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Flash Review 2, 9-5: Choreo-history
Mixed Results from In Mixed Company

By Kelly Hargraves
Copyright 2000 Kelly Hargraves

LOS ANGELES -- When my 5-year-old heard I was going to a dance about Vietnam, she was excited for me, having remembered the Vietnamese dance and music performance she had seen at the museum recently. I, on the other hand, knowing that this was about Vietnam after the war and the disappearance of Amerasian children was a bit more wary. There is a gap in her knowledge I knew, but I didn't want to tarnish her ideas with the forgotten history... not yet.

It's this kind of gap in our history -- or spaces between -- that "SKINning the SurFACE" addresses. Created by Maura Nguyen Donohue/In Mixed Company, a collective of visual and performing artists, SurFACE is a one-hour collection of songs, stories, videos and dances that refer to the many children that were forgotten, abandoned and mistreated by their American forebears.

SurFACE begins with a spoof of a tourist entering Vietnam, and then connects various sagas of the children of Vietnamese mothers and their American soldier fathers. Recurring text keeps the issue fresh and raises the question, "Would you find a question inside the crease of my eye confusing your perceptions of who I am and why? If you could see beyond the spectrum perhaps I'd let you in to find the answer that exists in the space between blood and skin." This space is a bigger one too. Issues of Race, Father and Home are mingled in the search for answers -- of the physical and emotional space between the fathers of the Vietnam war and the children they left behind. Some sections are from the child's perspective -- sing-songs and rhythms sometimes meant to taunt, other times meant to comfort. Other sections are more laden with information taken from books on the subject. There is a retelling of statistics, for example that only 1 in 100 children ever met their fathers; and of the protocols for dealing with these children, like the air-lifts based on the color of their eyes or skin (blue eyes/black skin).

The physical distances between the countries and the families are marked by the continuous moving on and off stage of the dancers or by moments of limbo, where they appear to be stuck waiting endlessly. A recurring poignant image of a dancer wrapped and unwrapped in thick white rope symbolizes the ties that bind and keep apart.

There are choreographic and structural spaces -- or gaps -- in "SKINning the SurFACE." Although each segment is woven into a whole, the themes of each often vary and an emotional bridge is hard to find from one to the next. Images of a young girl playing with a father figure or being taunted by a group of nasty children touch upon sympathy but never really achieve a deeper concern. Images of the Vietnam War and excerpts from the historical texts bring the necessary truth to the piece but remain didactic and surface.

Choreographically, Donohue and crew compose ensembles nicely, with a seamless flow of entrances, exits, lifts and duets, but their vocabulary choices do not fully resonate from the characters' struggles but rather from their background of contact improvisation. One solo, danced by a naked Donohue covered in written text, under the red, white, and blue light of a projected American flag, definitely shows a sense of anger and frustration. This is perhaps the dance most closely tied to the emotion of this piece, but it comes very late in the piece and is so different from the ensemble dances that it too seems to fall into the void.

Donohue/In Mixed Company often explore gender and race issues as a basis for work and her energetic, physical dance style of dance makes the issues a visual subject. Her research into her subjects is deep and thoughtful and obviously personal. The gap comes from the difficulty in making the personal and the physical one. The story of the body must become the story within the body and the story the body tells. In Donohue's solos she finds this story but when she tells it through her ensemble it rises again to the surface and therefore is not nearly as palpable as she seems to desire it to be.

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