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IMPRESSIONS: Japan Society Presents Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia

IMPRESSIONS: Japan Society Presents Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia
Catherine Tharin

By Catherine Tharin
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Published on February 16, 2022
"Complement" by Choi x Kang Project; photo by Maria Baranova

January 14, 2021

Presenter: Japan Society

Curator: Yoko Shioya
More info:

Like the majority of art festivals today, the Japan Society’s 19th Contemporary Dance Festival embraced a multidimensional approach: the four North American premieres ranged from FreeSteps, a pre-show live performance in the lobby to A HUM SAN SUI on film, but not forgetting two in-person performances entitled Complement and Touchdown in the theater.

At a time when travel is complicated, expensive, and truncated, this voyage through Japan, Korea, and Taiwan felt like a golden ticket to thought-provoking dances from Asia.

Kentaro Kujirai and Barabbas Okuyama in prerecorded video of  "A HUM SAN SUI" shown at at Japan Society's Contemporary Dance Festival 2022; photo by Maria Baranova

An elongated figure in black, a curtain of light from a flashlight, tousled black hair, and striking chiseled features on a white face greets the viewer. This opening apparition is replaced by broad shoulders and extended arms on a naked torso. Soon, a pale head fills the screen.

Butoh, the Japanese movement genre developed in the 1950s, a result of hardships experienced during WWII, typically portrays extreme emotion. The film format for A HUM SAN SUI diminished some qualities integral to a Butoh performance. On the other hand, having an ever-roving lens heightened certain choreographic aspects. On camera, facial expressions of pain, outrage, surprise, and humiliation are easily legible, as are black-clad Kentaro Kujirai and white-skirted Barabbas Okuyama's figure-8 movements. The Japanese artists had intended on dancing live at the Japan Society, but instead filmed their duet in a small black box theater in Japan, no doubt due to Covid constraints.

A HUM SAN SUI embodies Eastern thought: the wrathful deities of Buddhism (thus the fierce faces), the polemic of yin (femininity and darkness portrayed by Kujirai) and yang (masculinity and light as characterized by Okuyama), and the eponymous qualities of “a hum san sui” or “mountain and water.” Sudden stops and starts, highs and lows, acceleration versus sustained movement—this work is marked by opposites. Flowing locomotion, representing “water” or “yin”, fills the space while steady postures with one’s feet held wide and linked arms suggest “mountain” or “yang”. 

Throughout, flute music, dripping water, screeching, drumming, and the pitter-patter and shuffling of the dancers’ own feet effectively illustrate restlessness. These agitated spirits take on the world’s anxieties and, for the good of humankind, battle our demons in a tunneled continuum where they remain for eternity.

Minsun Choi and Jinan Kang in "Complement" at Japan Society's Contemporary Dance Festival 2022; photo by Maria Baranova

Playful sexuality and innocent insouciance define Complement, a dance of twos and double entendres. Choreographed by Korean husband-and-wife dancers, Minsun Choi and Jinan Kang (Choi x Kang Project), Complement unfolds live but is also projected on two monitors that frame center stage. The work is a commentary on the ways that technology drives dependence (checking our screens for verification) and self-scrutiny (being hyper-aware of our conduct). We constantly monitor the monitor.

Choi’s signature, mechanical movement, the swinging of arms on either side of the body with hips thrust forward and backward in opposition was a popular dance of the 1960s that saw a resurgence on Tik Tok, an influential dance site. Like all arts, the past influences the present—what goes around comes around.

Meanwhile, the left and right monitors respectively project previously recorded variations of the center stage action and live choreography by videographer Taegyeong Kim—the last of these is juddering in quality, as if to say that technology has its flaws. Clocks tick, pipes clang, and Converse sneakers squeak as part of the sound score. 

Clever non sequiturs break any patterns of predictability, such as when Choi pulls Kang’s blue pants down to his ankles and creates the outline of a matching blue fish on his bare skin. She then dots his knee with red to form a fish’s eye. 

In another instance, four performers wage a heated match of ‘hand ping pong’, except the game is cooperative, coordinated, extremely fast (even for ping pong), and veers on the edge of brinksmanship. The red ball is bounced so hard that it produces piston-like sounds. Dozens of other red balls drop onto the stage and Dada-esque moments abound. At the end, it’s back to Choi’s mechanical movement refrain as if to say we can always rely on technology over the unpredictability of flesh and blood.

Hao Cheng in "Touchdown" at Japan Society's Contemporary Dance Festival 2022; photo by Maria Baranova

Touchdown by Taiwanese scientist-dancer Hao Cheng opens with more projections, this time the atomic theory proposed by Danish physicist Niels Bohr in 1913. Although the projections whiz by too quickly for most to decipher the information, those who paid attention in physics class may recall that electrons orbit a nucleus held in place by electrostatic forces. To illustrate this idea, Cheng dives onto a large, rectangular chalkboard floor strewn with sticks of colorful chalk, which scatter as he slithers, hops, rolls and throws himself about. Tired, his limp hands lose their ability to grasp the chalk, a euphemism for unsolved theory. But a breakthrough comes, and the scientist-dancer picks up a piece of chalk to begin writing theory.

Clouds of chalk dust billow as he frantically works out this theory. His dark garb absorbs the dusty chalk as he repetitively draws concentric circles. Once again bringing himself to the brink of exhaustion, he collapses and has only enough energy to slowly position pieces of chalk on the atomic map, so that they resemble planets circling the sun.

Prerecorded questions make up the auditory backdrop. “How can you know everything and nothing?" "The only uncertainty is the uncertainty of all things." The spoken text is nearly impossible to decipher given the din of strident sounds. Cheng lifts his chalk again, not to write or draw, but to tap out a code of responses.

The final image is a lasting one that relates to nature—the only relief in this dynamically monotone dance. In a magical moment, lights representing fireflies calmly and satisfyingly dart above a blackened stage. Bohr’s nostalgic memory of observing fireflies with his family contributes to unlocking his scientific theory. Even with something of a satisfying ending, Cheng’s robust scientific knowledge fails to form a fully realized dance.

NiNi in "FreeSteps" at Japan Society's Contemporary Dance Festival 2022; photo by Maria Baranova

A palate cleanser of a performance, FreeSteps by Taiwanese choreographer Wei-Chia Su was staged in a different part of Japan Society. On any other day, the lobby is just, well, a lobby. Tonight however, violet-blue light floods the space which has been outfitted with a stage. A white spotlight follows the minutiae of NiNi’s movement.

Like an underwater plant, she sinuously revolves around herself as if gently buffeted by a current. NiNi's ochre T-shirt, hunter green calf-length pants and socks and long black hair emphasize this image. With soft knees and a serpentine spine, she is a study in fluid mobility. Her beautifully lengthened body flexibly stretches to the edge of her reach.

Bells clang softly while an eerie undertone of a quickened pulse marks time. With her hands on her hips, NiNi rocks her pelvis from side to side and thrusts forwards and backwards while sinking into her thigh sockets. Here, she resembles a windblown boat tossed hither and thither on a rolling sea. 

The familiar sound of piano keys builds but as the dancer lifts her serene face to the ceiling, the black and ivory slowly fall silent. This nuanced dance, one of sensitivity and contemplative motivation, offers the evening's most memorable experience.

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