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Flash Review Journal, 5-26: Diasporic Diary
A One Weekend Asian Invasion of NYC

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2005 Maura Nguyen Donohue

NEW YORK -- There was a bit of an Asian dance festival happening all over New York City last weekend. Although I don't think any of the presenters, nor perhaps anyone else, knew it was happening. But over the course of four days I traipsed my 9-month pregnant butt and belly from SoHo to Midtown to the upper Upper West Side to Chelsea and to the Upper East Side to catch Asian and Asian-American novice and veteran choreographers around town. And that kind of range of offerings is not something I am yet willing to trade in -- despite my growing family. I'd rather have access like this than wait for "Mulan on Ice" to come to town... if you know what I mean.

Thursday night, SoHo

Hong Kong transplant Abby Chan performs "Spectrum" as part of a Joyce SoHo Presents program. She begins bent forward at the waist with a flowing white dress drooped over her head. A video-projected block of blue light slowly makes its way up behind her until it fills the stage-right half of the back wall, where Chan's shadow becomes the primary player in this visually compelling dance. There is direct interplay between the video, designed by Chan and Kevin Wu, and movement clearly choreographed to work with the shifting planes of light and color that cross the screen. The images shift between aggressive bars of red light that pulse and crowd Chan out of the space into psychedelic flowers and hallucinatory childlike images that blend with echoing Cantonese children's poems. Chan makes a strikingly gorgeous canvas for the light. In the moments when the eye shifts from shadow play to live performer she is breathtaking. Her features become arresting as she is captured in the bright white light of the projector in this surreal, at times sci-fi dreamscape. Roger Lin's composition swells between surging force and raw pounding into an evocative and elusive realm, one that reminds me of a young girl's bedroom during the late hours of the night, at once innocent and eerie.

Homegrown New Yorker and Filipina Sharon Estacio's "Undergrowth" is set almost entirely on the floor, with only the briefest bursts above kneeling. The choreography, performed by Estacio and Lena Gilbert, is brawny and athletic yet sensual and undulating, perfectly conjuring the quietly seductive shifts of the world beneath us. However, the theatrical experience would have been complete with stronger lighting and costuming choices than the ones made here, which conveyed more informality than mystery. And, until a segment of interesting partnering near the end the dance seemed redundant as a duet. There's a lot of unison movement and, regardless, it's hard to pay much attention to anyone else when Estacio is on stage.

Also on the program was Breezy Berryman's "Widow's Walk," which would have been bettered served without a dedication to the choreographer's cousin, who is serving time as a U.S. Marine. This gesture, and the fatigue green costumes, suggest a weight and substance to the dance that never materializes. The five dancers, including Estacio, perform all of the movement with technical precision but the movement vocabulary reveals more method than meaning. Notwithstanding a few falls to the ground and somber slow walks forward towards the audience the dance lacks the emotional resonance the program notes promise. Janice Lancaster closes the program with "St. John's Wort," a wacky ditty for six dancers. The dance actually contains some enjoyable compositional moments but the performers' histrionics and overacted facial expressions turn it into mainly a cute bit of hyperactivity.

Friday night, Midtown, East Side

"Solo/Duo" a showcase for emerging choreographers from Japan, was part of a season-wide program with the theme "Cool Japan: Otaku Strikes!" at the Japan Society. "Otaku" is a word I threw around often with friends in the US and Japan, and which I vaguely understood to mean "techno geek" or "computer nerd." Based on a concurrent exhibition in the Japan Society gallery, "Little Boy: the Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture" and the material in the dance program it would seem that "otaku" has a broader meaning that includes much of what may be looked upon by the Japanese as anything beyond mainstream, including rampant individualism and obsessive interest in postwar Japan's Neo-Pop.

With images of big-eyed school girls whose skirts are short enough to allow unfettered crotch views still fresh from a walk through the upstairs gallery, and the lingering memory of a notsolongago walk through Tokyo's Shibuya district, I watch as Shigemi Kitamura opens her "i.d." with a tight spot of light on her red-undie-clad bottom. Tight bars of light illuminate specific parts of Kitamura's body, including thighs which open and quickly snap shut. She exits, then returns in a long black dress and kneels downstage before dramatically opening a canned drink and beginning a dance of inflated facial expressions. Her tongue licks her lips making a long, far-reaching circle around her mouth. Her eyes roll. She is an anime heroine with regal bearing and exaggerated features. In front of a projected image of a woman performing calisthenics Kitamura bursts into madcap frenzies displaying a rambunctious, haphazard energy that is slightly infectious.

