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H.T. Chen & Dancers: “South of Gold Mountain”

A fascinating and moving illumination of a forgotten corner of American history.

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H.T. Chen & Dancers in a scene from “South of Gold Mountain” (Photo credit: Joe Boniello)

H.T. Chen & Dancers in a scene from “South of Gold Mountain” (Photo credit: Joe Boniello)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

South of Gold Mountain, the latest dance work from the iconic Chinatown-based H.T. Chen & Dancers, is a warmhearted, historically-based piece that illuminated the experiences of the hardy Chinese immigrants who settled in the Deep South during the nineteenth and twentieth century. (“Gold Mountain” is a reference to the Gold Rush area, and subsequently the U.S.A., which attracted immigrants of all nationalities.) It is a corner of American history barely acknowledged, let alone studied or dramatized.

The show, at New York Live Arts, was funny and heartbreaking in equal measure.  The Chinese newcomers tried, futilely, to assimilate into a segregated, hidebound society, managing to scrape out a living, farming and opening shops—laundries, groceries, restaurants—never totally accepted and never losing their ethnic identity.

Period and contemporary video images, along with occasional narrative voices, eloquently dovetailed with the choreography which was unfussy, often literal, but eloquently simple, performed to music ranging from ethnic Chinese to Lady Smith Black Mambazo to classical.

H.T. Chen and Dian Dong constructed South of Gold Mountain in ten short scenes with evocative titles. “Remembrances” and “Motherland” were a theatrical combination of historical imagery, voiceovers and quietly evocative dance/mime moves.  As the other scenes unfolded—“Obstacles,” “Fresh Sprouts,” “Porch,” “Box Dance,” “Restaurant,” “Family Laundry” and a happy “Harvest”—a clear, poignant portrait of a hard-working people emerged.

H.T. Chen & Dances in a scene from “South of Gold Mountain” (Photo credit: Joe Boniello)

H.T. Chen & Dancers in a scene from “South of Gold Mountain” (Photo credit: Joe Boniello)

The ballet treated the history with tenderness, not avoiding the inevitable ugly moments.  The overarching theme is family:  how family was the backbone of Chinese society and how the strength of this institution kept them going in face of prejudice, economic hardship and social change.

The entire family, little children included, helped wash and fold clothing in the “Family Laundry” and several generations interacted respectfully and lovingly on the “Porch.”   The dancers bent over repeatedly to tend to “Fresh Sprouts” and performed large bold movements in celebration of the “Harvest.”  Mr. Chen and Ms. Dong’s choreography was an astute combination of folk, modern, mime and ballet.

The simple set pieces by Eric Harriz and the evocative costumes of Caprice Esser helped define the period and the characters, while Joe Doran’s lighting kept the space alive with many moods.

The company, refreshingly including some older performers, acquitted themselves with stylish grace alongside several adorable and talented children.  The company:  Kelly Butterworth, Janina Clark, Gary Champi, Dian Dong, Renouard Gee, Ezra Goh, Torrey McAnena, Maki Shinagawa, Ari Someya, and Keyasha Williams-Bailey.  The kids: Nicola Hsu, Ava Luan and Alexander Luong (who is a born scene stealer!)

H.T. Chen & Dancers in South of Gold Mountain (October 15-18, 2015)

New York Live Arts, 219 West 19th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-924-0077 or visit http://www.newyorklivearts.org

For more information, visit http://www.chendancecenter.org

Running time: one hour and 10 minutes with no intermission

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Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (275 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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