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Flash Review, 12-18: 'Martial-arts kicks' and reductive criticism
LeeSaar the Company doesn't deserve Orientalism, but is it asking for it?
By Melinda Lee
Copyright 2008 Melinda Lee
NEW YORK -- I started to write this as a pure Flash and not a counter-Flash. I hate writing defensively. But it's just too easy to read Asian women as residuals of popular cultural imagination, and it would be only too easy for me to write a review of LeeSaar the Company's season at LaMama Etc. with polite deference to that status quo. Seen December 4, "February" inspired my intrigue for the life-and-work directorial duo of Lee Sher (actress, playwright) and Saar Harari (dancer, choreographer), alongside my personal awe for the show's mature and nuanced Taiwanese dancers, Jye-Hwei Lin and Hsin-Yi Hsiang. Yet when the Village Voice's venerable Deborah Jowitt starts using the phrase "martial arts" every time she sees Lin on a LeeSaar stage (first in reviewing this year's earlier work
"Geisha" and again for this show), and Roslyn Sulcas's blasé coverage of "February" in the New York Times includes the phrases 'martial-arts kicks' and 'even pacing,' can any of it be helped? With advance apologies for neglecting to review Sher's one-act play "Little Island" that began the show, what is it about Sher and Harari's duet for Lin and Hsiang, "One Day," that begets reflex reductionism?
You may not ask for Orientalism but when you have Asian dancers you are going to have to deal with it. Or bring the piece to Asia. Which is what I hope these meticulous directors have a chance to do. As a Western-educated Singaporean, my personal artistic heroes may include the most outrageous and rule-breaking members of Western post-modern avant-garde, but I am always on the lookout for influences that the Asian contemporary dance community -- young, traditionalist by training, but defiant -- needs, to find methods of breaking its own mold. (By 'Asian contemporary dance community,' I'm really referring to dance communities in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea, that are not as established in developing their indigenous dance identities as mainland China or Japan.)
LeeSaar's duet for Lin and Hsiang, "One Day," can be one such influence. The piece has the ability to play in rapid oscillation along physical extremes that, matched almost note for note in the beginning to Mozart's Piano No. 4, forges a vocabulary that is technically sophisticated and personally expressive, yet not subjectively emotional (compared to the kind of post-post-modern subjectivity which is an "off" button to audiences for whom communalism is more highly valued culturally). A fellow audience member commented to me later that this opening section seemed a bit cliché: two Taiwanese dancers performing rigorously specific movement sequences to equally rigorous and specific piano music. Yet what struck me more was how appropriate this structure was for these two dancers regardless of race, assuming their ballet and classical modern training -- which you see within seconds of the first high leg, and an endless high leg, mind you -- while the gestural sequencing could still be so feisty, impulsive, willful, and rhythmically risky. These are the very qualities that are difficult to elicit in performers from anywhere, really, for want of precedent or the courage to do something unrecognizably virtuosic.
An attitude arabesque is suspended and extended just long enough to hold a breath, while the left arm reaches for something textured in the air; the right hand circles roughly across a cheek, then lands gently on the clavicle. At the risk of being horribly generalist, it's this kind of multifaceted gestural approach that I so love about Israeli choreography, along with the fearlessness to flick, throw, strike, or manipulate one's body in space. And Lin and Hsiang are incredible at it. My attention in the first few sections of the work is dominated by the silent questioning of Lin's gaping mouth and the endlessness of her sinewy body, which in its undulations show the performer's commitment to creating a deep, if not the deepest physical experience for herself, and to carrying us there, watching. This is Gaga, for any who want to name it, these manifestations of explorations between thick and soft, of moving and being moved. Maybe neo-Gaga?
