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Letter from New York, 5-21: New steps for thought
Out with the washes of women, in with the washes of ideas

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2009 Maura Nguyen Donohue

NEW YORK -- It's hard getting out these days. I'm tethered by two 30-plus-pound weights who would rather not see me leave in the evening, and tell me so with increasing vehemence and constantly updating vocabulary. When I add to this my own schedule of rehearsing, teaching, and showing work during the busy Spring season, it can be deeply frustrating if I find myself flat-lining in a dark theater. Over the years, I've found that I'm more particular in my selection of reviewing assignments; I'm less likely to cover an artist I know nothing about because I don't want to gamble with tedium. But, in a burst of what I had thought was probably overambitious altruism, I opted to counter my tendencies in recent months by seeking out a couple of programs featuring the un-emerged. The experiment proved highly worthwhile.

An evening dubbed "New Dancemakers," programmed by Peggy Cheng for Danspace Project's Food for Thought series, and the first weekend of HT Chen's "Newsteps" series at the Chen Dance Center (formerly Mulberry Street Theater), caught respectively April 23 and April 25, heralded bright days ahead for me. It was a lucky weekend; I didn't have to summon the nurturing "take the work on its own merits" mantra of compassionate composition teacher, nor did I find myself trying to validate the artist's need to destroy his or her foundations in a devotion to The New. In fact, I'd like to sing a moment's Hallelujah, for the voices on both programs were singular in their representations of the world and notably distinctive from each other (and much that has slogged across other recent showcases). These untested visions buzz with a vibrancy revealing that an awareness of contemporary conversations doesn't have to lead to the cookie cutter.

Cheng curated "New Dancemakers" with the intention of providing the artists with an entry into the increasingly crowded circuit of presenting in New York City. Opportunities are scarce, resources are shrinking and they have to be shared between artists struggling at every stage of their careers. It's hard to find your way in. So, after 15 years of seeing work at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church and seeing many young artists elsewhere (often as a "Newsteps" panelist), Cheng, also Danspace Project's director of institutional giving (and who in other lives dances with me and once wrote for this publication) wanted to bring legacy and latest together. The combination of fresh voices in a space so resonant with history proved satisfying. With two of the works having migrated up to St. Mark's Church from a "Newsteps" program seen in Chinatown last fall, I was grateful to see a small but vital pathway forged for these artists. However, as pleased as I was to see "Newsteps" alumnae Makiko Tamura and Molly Lieber's duets again, it was interesting to note how the space changed the impact of each work. Tamura's "Order made" remained appropriately disconcerting, but the lightness and warmth of the church countered the darkness that her work had been imbued with in Chen's little black box theater. The dance began with Tamura, in a formal black dress with tulle petticoat, standing behind Ryoji Sasamoto, clad in suit and tie, as he sat in a large leather chair. There were moments in the dance when their sweeping, slicing, and falling movements felt joyful and nostalgic. There were many more fits of odd meowing, giggling, wailing, thumbsucking, and tightly bound bouncing that, when combined with the sound score of street sounds, bugle calls, and prepared piano, created an atmosphere of anxiety. Both Tamura and Sasamoto are dynamic dancers who capably devoured the space available to them during explosive bursts of movement, but the tight, grinding punch of the dance dissipated in the larger venue.

Lieber's "My Angle" benefited from the increase in light and expansiveness in the church setting. When Ani Javian and Megan Macfarlane ran around the space, it seemed like Lieber was able to achieve an unrestrained quality to contrast the strict parameters of a silent, tight-fisted barrage of swinging arms. When the fist swinging exchange was repeated to the delightful She and He Ronettes throwback "Sweet Darlin'," the impression was still of a forceful, difficult relationship but held a sentimental or familial tone. Both Tamura and Lieber's couples reminded me more of family than lovers. The twitches, outbursts and battles could have been set in an imaginary living room where Grandma decorates with an abundance of bright doilies. In Lieber's world we could see a flowerbox through the open window while in Tamura's the shades would be drawn.

Group work by young artists makes me wary. I have a "college-cringe" response when masses of young female bodies populate the stage. I'm a Seven Sisters alum and love my grrls, but large groups of young women dancing on stage kicks off too many scary flashbacks. But while the recent Barnard Project at Dance Theater Workshop, with work by Morgan Thorson, Nora Chipaumire, Susan Rethorst, and Nicholas Leichter, and a Hunter College concert in April with works by Camille Brown and Nicole Wolcott demonstrated how unevenly the scales still weigh (with female-heavy casts), they also showed how experienced voices can parlay collegiate casting demands into something profound. Two younger voices from the Food for Thought program finally managed to turn my prejudicial red flag white. I'm calling a temporary truce.

