Thursday, July 30, 2009

Shen Wei #3

The order in which I've posted these reflections on Shen Wei's "Re-" series might be confusing--their presentation at ADF was also out of sequential order.  This reflection is about "Re-(Part II)", which was presented last on the ADF program.

Shen Wei, a visual artist as well as a choreographer, is masterful at creating striking visual images in his dances.  Re- (Part II), created in response to the choreographer’s travels in Angkor Wat, Cambodia, seems to be organized primarily through a collection of isolated images, rather than any narrative through-line or specific statement about culture, as in Re- (Part III).  Set against a backdrop dominated by a series of projected images—the detail of a carved wooden door, the chaos of branches and leaves from the jungle, an ancient tree, its roots spilling over the stone wall—the movement remains suggestive but abstract, swift flashes of illusion from these familiar bodies.


Line of dancers, linked, in the arch and swirl

of bold spirals, hewn from wood, from stone.

A syncopated swoop, a fluid calligraphy

Tracing the boundaries between line and curve.


Dappled with the soft pattern of light through leaves,

The women flit, swarm, vine, twist and creep,

A tangle of limbs.


In the harsh lighting, she is all ribs and legs and shadows.

Sinewy, contorted, like the roots of the ancient tree.

Other bodies spill forward in a slow melt and stretch,

Sinking headless, hardly human,

still sculptures glowing white and hard,

Nearly blinding in their brilliance.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Pilobolus performed at ADF July 9-11.

How many Pilobolus dancers does it take to turn on a light bulb? Many of the works by this athletic, inventive company open like the lead-in to a joke. What do you get when you cross two men, a woman, and a fish? Sometimes, the punch line is elusive, never quite clear. Other times, as in the case of the 1972 favorite “Walklyndon,” the dance is all punch line. Or rather, one punch line after another, as the seven dancers in yellow unitards and sport shorts collide, trip, trot past, and carry each other off in continuous, humorous crossings.

Two of the works Pilobolus presented on Saturday night, “2b” and “Rushes,” began like the opening of some absurd joke, setting us giggling. Soon, however, we began to realize that this was no joke—although we found ourselves still laughing, nervously this time—but rather a surreal dream, a story tinged with beautiful melancholy, a fragile, funny layer over something sad and dark. Both works were choreographed by Israeli choreographers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak (and Robby Barnett for “Rushes”), with the collaboration of the dancers, and both seemed born out of the same strange, imaginary world.

“2b” introduced its characters through short vignettes: a man with his suit jacket buttoned high over his head lowered himself gingerly to the ground through a cloud of black balloons, bobbing as he tested the stability of the floor with his tiptoes; a fish (a man with a fish mask on his head) arduously pulled a small red door along the ground before flopping and flailing—yes, like a fish; a woman with red arms and legs tiptoe-shuffled to the school of balloons, popping every last one in her attempt to clutch them; a man in an orange jumpsuit squeezed himself out of the small door, sliding and contorting his body around and through the doorframe, limbs collapsing, betraying his control. These opening images were so fresh, so whimsical, so outside of my expectations. As the characters’ interactions became more and more convoluted, however, the dancers spent a long time—too long, I thought—with the sort of acrobatic pranks Pilobolus is known for. In this context, the movement felt disappointingly familiar. The dance wound down, back to a starker, more darkly funny end: with the two men and the woman piled in the small doorway, the fish triumphed, strutting back and forth, pelvis pitched far forward. He circled the line the first man dropped in on, finally grabbing it—caught, after all that? But no, the fish was not reeled in, but dangled, and seemed to smile. Perhaps that, after all, was the punch line.

“Rushes” began with almost circus-y, oompah-pah music that boomed out before the curtain opened. When the curtain rose to a dim stage and a circle of white chairs with grim, hunched figures, what followed was quite a bizarre carnival indeed. The setting looked like The Waiting Room from Hell—a train station, perhaps, where no one ever leaves and time ceases to have meaning. What else is there to do but rearrange the chairs, dream, and tell a few jokes now and then? As depressing as it sounds, the work was riveting, somehow both fantastical and touchingly human. Three of the men were the clowns, showing off, swinging from each other’s arms, clamoring up one another like tree trunks to turn on a bare light bulb suspended from above. Another man carried a suitcase, full of dreams, tonics, wonders, perhaps—when he opened the suitcase, the others were drawn forward, magnetically, until all their heads were sucked inside. In a Busby Berkley-style scene, the dancers maneuvered chairs into pinwheels, circles, diagonals, even a rising and falling carousel.

