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Flash Review 1, 9-9: Traditions, Origins, Influences
Peking Opera, Ancestral Tributes, and Parsons's Bad Dreams make Evening Stars

By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2003 Tom Patrick

NEW YORK -- On such a night as Friday -- warm and clear, not terribly humid -- I love dancing at outdoor venues, and attending such performances too! There's something wonderful about the crowds that come out for dance outside as well: a great mix of the curious and the informed, not put off by the elements, and not shy about showing their enthusiasm.

So it was for the kick-off of 2003's Evening Stars Music & Dance Festival in Battery Park, where the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council has once again erected a great big stage and invited us all to see some great performances -- for free -- under the stars.

I'll admit I was first drawn to this program by its lead-off hitters, the Chinese Folk Dance Company (despite the generically unassuming name) due to my own interlocking history. In my days with Paul Taylor's company, I had the good fortune of teaching a master class at an academy of dance in Shanghai which emphasized the indigenous styles and where, despite a massive flood, the students were working hard to prepare for their final exams. Thus, my class became a 20-minute quickie (the line-dance from "Roses," I believe) and during my remaining 90 minutes at the academy I was treated to demonstrations of the students' finals, which were lengthy and intricate pieces featuring the "sleeve" motif for the ladies, and an increasingly martial dance from the men (all accompanied by ensembles of the appropriate musicians.) They were truly stunning.

Subsequently, I've performed in the Met's production of "Turandot," and was impressed by the choreography's faithful adherence to the classic Chinese dance forms.

Friday night's appearance by the Chinese Folk Dance Company was similarly gratifying, bridging the centuries. With the feline grace and complex rhythms indicative of their training, the performers showed us three selections from their repertoire.

The first was -- as they put it in the program notes -- flash portraits of the primary stock characters from the Peking Opera tradition. These include The Warrior, Painted-Face, Vivacious Maiden, Refined Lady, and The Comic. In saturated colors and with intricately involved costumes, "Peking Opera Colors" was a terrific encapsulation of the genre's "regulars," each with specific motifs and thematic uses. Costuming was phenomenal -- so many layers of swimming silks and five-foot pheasant plumes. Choreography here by Ge Bai summed up these characters' tones and quirks, concisely and effectively.

"Silk Clouds" was Shan Wang's tribute to the motif of the very long silken sleeves that the female dancers expertly maneuver "to create images of clouds, waterfalls, and ocean waves." Truly lovely, as six ladies tossed, caught, and undulated their very long arm-extensions.... 'Twas sensuous, soothing, exactly like water held in the air. Bracketed by onstage lantern-bearers and with the real-life extra accompaniment of the park's crickets, it was a beguiling passage.

The tellingly-named "Strength In Brotherhood" ("Honor, Loyalty, Courage, Unity.... Protecting homes and defending a nation") was the men's tour de force, a festival of sword-play, to the rambunctious percussion score from "Once Upon A Time In China" (seems every nation is getting their "Once Upon A Time In..."!) Differentiating this piece from a circus act, the sword-work didn't seem too dangerous or ooh-provoking, but the ironic grace of the men's dancing was.... They seemed to need no preparations for jumps, nor did their return-to-earth betray any instability. They moved in and out of the air as easily as fishes swim.

I loved seeing these excerpts from their traditions, belying any clunkiness we might have presumed under the heading "folkdance." The performers move like purified precious metals.

Another tradition deeply mined and refined was Vincent Mantsoe's courageous solo "Phokwane," a title combining Mr. Mantsoe's parents' traditional names of Phoko and Nkwane. (His origins are in South Africa.) Program notes concisely tell us that "this dance is a tribute to (Mr. Mantsoe's) parents and reflects all the members of his family at different stages in their lives." So true, and in watching Mr. Mantsoe's electrifying work you can't help but feel you are seeing generations, centuries of background spring forth. I feel stymied trying to describe such a personal (and to me foreign) work in any technical sense, but I loved it. Clad only in flowing white pants, Mr. Mantsoe captivated us with his undulating spine, morphing-to-liquid arms, and uncanny balance. He truly held the several-hundred of us spellbound. I started also to feel that there was a relation here to Hawaii's hula tradition, and to Balinese dance, such were the complexities and scope of Mr. Mantsoe's gestural language. While steeped in the African traditions of physical storytelling and personification of many spirits both animal and human, I was also reminded of Mikhail Baryshnikov performing "Vestris," with its many changes of character in the blink of an eye. So too did Mantsoe have us in the palm of his hand as he recreated the posture and gestures of his kin and the animals (my interpretation) of South Africa. His was a truly magnetic performance, and I'm sure most of us wished to see it at very close range, to better take in his commitment and charisma.

Unfortunately, no credits were included for the absolutely terrific [recorded] music Mr. Mantsoe used...but I'd bet dollars-to-donuts that I recognized the voice of the superb Philip Hamilton (who I consider a real godsend to dancers, and to anyone who can hear his recordings or riveting live shows.) Does anybody know?

Closing the evening was a more contemporary example of dance lineage and family trees, in a New York sorta way (um, we all know, parenthetically, that David Parsons was once a star dancer with the seminal Paul Taylor Dance Co., right?). The Parsons Dance Company here teamed up with musicians the Ahn Trio to perform two works by Parsons, "Slow Dance" and "Swing Shift." Both of these dances were to music by Kenji Bunch, composed for and performed with great fervor by the onstage piano/cello/violin magic of the Ahn sisters. The three are splendidly able and exciting musically, and on top of it I applaud them for their composure as the dancers whizzed closely by them time-and-again.

To put it in a nutshell, I found "Slow Dance" to be a too-short tease, and "Swing Shift" to be an overly long borderline bore. It was delicious to see the contained and thematically charged "Slow Dance" develop from its tight opening formalism into complex canons and well-shaped phrases playing on the unevenness of three couples. There was a tension born of compression here, it played very well (I think back to Parsons's earlier Mozart quartet "Reflections of Four") and seemed to end too soon.

Following on its heels, and perhaps too soon and similar, "Swing Shift" (commissioned for the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial by the Performing Arts Society of Arcadia, et al.) was as protracted as its predecessor was contracted, and the line seemed to grow slack after awhile. Perhaps this is the attractive poison in commissions sometimes, where one receives a piece of music and has to cross the finish-line when it does.... Though Mia McSwain was positioned to be "spoiler" of an even sextet, she was in due course swept along by the tide of music -- which while expertly played, seemed just inexhaustibly long. With so many similar surging revivals and false climaxes in the score, Mr. Parsons was hard-pressed to play it out, other than throwing out yet another kick-ass passage for this-duet or that-soloist.... It just seemed that the choreography had to follow such a musical map as to have been hamstrung from the start. I love seeing them all, you know, but structurally "Swing Shift" just seemed like a bad dream that Parsons couldn't wake up from.

The dancing was, nonetheless, facile and top-notch, hitting red-line speed often as this company can [happily] achieve. Hal Binkley provided, as always, "brilliant" lighting and effects.

Hey folks: The Evening stars Music & Dance Festival rocks on. Though this program has passed, you can still catch Twyla Tharp's "The One Hundreds" tonight at 8 p.m. Seldom performed, it should really be worth a look -- I'll be there! Kudos to Liz Thompson and the fine folks at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for bringing these great concerts to us, all absolutely free!

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