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17th Contemporary Dance Showcase: Japan + East Asia

A disappointing display of the state of contemporary Asian choreography.

Akiko Kitamura in a scene from “TransSenses” (Photo credit: Julie Lemberger)

Akiko Kitamura in a scene from “TransSenses” (Photo credit: Julie Lemberger)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

It’s amazing that the Far East, an area of the world that is on the cutting edge of technology, is so behind the times in its choreography, if the 17th Contemporary Dance Showcase: Japan + Asia is any indication.   The five works presented on the stage of the elegant Japan Society’s auditorium needed cutting and major rethinking.

Self-indulgence was the main predicament of the five new works—all New York premieres—with the choreography veering haplessly between the overly cute and tortured, with no apparent sense of pacing, construction or organizing themes.  In addition, the actual dance technique of several of the performers was sub-par.

“TransSenses,” choreographed by Akiko Kitamura with the assistance of Navid Navab, used cloudy projections and a low-buzz, noisy score to accompany Ms. Kitamura’s movements which began with her sitting in the lotus position, her torso rotating.  She skillfully brought the movements to a standing position, but then went on for nearly twenty minutes of non-connected movements, involving soft, reaching gestures of the hands and more core rotations.  Any sense of drama dissipated as the work went on and on.  Unremitting dreariness becomes boring especially when the reason for the sadness isn’t explicit. Was Ms. Kitamura aiming for an homage to Butoh?  Hard to tell.  Her simple costume of a white shirt and black pants, credited to Tomoko Inamura, wasn’t at all revelatory.

Yi-Wei Tien and Chen-Chih Liao in a scene from “Tschűss!! Bunny”(Photo credit: Julie Lemberger)

Yi-Wei Tien and Chen-Chih Liao in a scene from “Tschűss!! Bunny” (Photo credit: Julie Lemberger)

“Tschűss!! Bunny,” a product of the Yen-Cheng Liu/In Theatre Company, choreographed by Mr. Liu, was a coy, saccharine cartoon that veered into surrealism, culminating in an unexpected nude scene.  The dancers, Yi-Wei Tien and Chen-Chih Liao, dressed like fancy dolls—costumes by Hikky Chen—rolled out a narrow strip of Astroturf to the absurdly unlikely tune of “El Pueblo Unido,” a Latin-American anthem.  This musical accompaniment was succeeded by songs by Billie Holiday and Django Reinhardt.

They played around cutely, rolling themselves up in the Astroturf and repositioning it, eventually going their separate ways. Ms. Tien wandered about in a solo while Mr. Liao, for some ungodly reason, doused himself in a white powder while standing in dim light.  This led to Ms. Tien wiping him down and then to the above-mentioned stripping.  Even the nudity wasn’t really nudity as their genitals were covered in sticky tape which was painfully removed. Although the two were lovely to look at, the overall childishness of the work and its arbitrary division into disconnected sections reeked of self-indulgence.

San-Man Pyo and Heung-Ryeol Jun in a scene from “Jimmy & Jack”(Photo credit: Julie Lemberger)

San-Man Pyo and Heung-Ryeol Jun in a scene from “Jimmy & Jack” (Photo credit: Julie Lemberger)

“Jimmy & Jack” was choreographed by Heung-Ryeol Jun and Sang-Man Pyo of JJbro (Korea) and performed to an archly profane narration delivered in broken English by Eunhye Jung.  Dressed in t-shirts and grey long-johns and wearing silly pageboy style wigs, the two slithered about the stage in movements and confrontations that strongly suggested a sexual connection between the two.  As one of the dancers lowered his underwear to mime defecation, the narrator began shouting a one-word reprimand over and over: “Shit!”  When the men took off their wigs, they began to act more human but it was too late to save this naïve study of friendship.

“Hugin/Munin,” a product of Taiwan’s B.Dance was choreographed by its director, Po-Cheng Tsai to an electronic sounding score by Greg Haines.  The title refers to a Norse legend in which Hugin and Munin were ravens protecting the god Odin.

The two male dancers, Chien-Chih Chang and Sheng-Ho Chang, dressed in black, performed jittery movements as they huddled together, their faces looking fearful, then made birdlike arm gestures and pecking movements with their heads.  They pretty much stuck together throughout the twelve-minute work—the shortest and best choreographed of the evening and the only one to establish a relationship solely through movement.  They rolled about and jumped up suddenly eventually tossing a sheet of transparent plastic around, ending the work by cocooning themselves in it. The two men moved well together.

Un Yamada and Lion Kawai in a scene from “Le Noces” (Photo credit: Julie Lemberger)

Un Yamada and Lion Kawai in a scene from “Le Noces” (Photo credit: Julie Lemberger)

“Les Noces (The Wedding),” to the famous Stravinsky score displayed the best dancing of the evening, but it, too, suffered from the inability of the choreographer, Un Yamada (who was joined in the piece by Llon Kawai) to find an interesting way to keep dramatic tension going in this terribly long work.  (Remember, the original choreographer, Bronislava Nijinska, had a large corps de ballet and multiple soloists at her disposal and created a masterpiece, yet to be surpassed—even by Jerome Robbins.)

Dressed in pink period style outfits designed by Yuko Ikeda (aka Luna Luz), the couple seemed to be quarreling and parrying with each other continuously, rarely separating.  However, fighting doesn’t fill up more than fifteen minutes of well-known music and the drama dissipated, despite being intensely well performed.  When using a piece of music associated with two masterful ballets, there’s always a danger of being compared to those previous works and Ms. Yamada’s “Les Noces” doesn’t come close to equaling the powerful emotions of the originals.

All the choreographers displayed over-intellectualization and overuse of gimmicks, avoiding dealing directly and honestly with their subjects.  Homosexuality raised its head in two of the works but was handled superficially.  Perhaps, there’s an “Asian sensibility” that eluded me, but the vocabulary used was decidedly Western and has to be assessed in those terms.

The concert came across more like the end of the year exhibition of a college dance department than a professional display of cutting edge artistry.

17th Contemporary Dance Showcase: Japan + East Asia (January 6 & 7, 2017)

The Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-715-1258 or visit http://www.japansociety.org

Running time:  two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (229 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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