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The burden of life: Chen & Dancers.

East Meets West, Old Meets New
By Mae G. Banner

Chen & Dancers
The 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 content merge.

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.

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