Prior to the show proper, Natzuko Tezuka had performed "Anatomical Experiments I" in the lobby, placing Xeroxed images of eyes on various parts of her body. For "Anatomical Experiments II," she requests audience members to join her onstage or view the dance through binoculars to get an intimate view. For obvious reasons, I opt not to drag my mothership out of my seat. The binoculars aren't particularly powerful but the general image of the audience surrounding Tezuka's horizontal body, laid out on a white plexiglass platform, is appealing in its own way. And while the magnification doesn't provide the punch to really get up-inside-it-all, the lens itself sharpens the view enough to make certain details like red painted finger and toenails and buttons pop in a way they wouldn't otherwise. Tezuka's intensity of concentration -- face twitching, eyes crossed and unfocused, suggesting a choreographed grand mal epileptic seizure -- reveal how a butoh aesthetic is insinuating itself into contemporary performance. Though far from the grunge of Min Tanaka, the tumult of Akira Kasai, the alien rage of Ko Murabashi, the flamboyance of Kazuo Ohno, the grandstanding of Dairakudakan or even the formal polish of Sankai Juku this single, female figure clad simply in plaid skirt and button-down shirt reeks of a performance style rooted in the devastated plains of Hiroshima. If I had a parlor I'd invite her over to perform for all my friends. This was an experience and experiment to return to, a ritual journey across the enormous landscape of a single body.

Unfortunately, Yukiko Amano, also advertised as being on this program, was unable to travel or perform due to a debilitating knee injury. This was greatly disappointing as I'd enjoyed her work in a Dance Theater Workshop showing earlier this year. She did, however, send a video of her written (and illustrated) apologies that was witty and delightful. Amano should be back in New York for the Japan Society's 9th Annual Japanese Contemporary Dance Showcase during next year's Arts Presenters conference here.

The duo of Osamu Jareo and Misako Terada seems out of place on the program. "It Might Be Sunny Tomorrow" doesn't seem that original or inventive. Jareo and Terada move two chairs around the stage while performing pretty run-of-the-mill choreography. At one point Mendelssohn's wedding march plays and I speculate this could all be about the dreariness of planning a wedding, or the inevitable boredom of marriage but by the time the pair meets downstage left to perform a dance of boredom and annoyance I find my mood pretty well reflected.

Saturday night, upper Upper West Side

I dash through a sudden rainstorm into the Bridge for Dance right around the corner from my apartment to catch New York City newcomer Darcy Naganuma. Resettled recently from Hawaii, Naganuma is presenting a sketch of sorts on a shared program. The 60 or so folding chairs lined in the studio are mostly filled and the feeling is youthfully supportive, with the young man at the front desk also serving as technical support.

Naganuma's "24" begins in black with the artist counting backwards. As the lights and music start the choreographer is revealed stepping out of a pile of white rope. She slices her long limbs through the air with increasing speed and ferocity while a suit-clad woman, Gina Ferraro, sits at a desk, writing and talking on the phone. Eventually Ferraro rises from behind the desk, bites into an apple and carries the now frozen, doll-like frame of Naganuma back towards the desk. Angela Gorman, Julia Hellmich, Amy Le Fleur and Ali Zaid, young members of the Westchester Ballet and modern dance students of Naganuma, enter wrapped in coils of rope and turn on pointe while Ferraro drops papers onto Naganuma's prone body. The girls stop and begin to address the audience with lines like "I am 18, 17, 16... the proud owner of a driver's permit," "I am 15... a member of a Passover group," and "10... at a sleepover." There is a shyness in speaking for a couple of the dancers and bravado from the others. The intimacy of the space and the sincerity of some of the performers' discomfort and awkwardness make the sequence strangely riveting. The work has shifted from what I thought was just another dance about day jobs into a glimpse of girlhood -- albeit one decidedly less otherworldly than Chan's trek through memory lane. The girls remove their pointe shoes as Naganuma joins them for a final dance section that concludes with everyone returning to their texts and ultimately darkness as Naganuma states, "I am." It's an interesting beginning, although the symbolism of the suited woman and her props remains entirely unclear.

Sunday afternoon, Chelsea

A festival, even an unintentional one, of dance from the Asian Diaspora would not be complete without an appearance from HT Chen and Dancers, one of the leading Asian-American arts institutions in the nation for reasons expressed in part in my Flash Review of the Ear to the Ground series presented at Chen's Mulberry Street Theater. Today Chen, with whose company I danced in my early days in New York, is premiering "Heart of Grace" at Dance Theater Workshop (where both Chen and I serve on the board), as part of DTW's subsidized guest artist series.

