DanceBoom! opens with Asian accents

Posted: January 24, 2004

As in the first DanceBoom! season, Group Motion Dance Company and Headlong Dance Theater share an evening in this third season at the Wilma Theater. Each company recently worked with Japanese dance companies here and in Japan and are hosting their Japanese collaborators in this festival. There, the similarities end.

At Wednesday's opening show, Group Motion dancers teamed with Japan's Dance Theater 21, with opening solos by the latter's artistic director, Kenshi Nohmi, and member Hiromi Karubi in Direction of Harmonization.

Nohmi and Karubi introduced a simple grace in silent, mesmerizing solos in separate spots on opposite sides of the stage. Each stood rooted and slightly bent at the waist in a circle of light, arms rippling smoothly. Soon a Bach partita opened with rich cello strains, and when a third spotlight opened upstage, Group Motion dancer Megan Bridge crawled into it on all fours. Sitting with her back to the audience, her own supple arms echoed Nohmi's and Karubi's.

The rest of the company entered, including guests Dante Puleio and, eventually, Laina Fischbeck. All in flowing white, they were lovely to watch, but the choreography's watery theme was more enervating than engrossing. Fischbeck's entrance, however, was a geyser of movement, adding the tension the dance needed. The contrast between her electric undercurrent and Bridge's cool and placid surface was what finally held my interest.

Since Headlong burst onto Philadelphia's dance scene in 1993, it was clear that dance was not the strong suit of its three founding principals, David Brick, Andrew Simonet and Amy Smith. Dance and choreography are rather more like paintbrushes and chisels for these theatrically focused artists, tools just serviceable enough to convey their multitude of ideas and barbed humor.

Tackling subjects both light and heavy, they succeed better on the light side. Subirdia and their Bessie Award-winning St*r W*rs are crowning achievements compared to Story of a Panic and the even less successful Britney's Inferno, which shared an embarrassment of missed conceptual and cultural connections.

You Are So Beautiful, their Danceboom! presentation with Arrow Dance Communications from Japan, is self-consciously about cultural misperceptions between Japanese and American styles of communicating. These cute collisions often elicited titters from the audience, but aside from those, there is no coherent through line.

Arrow Dance's Takeshi Yazaki turned in some powerful snippets of real dance, and we saw the fine attributes of Arrow's Kentaro Satou in his duet with Headlong regular Christie Lee. But the conceit of the dance - the actual recent residency between the two groups in Japan - is too facile and inconclusive, suggesting that Headlong has been at recess too long.

This program will repeat at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 31 and Feb. 5, and at 2 p.m. Feb. 7. Information: 215-546-7824 or www.wilmatheater.org.

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Pairing a Philadelphia choreographer and a company performing Chinese opera on this second DanceBoom! program may seem like a reach. But as Melanie Stewart Dance Theatre gave way to the Philadelphia Chinese Opera Society, Thursday night's Wilma Theater audience got an evening filled with two distinct kinds of spectacle and stylized movement.

Stewart's Babel: Shock and Awe begins with three ragged wretches - Stewart, Janet Pilla and Bethany Formica - emerging from the voluminous skirts of a kind of Marie Antoinette/Statue of Liberty figure, performed by Catherine Gillard. The trio vamped and declaimed with a desperate seductiveness, telling and enacting the story of the Tower of Babel.

For Stewart and her collaborators, Scottish director Peter Clerke and Irish playwright Michael Duke, Babel-building is a stand-in for national aggrandizement, and the tower's destruction calls up the recent bombing campaign in Iraq. Marching in place, Stewart, in particular, conveyed a crazed, bright-eyed delight, which achieved a disturbing surreality when she and the others dropped into combat crawls.

Quotes from the current commander in chief and a pantomimed search for weapons of mass destruction gave this dance-theater piece a political edginess rarely seen here. Stewart's midcareer apprenticeship in buffo tradition and avant-garde theater has deepened and sharpened her work.

The Philadelphia Chinese Opera Society offered a taste of the longer Beijing opera classic called Farewell My Concubine. All 10 performers are Chinese-born and trained, and the six warriors who got the show rolling gave us a glimpse of traditional operatic spectacle, waving multicolored flags around their gorgeous sky-blue costumes, tumbling, and tossing off flying somersaults.

After that, a long scene depicted the last visitation of a besieged general with his wife. Spoken and sung all in Chinese, their encounter displayed the heightened personal emotions associated with European opera. Masked and in heavy brocades, the general, played by Qingxian Liu, was bright and puffed-up as a tropical fish. Beijing Opera artist and artistic director Shuyuan Li, as the Queen, floated and whirled in a final, poignant sword dance. While I can't claim to have caught the subtleties that a Chinese audience might, there's much in this colorful and appealing performance that needs no translation.

- Miriam Seidel

Program will repeat at 8 p.m. today and Jan. 31, and 2 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 1. Information: 215-546-7824 or www.wilmatheater.org.

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