Just as Lin's style hints at becoming a movement trope, Hsiang comes equally, and literally, to the fore. In a powerful (and signature LeeSaar) scoring, the two women approach and confront the audience face on, dressed in their jeans and tanks, their limitations to the stage space demarcated only by lighting designer Joe Levasseur's elegant strip of foil reflector across the width of the downstage space. Lin becomes contemplative, stretching, stroking, gazing around but never at the audience directly; Hsiang on the other hand performs a well-disciplined kind of "fronting" you'd normally expect from a hardcore Crumper. These women are focused, yes, but self-absorbed, no -- they are giving us a part of themselves. Later, the field of attention changes from the fully lit barn-like auditorium of LaMama Annex to a narrowly spotlighted area center-stage, with Hsiang partially backlit. It is at first an image of a bionic woman, a da Vincian exemplar, but it is also the eye of a storm of complex movement. In this choreography of deliberate insistence, Hsiang stands spread-eagle and commandingly still.
The piece endures much in the same way past this break point, but with alternately pulsating and droning music. It ends ambiguously. The women return to movement similar to that of the opening, separated in space but unified by intention and syncopated rhythm, and just before it would fatigue or need to reveal a new element, either from within or external to these dancers. The title "One Day" alludes perhaps to a dream of pure structuralism, a fantasy of perfect, ceaseless point and counterpoint that represents to these directors an idea of peace: that peace is not the absence of extremes, but the freedom to play the range of extremes. I would say in this theme that it is very much a dancer's piece -- "One day I'll make it," whatever it means to "make it" -- but it's not just that. The construction of the dance and of the dancer's identities within it may work along textbook guidelines, but it's in this that the work landmarks LeeSaar's shift away from self-absorption as choreographers.
It is also perhaps in the structuralism of "One Day" that the choreographers have allowed the perception of stereotype, implied or imposed, to seep into the imaginations of their viewers. I think it of credit to the development of their physical vocabulary that there were no explicit meanings related to the gestures or spatial relationships used in the piece, unlike 2005's "Herd of Bulls" for example, where an extended grip was of a gun, or in 2006's "Moopim," where a soft touch or touch exploration was always somewhere on the spectrum of sexual provocation. In another kind of reading, however, the choreographers have also used the performers' heritage as if it would have no meaning -- or consequence. Midpoint through the piece, for example, Hsiang and Lin speak to each other in Mandarin Chinese, purely it seems for rhythmic value. The choreographers do not play up to any 'exotic' appeal or mystery of the language. I am conscious watching, however, that an 'exotic' reading could be had, noting that never have I watched a LeeSaar piece in which the choreographers speak in their native tongue, Hebrew, onstage. My point:
In Deborah Jowitt's reading of this year's earlier work,"Geisha," Jye-Wei Lin was at times a 'martial arts princess' and in "One Day" was seen to adopt a 'martial arts stance.' For Roslyn Suclas, Lin's and Hsiang's performances entailed 'explosive martial-arts kicks and undulating bodies.' Hmm. I walk out of a dance class in a ponytail and sportswear and I am, in all innocence if not as a compliment, called a padawan. (For those unfamiliar, check Wookiepedia: 'padawan' means a Jedi apprentice, otherwise known as Ming Na Wen in a tunic or any actress who looks like her.) We are often made creatures, androgynes, vessels, ancients, sidekicks, or the hair stylists for Orlando Bloom, and often we insist that "we" are not a "we," but have to claim the "we" when "we" need to complain about it. There must be a way out of this trap!
I've followed the work of Lee Sher and Saar Harari since their first New York premiere in 2005, and I see LeeSaar the Company emerging as the most conceptually provocative of an Israeli New Wave, including fellow diaspora choreographers like New York's Deganit Shemy and London's wunderkind Hofesh Shechter. It can be said that they are achieving this through the subtlety and skill of dancers for whom they do the favor of not pre-empting an American audience's reading by ethnicity -- a favor, because only this way can you access creative depth without fear. But the question remains: how does the choreographer seat an audience into positions of voyeurism and/or subjectivity? And whose responsibility is it? For regular viewers, it's often already a lot to take in that dancers seem to become alien simply by deprioritizing verbal language. For critics of legally-alien dancers, we may need to recall the rhetoric that used to associate foreign bodies with primitivity, giving allowance for thoughtless racist acts, in order to rethink our reflexes.
Read Mel's reflections on dance, representation, syndromes of Singapore theatre, and more at her blog and performance site, www.tothinkthethought.com.