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Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia 2019

Four choreographers display the current state of the choreographic arts in Asia in Japan Society's 2019 festival.

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Sungeun Lim, Kyunggu Lee, Yeonju Lee and Hyun Min Ahn (clockwise from top left) in a scene from Jinho and Kyungmin Ji’s “Kids,” presented as part of Japan Society’s Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia 2019 (Photo credit: Julie Lemberger)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Although I am not an expert on Asian performing arts, I have attended many performances by classical (Noh and Kabuki) and contemporary (Butoh) Eastern art forms, both here and in Asia.

One thing that always struck me was how the Asian sense of time is different than the West’s, usually eschewing high drama, dramatic climaxes and realistic portrayals in favor of a subtler flow, more connected to a universal spirit with fewer ups and downs.

The four choreographers whose three works were represented at the Japan Society’s Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia flung themselves headlong into the modern world of dance with only occasional glances over their shoulders at their ancestors-in-art, preferring what often appeared to be an arbitrary approach to choreography uneasily alternating between coy, fey bits of choreographic fluff and sudden primal screams.

Only the final work on this occasionally interesting, but flawed program displayed some understanding of this concept of the inexorable march of time and its effects.

Mitsutake Kasai in Akira Kasai’s  “Pollen Revolution,” presented as part of Japan Society’s Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia 2019 (Photo credit: Julie Lemberger)

“Pollen Revolution,” choreographed by Akira Kasai (Japan) and danced by Mitsutake Kasai dealt with the passage of time and its effects on the arts.  Mr. Kasai first appeared in full female Kabuki regalia, an exquisite, layered costume (designed by Naoka Uemura) in which he moved solemnly about the stage, his arms going through ritualistic positions while his feet shuffled taking him in all directions about the stage while his long sleeves made pretty patterns in the air.

After a long while two dressers entered and stripped Kasai down to his underwear, redressing him in loose black practice clothes in which he began to perform angular modern dance moves using some of the stylized Kabuki arm movements.  A second change of costume led him, now bare-chested, to quicker, hip-hop type movements.  The work ended with a downpour of shiny, silvery bits, the soundtrack by Leon Ingulsrud following each change of style.

“Pollen Revolution” literally showed how time’s passage weighs heavily on art.  Kasai indicated the evolution from ritual to formal to freeform dance.  Mitsutake Kasai danced it well, helped by Michino Ono’s appropriate lighting changes.

The emotional backbone of Kuan-Hsiang Liu’s “Kids” (Taiwan) was a series of recorded and videoed bittersweet conversations between him and his dying mother projected on the back wall of the stage.  Liu began sitting cross-legged on the stage for quite a while before addressing the audience directly asking us to turn on our cell phones and find a photo of someone we love and contemplate it.  This led directly to his tale of tending to his dying mom.

Wan-Lun Yu and Kuan-Hsiang Liu in Kuan-Hsiang Liu’s “Kids,” presented as part of Japan Society’s Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia 2019 (Photo credit: Julie Lemberger)

In telling his story Liu, holding a single spotlight (moody lighting designed by Ke-Chu Lai), was joined by two young women, Wan-Lun Yu and Yu-Yuan Huang dressed in gray practice outfits (costumes not credited) with whom he performed a series of duets and trios involving flopping to the ground, turns in deep crouches and a segment in which Liu shined the light on his two cohorts casting tall shadows.  What these bits had to do with the story of his mom is a mystery to me.  In another sequence one of the two women lay crotch to the audience, her legs spread out while Liu manipulated her in odd ways.

“Kids” ended with a series of flips into somersaults and flailing about, possibly expressing Liu’s sadness and frustration.

The third work was “Silver Knife,” (Korea) choreographed by Jinho Lim and Kyungmin  Ji, members of a cooperative art group called the Goblin Party dedicated to using wit and humor to express their ideas.  Indeed, “Silver Knife” took Sungeun Lim, Kyunggu Lee, Hyun Min Ahn and Yeonju Lee (all Goblin Party members)—dressed in casual street wear—through a series of confrontations with a stack of dark boxes that looked more like children having fun in a playground than adults performing a serious dance.

Three of the dancers appeared to gang up on the fourth as the boxes were moved, stacked, knocked down, used as hiding places and as tiny mountains to conquer.

I’m not sure what the title “Silver Knife” means, unless it has significance in Korea, but the rambling bits of childish interplay didn’t add up to much of substance.  Remi Klemensiewicz’s music provided an ever-changing aural ambiance while Seungho Lee’s lighting tried hard to give “Silver Knife” more substance than it had.

Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia 2019 (January 4-5, 2019)

Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-715-1220 or visit http://www.japansociety.org

Running time: two hours including one intermission

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Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (349 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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