On an otherwise barren stage, the willowy limbs of Li Nan and Gu Jiani roll weightless through space, pausing in weary contemplation as various complexities of their partnership arise. Right & Left, choreographed by Gu, is an engrossing duet that explores the lifespan of a close relationship. It has its North American premiere as part of this year’s Chinese Arts and Culture Festival at U-M on September 26.

Incorporating the slow, subtle, and meditative qualities of classical Chinese dance, fundamental in her early training, Gu portrays well the quieter moments of seclusion. Marrying the soft, fluid lines of ballet with grittier contemporary movement, Gu has created an earthy vocabulary, well equipped to express a slew of emotions. In turmoil, the dancers lunge low to the earth, slender creatures bearing heavy loads. Tension builds when Li stands over Gu, forcing her partner’s neck into violent head rolls, as static and breath take over the soundtrack. The music, mixed by Gu herself, ranges from Chopin to “post-rock.”

The women’s faces show little emotion, leaving the precision and nuance of their bodies to carry the dialogue. Collarbones flex in agitation, shins brush smoothly across the floor, and silhouettes sketch shapes over white walls. At times, contorted shadows create a fun-house effect, turning the duo to a foursome, adding depth and pattern to their sequences.

Projections by the talented Ah Ping add an eerie, cinematic element, framing large sections of space and closing the view to a pinhole. Ah Ping splits the stage into vignettes, decorated with dark shadows and flipped-over furniture. At times, a prop is a partner, dancers turning table and chair into shield and weapon, playground and hiding place.

Just as sensuality emerges, shadows obstruct the view. Flashing projections create a blinking blackness, as the dancers slither over each other’s backs, climbing up and down the table’s legs. We begin to hear the persistent sounds of a camera’s shutter. For a moment we are voyeurs watching through a detective’s lens, privy to something not meant to be seen.

Some of the strongest imagery of Right & Left comes when the women fall into despondency. In a particularly poignant scene, Li stands hunched and blank-faced, like the drooping backbone of an abandoned house. Beside her, Gu is swinging from her knees–an unhinged door, flapping involuntarily in the highway breeze. It’s the pretty, broken house you pass on a country road, vines growing up its rusty remains, and you feel a longing to look inside.