Yin Yue's "Persona 8'30" quartet began as relatively standard dance work. The sound of heavy breathing and moans, rhythmic and tribal, set an animalistic tone that the dancing didn't at first match. But just as I was noting that I wanted her to go deeper -- not longer, but harder into what she seemed to be after -- Christina Noel Reaves ripped her clothes off and her rippling torso was shockingly raw. Reaves delivered the deep and hard I was yearning for and suddenly we were nowhere near the "ho-hum" I'd expected. Ana Isabel Keilson's "Girls, Shadows, Flowers," managed to adeptly negotiate any potential linkage to undergradsmanship by making a work that very clearly made its population its subject. The piece started with the sound of giggling girls emanating from behind closed doors. A gaggle of women entered the space, clad in white-collar shirts and soft, white, tennis-player length skirts. As they moved downstage in bursts of arabesques, attitudes, and pointed feet, the balletic vocabulary initially agitated me, but it did articulate visual and thematic tones quite eloquently. I felt privy to a utopian scene in a playground where Tiffany Clarke, Elizabeth Coker Giron, Kesa Huey, Keilson, Melinda Lee (a contributor to this publication) and Devika Wickremesinghe each represented perfectly engineered specimens of female-dom. Yue's phalanx of lovely Asian, African, Aryan, Red Head, Brunette, Curly-haired nymphs frolicked and flocked through dynamic formations until a final telephone game of passed whispering left me with the sense of a creepy, seductive future. As someone for whom looking forward and looking backward have become essentially equalized and slightly neutralized pursuits, I am fascinated by the sense of hope and promise that these showcases can imply. While this promise is often thwarted, these two shared programs delivered on their implications and generated a staunch assurance that dance is in good hands.

Chen's "Newsteps" program has served as the first NYC presentation for many artists. 15 years ago, I was one and it's humbling to think of setting that solo against the work on the first weekend of this spring's program. I was lucky to be a strong dancer (who also happened to be Asian American and a member of Chen's company). These choreographers seem noticeably more savvy and sophisticated in their artistry, with several offering poetic visions that took me through a range of landscapes.

"7:30 p.m. (encounter)," choreographed by Hsiao-Wei Hsieh and Hsiao-Ting Hsieh drew heavily from Laban's A-scale, a formal exercise that equals a satisfying solo when performed by a studied practitioner. The A-scale follows a specific series of movement pathways, first on the right side and then the left, and can be performed with different efforts. For the choreographers, joined in performing the work by Yumi Kuroki, this provided a rich vocabulary for three separate solos that were simultaneously performed in individual squares of light. A satisfyingly lush trio followed, once the individuals engaged one another, with great attention to shape, space and focus. Their meetings were brief with sweeping legs and an occasional dancer sitting on the floor cross-legged. The women saw one another but, set to the melancholy strains of Max Richter, they appeared plaintive and eventually separated once again, leaving a lone dancer gently shaking in a spotlight.

Mana Kawamura's "Specimen" rips apart the lyrical tone in a sharp, mechanical quintet. The dancers appear to be uber-hip automatons programmed with strict codes and exquisite technique. Kawamura and David Botana performed a rapid and vicious exchange with flying legs and bending bodies. A statuesque Keelin Ryan, dressed in pleated skirt, took notation on a notepad while standing on David Botana's back; Miho Murata and Juri Onuki applied lipstick on one another's faces. Both were impressive achievements given the rules of disengaged focus with dancers always gazing away from the body they were manipulating. Kawamura is dynamite -- long-limbed, razor-sharp, chic and in very good company.

In "Uterii," choreographed by Lisa Crawford, five female performers, in tank tops and leggings of different colors, began seated next to one another and facing upstage. They exectued a charming sequence during which the dancers dip forward in time with French avant-garde singer Brigitte Fontaine's humming, becoming something of a human pop-up, pipe organ. The dance ebbed and flowed through a series of images interconnected by blackouts. As the dancers briefly lit and extinguished matches in the darkness, I wondered: with "uteri" as the plural for uterus, would "uterii" be the inhabitants among a community of wombs? When the dance went into its second act, after a mistaken bout of applause from the audience, the women rose from the floor and were very connected to the rhythms of the music. When they walked, always facing forward, in a box around the space, their unison was excellent and their pulsating group energy made the space feel expansive.

Leanne Schmidt is a tyrannical choreographer, or at least she played one with great wit and audacity onstage. In "The Upper Hand," Schmidt, Kim Goss, Beth Maderal, and Mary Sullivan vied for dominance in a vicious and vocal battle. The opening sequence, with the four women dressed in all whites, seemed to pay homage to the diva battles evoked in Jules Perrot's famous Pas de Quatre. When the punches began to land solidly on dancers' faces, I heard audible gasps from the audience. Schmidt's voice is often riotously sadistic, and her dance here was full of whipping, tightly interwoven trios and performances that rode the edge of absurdity thanks to a strong directorial hand that played silliness off against obvious rigor.

GoGoVerdigoat Dance Project's conceptual effort to combine sound, audience participation, and technical dancing threatened to be the kind of early-stage work that was going to undo the overwhelming optimism I'd developed over the course of the weekend. Not because those ideas are divergent from my own, but because I'd been banging away at some of the same themes with varying degrees of success. Lindsey Drury and eunkyungkim's desire to make a work that could be altered though audience participation is a shared one among many artists; a similar desire made for a deeply moving experience in Dean Moss's "Kisaeng becomes you" at Dance Theater Workshop earlier this year. The odds seemed against Drury and kim, but they achieved a fantastic synthesis of thought and execution in "Automated Arrival, New York," with vibrant dancers, one jovial audience member named "Esther," automated computer voice narration and questions, live answers via megaphone and several silver service bells. It became a kind of dance Mad-Lib. When the dancers removed layers of their own clothing, it seemed to match the recent burst of flesh all over city streets that followed the early Spring heat-wave, and I found myself grateful for the city I live in and the wealth of perspectives I am offered.

For more news about the Chen Dance Center, click here.

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