Chen starts "Heart of Grace" with a traditional lion dance, like those often seen in the streets of Chinatown during Lunar New Year or perhaps at the opening of a new business, and then proceeds to dissect it. He strips away the brightly colored costume and masking to explore varying elements of this popular entertainment. An interesting irony of the lion dance is the actual absence of lions in China, though I suppose there weren't really too many dragons or phoenixes on hand either and turtles, though revered for their longevity, don't really inspire bouts of athletic prowess.

The first half of the piece is shaky and unfocused. The martial arts elements drawn upon as inspiration don't offer the stirring snap and flow of kung fu but more static, pose-heavy elements, which the dancers don't perform with assurance. Though the score, by drummer Cao Bao-An, increases in volume and intensity the dancers never match the frenzy. Only after a wire frame version of a lion dance mask descends from above do we glimpse what some of these fine dancers have to offer, with Dito Sudito performing a dynamic solo while holding the frame over his head. Antoin Gadpaille, also holding a mask, joins him for a vigorous duet full of high leaps and spectacular jumps and falls. When the back wall is suddenly lit up with a purple sky and stars the work slips into a more celestial realm and the remaining dancers begin to inhabit the dance more organically. A graceful duet between Sudito and a female dancer (the program did not break down who danced what, and the choreographer had not supplied all dancer IDs at presstime) in front of a projected lotus blossom, a gentle women's duet set to flute music and a women's sprightly quartet all reflect the dancers working in a more familiar comfort zone.

Sunday night, Upper East Side

I admit that by Sunday night I am hoping for labor pains to excuse me from the last leg of this dance-doting gauntlet, which I must clarify was all my idea. But it proved entirely worth the effort to head back to the East Side for Dana Tai Soon Burgess at the Asia Society. Burgess's "Tracings" is the finest work of Asian-American dance I've seen. He presents a high measure of artistry mixed with the personal, culling from his family's passage from a Korean palace to a Hawaiian pineapple plantation at the turn of the century. Burgess's company of dancers, most notably the women, are very strong performers, his vision is refined and thorough and his choice in collaborators is impeccable. The work is haunting and heartfelt but never sentimental. It exemplifies an immigrant's loss and displacement without banking on the exotic.

The dance opens with an Anna Kang Burgess, the choreographer's mother, seated on a chair wearing a cream-colored hanbok, the traditional dress of Korea. She hands a white painted vintage hatbox suitcase to Miyako Nitadori who, similarly dressed, portrays the early part of the family's journey in front of video images of a large steam ship, projected on the back screen. Jason Kao Hwang's score compels immediately, drawing us in with mystery and a bit of foreboding. As Nitadori dances, at times holding a traditional Korean mask to her face, additional performers enter and move through a very tight, obviously well-rehearsed series of solid, formal shapes that melt into gentle gestures. Each dancer molds into the highly specific material naturally without any awkward gap in translation. Nitadori disrobes from her hanbok and moves from sharp shifts into curving and carving gestures that reveal a meeting between traditional and contemporary dance styles. At the end she leaves everything behind and quickly departs.

The second section opens with a line of dancers holding various white suitcases that they will slowly fill with white painted pineapples. An image of a leaning palm tree is projected on the back wall and Korea's most famous folk song, "Arirang," echoes through the space. Occasional black and white photographs of Burgess's kin give just enough historical context to the work without becoming a family slide show. Tati (Maria Del Carmen) Valle-Riestra stands out in a duet with Burgess, easing between balanced and broken with exquisite delicacy and power, performing with even more command than her choreographer. We see a wedding photo and Riestra hints at the slightest gesture of romance before subtly altering it into a more abstracted shape. Nitadori and Connie Fink enter slowly upstage right repeating the same gesture with arms raised overhead, slightly bent and swaying while they rise and dip with hips jutting ever so subtly. Shu-Chen Cuff joins them with her long hair cascading and the three women perform a perfectly sublime trio, floating through the space and dropping from air to floor and from feet to hands with studied effortlessness.

As Kang Burgess returns to her chair we see a series of photos that serve as a slow pan out from a pineapple to a row of trees to a plot to a huge plantation, as one family's passage becomes mythic and deeply profound. "Tracings" is an eloquent poem and touching homage, a work about origin and exodus that easily discards the discussion about inherited versus borrowed aesthetics. Here Burgess, a Celtic-Asian hybrid, blurs Asian into American in both form and content with a deft touch.

Next stop

The Birthing Center at Bellevue, where I'll hopefully soon be premiering my newest Asian-American masterpiece, a.k.a. Sasa's younger brother.

In addition to her work for the Dance Insider, dancer-choreographer Maura Nguyen Donohue also has a piece about Asian Diaspora artists across the US in this month's Dance Magazine.

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