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