JAPAN + EAST ASIA at Japan Society
Three years have passed since the last Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia, traditionally held every two years at the Japan Society. The work I saw in the 2019 edition was so exciting and innovative that another year was worth the wait, especially when so many shows and festivals were canceled in January. The dedication of artists who traveled across the world for just two performances to return to a two-week quarantine period in their home countries made the case for seeing the event all the more compelling.
As with most Japan Society programs, the evening of four separate performances (including a pre-show piece held in the lobby) from East Asia did not disappoint and was well worth braving the cold. glacial.
Those who arrived early were able to catch FreeSteps – NiNi performed by solo dancer NiNi (aka Yu-Ting Fang) floating on the island in the hall of the Japan Society. As a member of the famous Taiwanese dance companies Cloud Gate and HORSE, NiNi is currently the main dancer of Wei-Chia Su. FreeSteps series. It’s a beautiful motor car whose slow, deliberate undulations give the impression of watching five snakes (its limbs and torso) weave their way through melted caramel. NiNi is an enchanting performer who sets the tone and whets the appetite for more.
The first play performed in the main theater space was a Japanese butoh duo performing “A HUM SAN SUI”, originally conceived as a solo play. Unfortunately, due to the highly contagious nature of the Omicron variant and a medical condition that prevents one of the performers from getting vaccinated, the performers were unable to travel safely to New York. However, the opportunity provided them with a platform to create a high-quality multi-camera video performance. While nothing compares to in-person performances, seeing how the artists played with camera angles was intriguing.
Watching butoh on screen was reminiscent of some of the European influences on the Japanese dance form, such as the avant-garde films of Jean Cocteau. Performers Kentaro Kujirai and Barabbas Okuyama demonstrated many of the familiar hallmarks of butoh – grotesquely distorted faces in anguished spectral expressions, bleached skin, flowing materials and pronounced body control. But they also moved from traditionally slow movements to fast movements constrained by the music of Japanese sound artist FUJIIIIIIIIIITA.
The second stage performance was by Korean company Choi x Kang featuring choreographers/performers Minsun Choi and Jinan Kang with onstage assistance from Taegyeong Kim and Heeji Seo. During the 2019 edition of the Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia, the Korean company Goblin Party stood out for its playful side, its humor and its precise synchronicity. “Compliment” by Choi x Kang had similar elements voiced with different intentions, of course, but it made me wonder if these qualities are specific, recognizable characteristics of Korean dance today.
“Compliment” is a highly intelligent contemporary dance piece that uses technology, humor and very precise, highly synchronized simple choreography to offer commentary on monotony, repetition, change, relationships and caring.
The stage is set up with flat screen televisions behind two dancers, Choi and Kang, posed in front of them with Taegyeong Kim seated on the floor recording the performers with a camera and her back to the audience. The distinctive ticking of a metronome initiates the monotonous, repetitive and pedestrian movements of the performers. Both of their faces have a serious but blank expression, but Choi’s is so impassive that his very firm face makes the audience laugh. The same goes for Kang’s thrusting movements and gestures, which can sometimes feel vaguely sexual. At first glance, “Compliment” sounds like a commentary on a bored couple going through the motions of monogamy turning into monotony.
But as the play progresses, viewers realize that things are not what they seem; perfectly synchronized movements on TV screens do not match the movements of live performers. It’s subtle at first, then it becomes drastically different and eventually involves interruptions to Kim’s camerawork and Heeji Seo, who appears with random props. All the while, the metronome continues to inform movement and various speeds and intensities. Something about the subtle differences in the same gestures turning into another action is entirely reminiscent of how stories change over time and gossip spreads.
The final performance of the 2022 Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia titled “Touchdown” was the most moving and emotional. Taiwanese artist Hao Cheng has a double degree in mathematics and dance choreography. Her company Incandescence Dance creates works that explore the poetry of movement with scientific and mathematical thought. The aim is to combine two seemingly different practices and cultures and make them more accessible and inspire curiosity.
Cheng’s powerful solo work combines his knowledge of mathematics and the laws of physics with his powerful expressive force to tell a deeply personal and emotional story through the journey of an electron. Art and science connect when physics becomes physicality.
“Touchdown” is deep with a metaphor and a double meaning. After a text that briefly introduces several key points and dates that have shaped the laws of physics and the understanding of electrons, Cheng begins by sinking into a green area of the stage surrounded by small white objects a few centimeters high. (We later find out that it is chalk and the floor is a blackboard). It contorts its limbs as if glued to the ground, each movement requiring a gargantuan effort. Lethargy and extreme difficulty finding any motivation suggests depression.
In the process of discovery and frustration, Cheng creates his own world with the chalk and becomes the center (core) of several ringed circles of an atom that he draws around him. But the mysteries of the electron still elude him, and judgments are voiced in several anxious voiceovers heard from above announcing that “electrons move in reckless, unpredictable motions.” Cheng moves furiously, infuriating, “Why the hell can’t we figure out how electrons move?”
In time, Cheng’s utter frustration gives way to peaceful acceptance, embracing the electron nature of “no set path” and arriving at the Zen realization that “the only certainty is the uncertainty of all things”. With this understanding, Cheng’s physicality and environment transform. The transformation is reflected in the fluidity and grace of movement and softer sound and lighting (sound design by Chao-En Cheng and lighting by Ke-Chu Lai). His jerky gestures relax in a bewitching and moving meditation. Cheng embraces resilience and peace by letting go of control and accepting the unpredictable nature of life and electrons. It’s a beautifully executed metaphor for a timeless truth that couldn’t seem more urgent as we begin 2022.
Now that we are in the third year of the pandemic, it is clear that constant change is inevitable, flexibility is essential and uncertainty persists and will persist, especially for artists. But despite the challenges that have always existed in the presentation of international works and which have increased exponentially since 2020, we must continue and take risks to present global artists and foster meaningful cultural exchanges. Kudos to the producers, presenters and performers who are ready to continue this vital work through thick and thin and keep New York City at the heart of peak performances around the world.