reach those spaces?

Naishi: We’re very excited to premiere this work in Canada. I call Toronto my home, a place with so many different cultures, it’s a very multiculturalist community. And we wanted to bring Deciphers to those diverse cities, those communities and highlight those shared immigrant experiences and connect with those communities. They can see the work in tune with their own experiences.


Canada Tour (2024):

Push Festival Vancouver, Canada 26-28th January 2024.

Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, Canada 8-10th February 2024.

Montréal Arts Interculturels, Montréal, Canada 14-16th February 2024.

National Arts Centre, Ottawa, Canada 22-23 February 2024.

Information and tickets: www.jeanabreudance.com/works/deciphers