The two women were a mysterious pair; at first, they shifted surreptitiously around the circle, rearranging the chairs. Later, one was swept away by the clowns, skating and sliding across the floor. Beautiful and graceful, she was also completely passive, letting herself be pulled around as the men steered her arms or reached between her legs to pull her backwards. The other woman clutched the man with the suitcase desperately, pulled herself laboriously up to his shoulders. Like a tightrope walker, he stepped gingerly along a continuous train of chairs, as the three stooges slid them from the back of the line to the front in a lightning-fast relay. Finally, the man stopped walking and the woman on his shoulders reached one tentative hand upward and turned out the light.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

More reviews

Paul Taylor Dance Company performed at ADF July 16-18. Read my review here.


my last "official" review of the summer: Past/Forward concert at ADF July 20-22. Works by Faye Driscoll, Laura Dean, and Rosie Herrera. Read it here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Doug Elkins

Doug Elkins and Friends performed Fraulein Maria at ADF this week.  Read my review of this re-imagining of The Sound of Music here.

More posts on this blog coming soon...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet performed at ADF July 2-4. The company presented four works: Sue's Leg (Twyla Tharp), Night (Laura Dean), Slingerland (William Forsythe), and Red Sweet (Jorma Elo). Read my review here.

H. Art Chaos

H. Art Chaos, an all-female company from Japan, performed at ADF June 29, 30, and July 1. Read my review here.

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet performed at ADF June 25-27. The repertory company presented "Decadance," by choreographer Ohad Naharin. The work is a collage of short sections of 10 of Naharin's previous dances from the last two decades. I distilled the dance even further, into ten images from the collage.

1. A line of frozen manikins, backlit. A sudden explosion, arms and legs violently flung, swung, her back contorting. She is still. The line pounds, shakes the air with fists raised. They are still.

2. He parries, thrusts forward one more time. This time, caught. Violent with love, he slams his head against her chest.

3. The first one ducks his head, dips his fingers inside the bucket, smears two muddy trails down his cheeks, his chest, his thighs. I dare you, his glance says, as he passes the bucket down the line.

4. She struts to center stage, flaunts her feathers, her hips. Her wide lips spread, encircle the booming male voice.

5. A line of women in suits, lit eerily from below. The male voice croons, swoons, as the women clutch their throats.

6. Holding onto their hats, dancers circle in their suits, corralling their partners—drawn from the audience—into the center of the stage. Bewildered, excited, at ease, uncertain, spotlight-grabbing, tickled, they mill and bounce, watching the circle for a cue.

7. Ignore Beethoven, the spider—pounce—the damnation of Faust --hands wave wildly above head, lunge, fingers splayed and reaching over head—Just make it, babe.—circle to a new spot, begin again. Again. Again. Make it.

8. White chests flash open as the explosion ripples around the circle, thrusting them from the chairs. An army. A country gripped by inevitable repetition, violence, unity. Jumping to their feet as one, they offer their voices.

9. Hip bounce, finger point, cheesy grin, fixed stare.

10. Loose, carefree skips, a breaking away from the flock, a turning away from our gaze, a pulling towards the inner joy.

Emanuel Gat Dance

Emanuel Gat Dance performed at ADF June 22-24. Read my review of the powerful evening-length duet, "Winter Variations," here.

Shen Wei Dance Arts (#2)

This is the third section of the Re- dance.

Shen Wei’s Re-(Part III) opens powerfully, as an army of dancers dressed in green marches forwards and backwards with a swinging gait. With no set, and no wings to cover the side lights, this cohesive, unified group emerges as the central focus. Duets break from the marching lines to push into and against each other, teetering at the edge of balance. The dancers press farther—fighting? supporting?—until collapse is inevitable. Both dancers are needed to create and sustain these human bridges, and still they fall—a rather pessimistic image to begin the newest section of Shen Wei’s acclaimed Re-series. Subtitled “The New Silk Road,” Re-(Part III) is inspired by Mr. Shen’s travels between Beijing, China, and New York City—a vision of Eastern and Western culture.

With that perspective in mind, I find it difficult not to attribute characteristics and values associated with each culture to the two main sections of this work. In the opening of the dance, I see both the dependence on others and the mandated unity associated with Chinese culture. As Re-(Part III) continues, the armies of dancers return, dividing into two groups marching in opposition, passing through and around each other. The dancer in the middle of each group begins to stray from the measured rhythm, scrambling, rejecting the lock step of the rest of the pod. All the while, however, the dancer remains with the group, switching directions in time with the rest. The music becomes more repetitive, even threatening, as the marchers begin to spin, fold into each other and apart, like the motion of the sea, the tide—inevitably turning, engulfing. A desperate duet begins, trapped in the midst of a group at the back of the stage. Maintaining the back and forth motion of the surrounding dancers, a man catches and lifts a woman, swinging her through the group. They seem to be searching for a way out, but cannot break free of the motion, the influence of the others. These dancers are breaking out of the mold, yet staying just inside the lines.

