Weekend Reviews: Lyndsey Karr and Beijing Dance Theater

Lyndsey Karr. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Beijing Dance Theater, Haze (BAM Next Wave Fest). Due to a scheduling conflict, I didn’t get a chance to see Wang Yuanyuan’s choreography until closing night on Saturday, and ultimately, it was a mixed bag that left me ambivalent in a somewhat similar fashion to Cloud Gate the week before. While BDT‘s production was more contemporary in terms of the visuals, it remained wedded to the traditions of Chinese classical dance, as my guest–a Shanghai-born and Chinese trained choreographer now based in New York–pointed out. Which she found disappointing if about as expected.

The work is intensely physical and lovely, albeit in a fairly predictable fashion. The company is extremely fit and accomplished (I got a disquisition on the demands facing Chinese dancers trying to enter the academies, and all I can say is damn), but the application falls along decidedly more traditional lines. Claudia La Rocco in the Times even went so far as to compare it to the activist dance of the Thirties, and she has a point. Here, the dancers move through a fog-filled space heavy on the dark atmospherics. Their movement traces personal struggle and disorientation that’s inspired by the huge challenges facing China in the recent past: ecological destruction, earthquakes, a rocky global economy, the fluidity of their technique interrupted by frequent falls on the bouncy, foam covered stage, which made them a bit too fluid for the effect.

But not only does this leave the dance feeling more than a bit literal, it also points to the limitations of Chinese contemporary dance. And hence my ambivalence. It’s a very Western idea, I think, that informs most expectations of contemporary dance that I’m reluctant to foist on a different dance culture. At its heart, contemporary work is anti-tradition and seeks its own unique expressive vocabulary. New York-based artists tend to be more conceptual, while technique-based approaches dominate elsewhere (Europe, Israel), but there’s always a tension in the work between creating new movement paradigms and tearing them down. Deconstruction of received forms is almost a generational movement in the field. In China, this hasn’t exactly happened yet (if Wang is any indication, which admittedly she may not be, though my guest was certainly of that opinion, as well).

On the other hand, compared to Cloud Gate, which revelled in East Asian kitsch for its materials, BDT was at least adventurous in terms of concept and content, which I imagine is an important step. Seeing dance as a vehicle for examining contemporary realities and experience firmly places the form in the midst of a larger cultural dialogue, and the next generation of choreographers may diverge radically from it in terms of form, even as they take advantage of the space companies like BDT carved out for them to work.

Lyndsey Karr, The One (Chocolate Factory). I had little idea what to expect from Karr’s piece going in, but I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I got. Raw, visceral, and remarkably engaging, I left thinking, “This is the kind of piece that makes kids go into live art (for better or for worse).” There was nudity, satires of female character tropes, things were removed from vaginas, cake was served. It was a big mess of ideas and images that did mostly came together in the end.

Entering the main performance space at the Chocolate Factory for the first act of the show, you found the space transformed into a big white room. The seating, two long single rows of seats facing one another, raked across the space in a diagonal line, forming an aisle in the center. At one end, a large satiny white bag sat with tulle poofing out the top and strings extending to the ceiling as though it were a puppet. Along the walls hung white plaster body casts of women, recalling George Segal’s sculptures. The piece opens slowly as Karr and collaborator Gina Kohler, nude at the outset, begin slow movement sequences behind the audience rows, so that the sightlines were obscured. Eventually the two made it to one end of the aisle, and then the performance really kicked off.

A tortured study of motherhood and love of various sorts, the centerpiece of the first act was a long, tortured crawl down the aisle, which was wonderfully expressive and a study in contrasts. Karr is a decidely skinny woman, while Kohler is more voluptuous, and the movement expressed different things on their respective bodies. As they finished this sequence, the bag rose on its wires, spilling out a collection of white-washed baby-dolls from which the duo retrieved two large rocks painted blood red. To these, the two tied golden cords and then slowly made their way back down the aisle again, unspooling the cord from their vaginas so that it stretched out like umbillical cords tying them to the burdensome, bloody rocks.

Not too much to mistake in that image.

The other acts offered different takes on female experience. Act 2, set in the basement as a sort of cabaret, with seating at small tables, turned on the wife/whore conceit. It begins with the pair appearing in matching platinum blonde wigs and nude-toned body stockings that served to obscure their individuality and turn them into objects. Needless to say, they were also in high heels and performed a sort of burlesque routine. Then made nude again, the pair donned skimpy aprons a la French maid constumes and proceeded to harriedly try to heat and serve each audience member a piece of pie.

The final image occurred in the main hallway as the audience was exiting. Inside the front the doors, the pair stood, naked, sort of bopping or dancing in place to the music while coiling and uncoiling the golden cords around their fingers. It was oddly the most enigmatic and striking image in the entire show, and never progressed beyond that. I wasn’t sure what to make of it as I left, but it certainly capped the piece.

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