New Report on Giving Birth, Wen Hui / Living Dance Studio © Jörg Baumann

“I gave Birth to a Hawk”. Or: On Neverending Labor Pains

With New Report On Giving Birth (6 + 7 March 2024, HAU Hebbel am Ufer (HAU2)), Chinese choreographer and dancer Wen Hui builds on her piece Report On Giving Birth presented 20 years ago. Together with three dancers, she takes stock: what has changed for childbearing bodies since then? What has not?

All manner of things have been born and also birthed: thoughts, plans, characters in novels, entire companies, triplets – even hawks. That is precisely what happens in the dancer Parvin Saljoughi’s dream in the performance New Report On Giving Birth. Her hawk is an axillary birth. She doesn’t push it in a baby carriage, but rather delivers it into the world on her forearm. Parvin’s father finds this outrageous, but he lives in an isolated Iran and couldn’t do anything about it even if he wanted to.

It is not unintentional that my review opens with this strange incident. Many of the documentary stories told on stage throughout the evening are less magical. Wen Hui speaks about her own self-imposed childlessness and the reasoning behind this decision: China’s one-child policy and the mass-scale abortion of female fetuses and abuse of women and girls as surrogate mothers. On the other hand, Alessandra Corti, dancer and mother, makes a tally of how many women in her family gave up their careers for husbands and children despite having better paying jobs. She is still reproached for wanting it “all”, to be a mother and work.

There are myriad different oppressive constructs in which childbearing bodies are cut off from their free will and physically, emotionally, and economically discriminated against. The stories, which often repeat themselves, are familiar to us. Some things have changed in the last 20 years since the last Report On Giving Birth. And thankfully giving birth is a wonderful experience for many. At the same time, changes to legislation threaten to strip away hard-won reproductive rights, even in countries that foster a democratic or even progressive image. The labor pains in this political struggle simply refuse to subside.

On a formal note, I am particularly taken with the staging of New Report On Giving Birth, which makes use of household textiles that constantly transform into something new: blankets hung on clothes lines become projection screens for the faces and stories of other (non-) mothers or are bundled up into belly-like bodily extensions. The sound landscape (Matthias Engelke), where breath, Persian singing, and jazz collide, is lent a key role as it integrates and holds together the stories. On the other hand, the dance itself seems illustrated and somewhat arbitrary at certain points. This is not a reference to the scenes that relate to specific details of the narrative with humorous choreographic abstraction. Like the duet between two interlocked bodies whose mouths are tugging on each other’s pants legs – a complex depiction of mutual dependencies.

Barring aesthetic preference and formal questions, the activist quality of Wen Hui’s work, the way it manages to rally us around a politically wearisome topic and remind us of its current relevance, ultimately wins me over.

English translation by Melissa Maldonado

New Report On Giving Birth by Wen Hui was shown on 6 + 7 March 2024 at HAU Hebbel am Ufer (HAU2).