Fire in the theater


“There is a huge crises going on. There are children who are being hurt by it. And no one knows about it, it feels like it’s being kept out of sight. People always tell me, ‘Oh, but I hear there is so much fraud’, but they don’t hear that children are being hurt, that families are being kept apart. It drives me crazy. So it’s this thing that’s been pushed underground, but it’s a fire.”

This is how Donna Uchizono began explaining the title of her work Fire Underground, a duet between Uchizono and the remarkable Rebecca Serrell Cyr, premiering next week (December 4-7) at New York Live Arts. The issue of international adoption is not an abstract one for Uchizono, but an actual experience she went through—Uchizono brought her adopted daughter home from Nepal in May of 2011, after a several-year long process which at several points seemed as though it had fallen through. She was one of 56 families that were referred to as the “Nepal Pipeline”, families that were required to undergo an extended process, involving expensive investigation, in proving that the children they wished to adopt had in fact been abandoned by their birthparents.

While Uchizono makes clear that Fire Underground is directly in response to a particular experience, a specific real-world situation that has a strong political inflection, she is generally not an especially “narrative” nor “political” choreographer. Her work often manifests in highly focused, abstract compositions; though a clear emotional thread is also always present, fused with the abstraction in the form of the work. A unique movement vocabulary is developed for each piece, sometimes complex and sometimes subtle, depending on the needs of the piece. Though her work displays a dramatic sophistication with respect to movement invention, she is clear in noting that movement is always in service of the piece as a whole, “I don’t make movement for movement’s sake. I feel that I make movement because that’s what the dance tells me I should make.”

Which is to say, Fire Underground is not strictly speaking “about” international adoption—a complex, gray issue to say the least. “I don’t know that when people see it they will think it’s about ‘international adoption’. Of course, many people who see it will know me and so will know that’s what I’m referencing. But my initial ideas always serve as points of departure. It’s never something that I hang over the process for so long that it doesn’t give me any room to develop and respond to what is happening in the work.” The elements of her personal experience that served as motivation for the work have since been abstracted to a more generalizable state of emotion, “This piece is about the wait, the pain. The endless, endless days of waiting. Endless red tape. Endless bureaucracy.” Many of the words she uses when describing the adoption experience highlight the intensity of it: “harrowing”, “crisis”, “endless”. This intensity manifests in Fire Underground in a severe formality, Uchizono suggesting that the work could be considered “minimal”, though she backtracks: “Joe Levasseur [the lighting designer] says I shouldn’t use that word, that what I’m doing in this work is not ‘minimal’. It’s repetitive, it’s definitely durational, but maybe not minimal.”

Fire Underground

Photo by Michael Grimaldi

As she notes, this experience, for her, is now passed, resolved, since she was able to bring her daughter home. But the issue remains relevant, “I’ve had a ‘happy ending’, my crisis is over. But there are many people who are still in the midst of this, who can’t bring their kids home.” Moreover, Fire Underground has a direct connection with Uchizono’s previous work, longing two (2010). Though it was not explicitly linked, the work was in creation when Uchizono was in the midst of the adoption process; she was told in February of 2010 (longing two premiered in early June) that the adoption was not going to go through, and that there was nothing further she could do. That work presented a number of oppositions—proximity and distance, round and straight, youth and maturity—that acted as energized poles, drawing attention to the space between—separation, and I would say the desire created by this separation—rather than the poles themselves. In retrospect, it seems clear that longing two was also a manifestation of Uchizono’s adoption ordeal, and she reflects that the two works indeed spring from a related place, “I think that I had to make longing two in order to make Fire Underground; this is probably the piece I was trying to make when I made longing two. They are connected. I’m finishing the thought that I started there, and the thought is much clearer now. My parameters are much clearer now. I know where I am amidst the shaky ground.”

I reflect that there was also a water theme in longing two, and that this is an interesting contrast with the “fire” that seems to be a theme in the new work. This brings up another aspect of the title, the use of a type of literal fire-dancing, “The initial idea, of the crisis that has been pushed underground, has since become much more abstract, and we’re playing with it a lot more. I started to take classes in this type of dance, Maori fire poi ball dancing. What’s funny is that this is an underground dance community—a kind of dance that’s even more underground than downtown dance—because when they perform it can’t be officially announced, no one can know, because of the fire hazard. So performances are always on someone’s rooftop, or a warehouse or something like that. So I liked that there was this bigger, political idea about this fire that has been pushed underground, and then we are also using this kind of underground fire-dancing.”

In the performances this week, Fire Underground will be preceded by a revival of State of Heads (1999), as well as another surprise performance featuring special guest artists each night (not to be missed!). Each of these in turn will present markedly different moments of Uchizono’s career; but what is perhaps most exciting is simply the opportunity to continue to follow a mature artist in her explorations, to engage with the challenges she presents through her work. And it doesn’t hurt when she is confident in the work going into it, “I’m feeling good about this piece, and I don’t always feel good beforehand. We have to finish it though….” A bit of dramatic tension doesn’t hurt either.

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