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Flash Review 2, 10-14: Lemon Tree
Wandering in Ralph Lemon's 'Geography'

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2000 Christine Chen

SAN FRANCISCO -- When I hear the word "multiculturalism" attached to a dance concert (Marcia B. Siegel described Ralph Lemon's "Tree" as "multiculturalism in the best sense"), I typically expect a politically-charged performance along one of the following party lines: "Let's all get together and party inter-culturally by celebrating our differences, sharing our styles and making a creolized melting pot which will be better than the sum of our parts," or "The big bad Americans/Western Imperialists are appropriating/stealing/ripping off everyone else's culture, bastardizing it and claiming it as their own -- let's take it back." Lemon admirably resists both of these blanket positions with "Tree: Part Two of the Geography Trilogy," which opened Thursday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. But in his effort to avoid an easy statement or resolution, he has made an aimless and inaccessible piece.

In "Geography Part I: Africa/Race" (1997), Lemon explored the nature of race and identity with his cast of male dancers and musicians from West Africa and their African-American counterparts. For Part II, he assembled a cast of 12 collaborators from China, Taiwan, India, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana and the U.S. and set out to explore Asian belief systems and cultural aesthetics. Together, under Lemon's direction, this group crafted a series of images and vignettes which, while loosely linked, lacked an overall sense of purpose/position/agenda. I do not necessarily crave structure or narrative, and I certainly do not wish to be preached at, but I do expect theater and art to transcend life in some way. The elements of "Tree" failed to make me see or feel anything novel overall.

Because he was so careful in his evenhanded treatment of all cultures, Lemon backed himself into a corner where the only choreographic device he had at his disposal was juxtaposition. This became predictable quickly -- a Japanese woman and an Indian man performed the same lyrically expressive classical Indian movements with their own flair; an African-American woman and an Asian-American woman did a Lemon-flavored release phrase* with similar interpretations; a West African male and an African-American male entangled in a contact duet; two Chinese men performed traditional Chinese dances ("Stepping on Wheat Dance" and "Twisting and Feet-Touching Dances"); ditto for spoken text. OK, I get it -- different people do similar movement, similar people do different movement, different people do different movement, similar people do similar movement -- everyone does their own thing, everyone tries out someone else's vocabulary with their own style, people communicate across language barriers and miscommunicate despite a shared language. Because the movement vocabularies did not mix, and because the performers did not seem to connect (they talk at each other but not to each other, and they dance together but not with each other) the work seemed alienating.

"Tree" was not an easy performance to watch -- it was a 90-minute exercise in concentration, attention, and processing. It was unapologetic in its rambling nature and its meandering meditation on culture, ritual, life and identity. Still, there were several motifs that provided some connective tissue throughout the work. There was the visual element of falling and rising: Two men rolled and fell -- one off of a platform and one off the stage. Later, the same two men repeated this action but this time one tumbled off a 30-foot scaffold (after an elaborate set up and rigging to a harness). At one point, Nari Ward's enormous glass backdrop set fell about 30 degrees. A woman, attached to excessively visible wires and a harness, entered and began to yell. At the climax of her shrieks she was lifted by the wires as expected, but unexpectedly she rose only a couple of feet in the air onto a bench -- at which point she detached herself from the wires. There were also stones which were dropped (4 men line up and repeatedly drop stones, just missing their feet), rolled (across the stage which dancers had to avoid in a "Frogger"-like manner while dancing) and tossed around in an improvisational structure. There were several moments where two performers shared an instant of movement or where one performer picked up on a word uttered by another on stage and took it in a completely new direction.

There were also several episodes that stood out on their own. A Japanese woman, after sitting silently and peacefully through a long bout of on-stage chaos, described her experience of being on a train during an earthquake. While she spoke in a gentle, refined voice, her gestures emoted much emotion. At first they seemed to be reminiscent of classical Indian vocabulary, then they seemed to resemble the expressivity of American Sign Language. When she finished her explanation, she took center stage and flung her arms around in an unexpected lashing out and release of control.

The work's last statement was also particularly powerful: A Chinese man sat on an empty stage lit to highlight his isolation. An old blues tune played softly in the background (the same tune Lemon previously danced to?). The man began to sing with his own non-sensical syllables but in the same intonation and cadence of the blues song. Lights out.

By the end of the evening, my overall impression was that the work (and I do not necessarily mean this in a derogatory sense) seemed very academic. It felt like an extensive anthropologic research project with lofty intentions that simply had not, as of yet, crystallized into a piece of art. The series of moments yielded several glimmers and the process was, no doubt, fascinating and informative, but the work, as a whole, did not develop, connect or transcend these individual statements. Nonetheless, I applaud Lemon for taking on this ambitious and worthwhile project and for not settling on the obvious statements and resolutions about culture and difference. I also commend Stan Wojewodski, artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater, for his faith in offering Lemon considerable resources to simply work on, create, evolve and develop this unknown product from vague ideas. In an environment where most art must be pitched and packaged as producible and profitable, this must have been a luxury, and the resulting work, while lackluster, was at least not formulaic or catering to any particular funder.

"Tree" runs through October 15 at the Center for the Arts and opens October 24 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater.


*A Lemon-flavored release phrase -- like all release phrases I have seen -- goes something like this: arm slice, reach, stumble, fall, aftershock ripple, pause, reinitiation, squiggly swivel, head bobble, snaky torso jiggle, sink into hip, jump, flip, exhale, focus, wander, new initiation. The effect is a fluid, meandering stream-of-consciousness flow of movement free of any particular agenda, statement or emphatic punctuation. Each re-initiation is like a new idea, and each initiation is followed through with a Zen-like patience and exploration until the journey ends and a new idea/body part/flow of momentum is initiated. It is mesmerizing but lacks certain dynamics. Throughout this work, it is performed in silence, to soundscape/ambient music, and blues. This is Lemon's personal movement preference, yet the style comes to stand for "Western" style in the context of this work -- a narrow vision of Western dance.

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