burden of life: Chen & Dancers.
Meets West, Old Meets New
Mae G. Banner
Egg, Oct. 25
Fluid and transparent, H. T. Chen’s Bamboo Oracle is
a dance of simple, repetitive moves that flowed like clear
water across the stage at the Egg last Friday. Chen’s company
of 10 dancers, augmented by an ensemble of 27 children and
adults from local colleges and the Chinese Community Center
of the Capital District, danced out the dilemmas of immigrants
confronted with a new culture.
Chen’s choreography combines balletic and modern-dance movements
with traditional Chinese gestures and patterns to present
the tensions between assimilating youth and their parents,
and the conflicting impulses within the younger generation.
In the two-act Bamboo Oracle, the attraction of neon-bright
city life competed visibly with the steady pull of older ways
represented by parental characters.
Clean-lined Chinese costumes, subtle lighting, striking music
composed for Chen by Bradley Kaus, and larger-than-life slides
of traditional and contemporary family scenes fleshed out
the story of immigration, youth rebellion, and resolution.
Born in Shanghai and raised in Taiwan, Chen has been part
of the New York City dance scene for about 30 years. His company,
founded in 1978, is at home on Mulberry Street, where they
have their own school and theater. Their repertory explores
the intersections between traditional and modern concerns
with smooth, easy-to-read ensemble dances in which form and
Chen is one of a growing number of choreographers (others
are Bill T. Jones and Liz Lerman) who integrate community
people and local histories into their concert dances. Community
dancers in Bamboo Oracle (2000) included a half-dozen
pint-sized children in lilac-colored tops and trousers, a
dozen dance students from Emma Willard School, Skidmore and
Williams colleges, and nine older men and women. All had been
rehearsing for months, and it showed in their controlled energy
and strong sense of rhythm.
The adults wielded tall bamboo poles, using them as shoulder
poles to carry (metaphoric) life burdens, or striking them
rhythmically on the ground. Also, the poles—vertical, horizontal
or thrust at acute angles—became part of changing abstract
patterns of tension and release.
A rebellious teenage boy becomes part of a “Jets vs. Sharks”
face-off, then part of a delicate flirtation with a girl.
Trying to choose his way, he rides wildly across the stage
on a silver scooter, while the bold leader of the antagonistic
group sets a fast tempo with muscular jumps and barrel turns.
A corps of women performs the Chinese ribbon dance, very traditional,
but instead of demure headdresses, they wear green rubber
Statue of Liberty coronets, denoting an uneasy cultural fusion.
At one point, two parental figures use their poles to pry
apart the young couple whose courtship is deemed unseemly,
but at last the elders let their poles rest loosely on one
shoulder, beginning to make peace with the new ways. Finally,
the tiny children swirl through the dancing community with
long red banners tied to poles, reconciling old and new.
The flag-flying celebration as past meets future becomes a
little too showy and pat, like a halftime show at a football
game. It’s saved from cliché by the entrance of three columns
of elder women in violet jackets and trousers. They move with
great dignity and force through geometric patterns, while
the youngsters thread more freely through the columns. Thus,
the family comes together to look toward the future in hope.