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Flash Review 1, 10-20: Common Ground
High-end Haga, Funky Buddha, & Sheathed Sharon (Estacio): I saw it all at Mulberry Street

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2004 Maura Nguyen Donohue

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NEW YORK -- Where would the Asian-American dance world be without HT Chen? There is a small joke in New York that every Asian modern dancer to come through town has worked with HT at some point. Though not truly a statistical fact it is an anecdotal reality. I've done it, several of my friends have done it, many of the other Asian or Asian-American artists I know in town have done it. Because even if you haven't necessarily danced for HT's company, if you are a young dance or performance maker then there's a damned good chance you've danced in his theater.

This is a legacy not easily constructed. HT's commitment to increasing opportunities for Asian-American artists is unparalleled in the dance world. He has been working in this city for decades and maintains not only a professional touring company and theater but a school for children, is an active member of the New York State DanceForce and serves beside me on Dance Theater Workshop's board. At his delightful little Mulberry Street Theater, nestled in the heart of Chinatown, you're likely to witness artists just wetting their feet in the creative arena at his showcase series, "Newsteps," or more established Asian-American artists sharing a program for his semi-annual commissioned dance series, Ear to the Ground. There is a feeling that you really have to be in-the-know to find it and once you do you just might catch an early spark of brilliance, like your favorite college band before they got radio play.

Launched in 1995 with the support of the Jerome Foundation, Ear to the Ground is dedicated to supporting those Asian-American artists developing innovative and risk-taking works. This, of course, means you can expect a mixed bag. I've found that innovation and risk are subjective ideas to many artists, new or veteran dance makers alike, and a recent Ear to the Ground confirmed it. There were glimpses of dynamic, striking originality and there were not.

Akim "Funk Buddha" Ndlovu's work ranks pretty high on my 'not' list. Thankfully Ndlovu's "Seasons of Buddha: An urban odyssey of ancient times," created in collaboration with musician Felix Chen and dancer Tomomi Arai ran shorter than the amount of time it took to read all of his program notes. Now I'm all for succinct work. If you can get your point across in a clean 10 minutes then I'm an even greater champion of your work. But something that looks like a last-minute composition class assignment isn't fair to the audience even in brevity.

The work begins with a video projection of slowly moving, animated trees. Chen enters wearing pants covered in dangling brown bamboo pieces, like a walking wind chime. The costume, by Yuki Nakajima, piques my interest but nothing comes of it. Ndlovu begins a noble attempt at throat singing but can't achieve the trademark overtones. In the second section he goes deeper into the throat and reaches some of the powerful drone I'm familiar with coming from Tuvan artists I've met, while dancer Rosse Mary Taveras-Gamboa mimes a birth. Ndlovu begins the third and final section crying like a baby. I suddenly fear I've been cast in a Hollywood movie as "dragged-your-brother-to-bad-performance-art-audience-member." But he liked that they included capoeira movement, having just returned from a couple of months in Brazil. I find it poorly executed and shoddily stuck in between samba-esque turns and gyrations. The relationship to a spiritual journey was lost somewhere between intention and action. Chen's percussive sound score is insultingly simplistic and I find myself seething in consideration of the multitude of struggling artists who would have taken whatever modest amount of commissioning funds and space grant this program offers and rehearsed.

On the high end of the spectrum, Satoshi Haga, a.k.a. binbin, offered a lengthy, deeply investigated, well-crafted and entertaining work. The press release tells me that "iro-iro," the title of the piece, means "of various kinds, all sorts, motley." While on paper it sounds like Haga too is drawing from a great range of movement sources and cultural signifiers, as the Funk Buddha group claims it is, Haga actually manages to turn his motley crew into a cohesive whole.

Haga begins by walking slowly upstage, silhouetted against a blue wall, while we hear children singing softly as if from outside or in a distant memory. As he turns and exits left another dancer enters at the same pace, stops part way across and shakes repeatedly. As she exits another enters and stops along the way to laugh and exit. Yet another follows. This cinematic opening is effective, although it could have used a heavier directorial hand, or more Butoh workshops. Haga maintains an intensity in his walk that only Mina Nishimura can match. Janice Lancaster and Katie Swords make a noble effort but as the work progresses it becomes apparent that they need a few years of real life experience before they can achieve a heftier performance quality to match their obvious technical skill.

The women waddle into the space, becoming a bizarre collection of birds. They freeze in a beautiful downlight tableau from designer Joe Doran while Haga, or here he really probably should be called binbin, enters from the wings and settles in downstage left for a good pout. His hair is spiked, his shoulders drooped and his expression dour. While the women begin playfully tossing their chiffon scarves into the air he begins a frenzied, rant of movement. This frustrated penguin will never fly no matter how often he flaps his wings, I mean arms. Haga's clowning skills bring this odd duck to life so thoroughly he transcends himself as a human performer and truly seems to be channeling a neurotic creature.

Haga will return again and again to brood while each of the women performs brief interactions with a very cool, mod-styled chair. The chair becomes a space for each character to play out a kind of childhood recollection. Nishamura stumbles and laughs, knocking herself around in a precocious and lithe manner. She captures the girlish woman thang perfectly, as many Japanese women I've seen in Tokyo do, but excels beyond parody and captivates us. When binbin returns for a final solo he is a living muppet, shifting from ape-like squats to flapping bird amidst Butoh-inspired twitches and bouts of furious gesture. He reminds me of my favorite Sanrio character, Bad Badtz Maru, the grumpy, smart-ass foil to the ever-cheerful Hello Kitty. I want to take him home and give him to my daughter for her first birthday.

Sharon Estacio's "Sheathe" reveals itself in three sections: a duet, a solo and a trio set to a great collection of music, including Filipino folk dance tunes. Karen Love begins leaning up against the back wall as we hear the beginning of a pulsing, tribal music. Clare Byrne and Estacio sit together facing upstage towards the wall. Their backs are revealed in exquisite silk tops designed by TaraMarie Perri. They dance interweaving into one another's space and twitching with laughter. As they move downstage still connected I see an image of twins in some ancient creation myth -- until they separate and present themselves, fierce and majestic. The duet continues with expansive lusciousness. The two women meet one another equally on a playing field. They are playful like tigress cubs testing their strengths. Downstage, they interweave their legs, contract their torsos and smile deviously.

Love follows the duet with a solo that reaches and sweeps through the space and then Estacio tries her hand at group choreography. Unfortunately, her trio for Jessi Scopp, Camille Brown and Nadia Abji doesn't expand much further from something off a collegiate dance concert. Understandably, she is facing the challenge that daunts many choreographers: to create work for other dancers that can hold its own against work generated and performed by its creator. This isn't to say that Estacio doesn't link movement together in an appealing way but the trio is generically dancey without the original movement invention or noticeably dynamic performance that she and Byrne accomplish in their duet. That is until the very end, when two of the women return to movement from the opening duet. As they sit side by side on the floor with their backs to the audience they gaze over their right shoulders, draw hands across their faces leaving a red streak and drop back, dangling their legs upward and gazing back at us like demented, warrior rag dolls. The rest of the trio may have washed right over my memory banks but that final image will be sitting in my hard drive for a while. It's good to end strong.


Maura Nguyen Donohue is the artistic director of Maura Nguyen Donohue/In Mixed Company.

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