Drifting through the world salad

World Dance Alliance Global Dance Event
Dance Theater Workshop - Bessie Schönberg Theater

Friday July 16, 2010 - Concert D

Review by Elizabeth Zimmer (© 2010)

Photo Credit: Cynthia Lee performing her solo "ruddha (rude, huh?)" Photo by Jorge Vismara

Friday night’s WDA concert, which sticks in my mind as being a study in floaty white things, opened with a dramatic production out of Taiwan, strongest as a piece of visual art with understated movement motifs. Wen-jinn Luo’s 2009 work , An Independent Sleep, performed by the Scarecrow Contemporary Dance Company, was essentially a video rendering of a poem by Emily Dickinson, “A Long Long Sleep,” projected in calligraphic script on the paper-covered stage floor. The surface was bumpy; I guessed, correctly, that a body lay under the strips of paper. A schematic sculptured leaf dominated the upstage space, and a single dancer in pale clothing walked from stage right to stage left, very slowly, with an open book balanced on her head, as the words of the poem scrolled across the paper.

I found my focus split between trying to read the poem and attend to the dancer, a chore made more complex when the body under the paper emerged and began writing with a finger on the projected words, then on her own skin. Piano music, first by Michael Wall and then the “Dying Swan” theme of Saint-Saëns, floated in the atmosphere. A second woman emerged from under the paper, also writing on her skin and in the air with her finger. She rolled herself up in a strip of the paper as the text on the floor kept mutating. After a long time several stagehands, dressed all in black, calmly rolled up the rest of the paper strips, while one of their number carried the rolled-up girl away. The girl with the book on her head continued her slow, undulating walk. This was all quite exquisite and generally successful. At half its length it might have been a compelling piece of choreography, but it ran on and on, recycling Dickinson’s words and the movement designs, until it quite wore out its welcome. I like to think that to a Taiwanese viewer, the English script might be as exotic as pages of Mandarin text appear to an American.

For me, the high point of the program was Cynthia Lee’s performance of her ruddha (rude, huh?) from 2007. Lee, a Los Angeles-based Chinese-American who has studied and taught in Thailand, India and Taiwan as well as Indonesia and many American cities, calls her piece “a series of ‘false translations’ of traditional kathak” rhythms and syllables into bizarre and silly English gossip. It also fused postmodern movement with kathak postures and steps, and broke the stage’s fourth wall as Lee headed up the stairs from the stage into the house, taking a seat and repeating her text conversationally to those around her. Her rhythmic movements resembled martial arts forms; she hammered on the floor with her feet. At nine minutes, the piece ended before I had finished figuring it out. Lee’s horde of words and movement is rich and diverse, and I look forward to seeing more of her work.

Collette Stewart’s Over, Under, Escape, to music by Shostakovich, featured the choreographer in a sheer white dress with a jeweled bodice, over some crinolines, and a pair of white gloves that came up to her elbows. She began facing away from us, and somersaulted, turned and wind-milled her arms. To the music, a waltz, she rolled the gloves down and performed a “hand dance.” I stayed involved with this piece, though I was not sure where it was going, for about the first five of its seven minutes; then it lost its way, or I lost mine. I really liked her attentiveness and her movement quality, but could not figure out the form or intention of the work.

Sometime between the 5 pm performance of this program and the 7:30 show, which I saw, there was a change in the lineup for “The Art of Isadora 2,” a presentation of Duncan dances by the ensembles led by Lori Belilove, of New York, and Fatima Suarez of Bahia, Brazil. We saw Belilove herself perform Duncan’s Mother, a yearning, meditative piece, swathed in a gray and white gown and shawl. Then Suarez’ Contemporanea Ensemble offered Air Gai and Belilove’s Isadora Duncan Dance Company showed Bacchanal, both to music from Gluck operas and both celebrating Dionysus, the god of wine. Beautifully attired in classic nymph garb, they gamboled and played and finally collapsed, all in a row, on the floor, bringing a waft of early-20th-century innocence to the mostly 21st-century doings at the Global Dance Event.

After intermission we saw Moonfall, a work choreographed in 2009 by Susan Douglas Roberts with dancer Laura Barbee, who performed the piece. Douglas Roberts, who teaches at Texas Christian University, also designed the short, pale dress Barbee wore as she stood under a fall of white feathers that descended from some clanking machinery in the ceiling. To a recording of Dawn Upshaw singing Osvaldo Golijov’s Lua Descolorida in a Galician dialect of Spanish, Barbee kept spiraling to the floor, and gradually made her way to the other side where she stuck her hand inside her bodice and sent more feathers floating into the atmosphere. Another brief, moody work, it seemed a bit literal. I was generally having trouble parsing these American solos, which made flat statements instead of creating nuanced movement studies in time.

Arizona-based Amy Ernst’s seven-year-old Raft, performed by Eleanor Hausman and Denai Lovrien, relied for its movement energy and innovation on a trio of turntables, a large one positioned at center stage and others upstage left and downstage right. Wearing white outfits with long floating panels over pants that made them look matronly, the performers spun on their bellies and created conventionally pretty images evoking the sleek streaks of ice dancers. Once I figured out how the dancers were managing to execute their unusual moves, and that they were using assistive devices, I waited to discern the arc or idea of the piece beyond this visual novelty. I never managed to do that.

The concert closed with Yongchul Kim’s five-year-old A Man’s Requiem, mounted by his SEOP Dance Company from Seoul and supported by Arts Council Korea and the Dancers’ Career Development Center. A long, elaborate, mature work that includes, according to the program note, “an exorcism, a primitive religious ceremony and images of the Cymbal Dance and the Butterfly Dance, Korean traditional dances performed in Buddhist rituals,” it had many striking aspects, several of them more interesting as visual display than as choreography.

It began with four women kneeling downstage, each wearing whiteface make-up, a tight-fitting white nylon cap that concealed her hair, and a white dress with a short organdy skirt and bodice. In front of each was a pile of what turned out to be tissue paper, which the women scrunched up into flowerlike shapes and then attached them to their caps; they made more flowers, wrapped them in wire, and taped them, upright, to the floor, all the while staring, mechanically, straight ahead. White, it turns out, is the color of funerals in Korean culture, but if you don’t know that you’re kind of at sea, appreciating this sequence for its edgy, slow-motion crispness.

They leaned forward and hunkered on their elbows, as a couple of guys slowly emerged from the black curtains in the back, bare legs first. A tinkling, keening score by Youngdong Kim and Eiji Matsumoto accompanied all of this. The women seemed to relax, nodding; three of them slowly moved backward as a fourth one shifted direction; they went from a child’s-pose-like position to a downward-dog stance, and the odd-girl-out plucked her floor-flower with her mouth, clutching it between her teeth. The other three lifted a layer of their skirts over their heads, as the two men in back fully emerged, one clutching part of the other’s costume in his teeth, gradually pulling it off him to leave him bare-chested. White flakes emerged from a cocoon of black fabric, filling the air. This all grew denser and more complex, with stunning visual effects, but as a westerner unfamiliar with the ritual involved I was bewildered. Dance is not a universal language, but Kim and his collaborators sure have a powerful command of stagecraft; I was rapt even though confused. By the end the air swirled with floaty white flakes, and the dead guy had presumably found his final rest.