What is Mr. Shen suggesting here? Is this a cynical view of the collective mentality of China, the one-for-all focus of Communist culture/politics? What does it mean that the non-conforming dancers always fit themselves back into the unified group, even as others take their place in resisting? What of the collapsing bridges at the beginning? Is this way of life confining, unsustainable? Unreliable and yet unyieldingly inevitable?

After a slow, reaching, searching solo—a transitional moment—the company returns, this time in short shorts, tank tops, and long socks. To loud music with an overwhelming pulse, the almost punk-ish dancers (Americans, this time?) gyrate, hop, spin, and collapse. Each dancer is in his or her own space, own world. Halfway through, I notice that all their eyes are closed, which adds an intriguing layer of blindness to their individuality. Blind to each other, to others’ movements and condition, each dancer is gradually consumed in a cycle of spinning and collapsing. Then, however, in the most hopeful note of the entire dance, the dancers reach out for each other, find partners and then larger groups. Still sightless, the dancers grope their way into odd, creative balances and supports, until finally, the whole group is connected. At the end, even the die-hard individuals have created cohesion—if non-traditional—among the group.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Shen Wei Dance Arts (#1)

Shen Wei Dance Arts performed at ADF June 18-20. The company presented all three parts of the Re- series--three dances inspired by the choreographer's travels. I've written about each dance; here's section 1.

Re- (Part I)

The stage lights fade up slowly, a sky of clouds and light on the backdrop, a mandala onstage composed of shards of colored paper. The bits of paper do not seem sharp, however, but soft, delicate—petals, perhaps, or drops of water.

The eight dancers enter the world of the dance, moving mostly in unison or in small groups, shuffling with soft knees across the stage. Their feet disrupt small puffs of paper, like silt on an ocean floor. The dancers move, too, as if through water; slow and smooth, they stretch and flow, spiral and reach. The movement has a strong circularity—familiar from Shen Wei’s other work and other contemporary choreographers—but the motions are exaggerated, pushed beyond a “normal” sense of rotation and balance. The dancers’ joints have a spongy quality, a sinking and rebounding that borders on collapse. At any point, it seems, the joints could just give way, but they spring back.

Re- (Part I), inspired by the choreographer’s travels in Tibet, has a meditative, Eastern aesthetic. With a low center of gravity and a sense of suspension, the movement resembles tai chi and other martial arts forms. Graceful and placid, the dancers show no emotion in their faces, or really, in their bodies; they seem as composed as Tibetan monks. Both men and women wear the same costumes and perform the same roles—there is no contact, no partnering in this dance. All in this world are equal, all part of the group.

The mandala is blurred, scrambled, as the dance continues. The paper marks the dancers’ bodies where they’ve made contact with the floor, sticking to knees, hips, the outside of an arm, before raining off as their movement continues. Although the precision of the mandala—often a symbolic representation of the cosmos—is disrupted by the movement, the dancers maintain a sense of order, alternating between dancing in the middle and anchoring the stage at all four corners. And, too, they seem to exude a quiet joy at the colorful disorder, the elements mixing into a glorious confetti.

The dance has a wonderful feeling of timelessness. The energy and flow of the work is constant, almost inevitable, as if it could—and will—continue forever under this subtly changing sky. The dance ends with a surge of the dancers into the center of the stage, the center of the mandala, and then out again. The dancers sink into a crouch, but this seems a temporary pause in the momentum of this world; surely the dance continues its steady, calm progression as soon as the curtain comes down.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Why a blog?

I've been talking to many of you recently about the dance writing I'm doing this summer.  Some of my writing--my "official" reviews of ADF performances--is published online at  But what about the other things I'm working on?  I'd like to share them, too.  At the risk of just putting these out into a void, I thought I'd put them in a central place for people to take a look at when they want.  I hope this will be a site I continue to update after the summer ends--it's my goal to keep writing (non-academically) about dance even during the semesters.  So check back often.
Here's a brief background on what I'm doing this summer: I've gotten a summer research grant from my university to attend the dance performances at the American Dance Festival in Durham, NC, and write about them.  In addition to writing reviews of the shows, I am also practicing writing about live dance in a variety of other ways, including essays and creative, poetic works.  I'm doing a lot of reading, too, about dance criticism, the role of the critic, the role of dance writing in the life of a dance work.  Officially published or not, my writing about these shows enters the world of artifacts surrounding each dance work--video, rehearsal recordings, conversations among theater-goers, reviews, scholarly essays, choreographic notes by the choreographer--that contribute to the accumulated meaning(s) of the dance work.
So.  That's what I'm up to.