Three Asian choreographers in MOVEMENT: Performance Platform

Livestream from Asia Society, New York City
May 25, 2022

New York City’s Asia Society aims to share and help understanding of Asian culture. An important aspect of that is placing creative expression to extend people’s comprehensive awareness and appreciation of it. That creativity might experimental, contemporary or traditional. All were visible in this triple-bill of very different works.

Behind the programme, and in the wake of heightened anti-Asian sentiment and increasing intolerance, polarisation and violence generally, the Asia Society wondered, what might the embodied experience of dance offer? The programme certainly showed the directions in which some artists are moving, even if it didn’t really answer its own question: what might we dance toward?

Commissioned by Asia Society Museum, Ember by Yin Yue (乐音/樂音) showcases her signature FoCo Technique, which combines elements from contemporary dance with Chinese classical and folk dance.

The work is built around meetings and connections between the four dancers: Grace Whitworth, Nat Wilson, Kristalyn Gill and the choreographer herself. Sometimes one drops out, occasionally their movement diverges, and one section has them work as ‘2-plus-2’, but there is almost always unison in play.

Dressed in rehearsal gear, the dancers keep to a sort of fluid diamond shape that seems to fold in on itself and reform as they constantly shift around the stage; and they do eat the space. The sheer volume of movement and its clarity, and the amount of rise and fall, is striking. None of the four performers dominate in choreography that is completely gender-free.

Ember by Yin Yue in rehearsal
Photo Paul B Goode

The Chinese folk influence is especially apparent in the opening section, danced to Chinese-style music by Guo Gan (果敢). It does come with a decidedly modern edge, though, the grace and flow interrupted by shaper-edged and more dynamic moments that provide accents.

Changes in music bring new tones to the dance, although the essential elements of the work remain unchanged. When the music shifts to Montreal collective ‘set fire to flames’, the work takes on a somewhat darker, almost ominous feel. The dancers suddenly seem mostly more grounded, as if there’s a weight pushing down on them.

Another section that has the quartet move in a circle to a repeated drum beat suggests abstracted folk dance. That folk feeling is ramped up even more at the start of the final section to music by Yat-Kha from Tuva, and their organic fusion of musical traditions of the Russian republic of Tuva with rock led by the wonderfully gravelly voice of leader Albert Kuvezin.

There is no narrative as such although some of the more gestural moments do suggest there is specific meaning, or at least specific inspiration, buried in there somewhere. At times it does feel emotion-free but, even watching 3,000 miles away online, occasionally Ember did start to make me feel.

Ember is full of detail with always something to watch, and with the occasional unexpected moment. It’s also one of those rare pieces that does feel like it might be extended successfully, both in length and dancer numbers. Online, and Yin Yue has acknowledged this, it was just unfortunate that it ran up against that familiar livestream issue of being lit fine for the theatre but way too darkly for streaming. Lighting for film is very different to lighting for the live stage.

The performance opened with another chance to catch Barkha Patel’s Bound, a sometimes emotive solo inspired by the poetry and life of fourteenth-century Kashmiri poetess Lal Ded, who was forced to leave her home and marriage after being accused (falsely) of adultery by her mother-in-law. Danced to music: Rushi Vakil, Patel’s contemporary extension of Kathak is effective at revealing emotions, although the extra depth they are given by Nathan Krauss’ backing film helps a lot.

eddy kwon in UMMA-YA
Still from streaming

The final piece of the show was the interdisciplinary solo UMMA-YA by composer, violinist, jazz musician, and improviser eddy kwon (who prefers her name written entirely in lower case), which draws on Korean folk, traditional, Japanese Butoh and shamanic performance traditions to tell the story of a young boy who learns that he will be a mother. It’s a coming together of autobiography and mythology; an exploration of transformation and transgression, queer ritual and trans-ancestry.

kwon shifts between violin, song, speech, dance and acting with ease. Her whole body speaks whether tension-filled as she struggles to pull an imaginary rope, lighter moments that feel like a burden has been lifted, or when being buffeted dramatically by what one presumes are the contradictions in his life. UMMA-YA is at its best during a voiceover monologue that brings personal history to the fore, especially the trials and tribulations she experienced as a teenager.