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Asian American Dance Performances


by Han Pham

June 9-11, 2006 -- CounterPULSE Theater, San Francisco

Asian American Dance Performances’ recent exhibition, “Translations,” was a four-letter word lovingly directed to the audience – raw, emotional, and fluid when the right moment swerves in to eject it out from bodies tight with the strain of holding it in,“it” being that elusive thing that comes at the end of some conversations, when people entangled in a relationship suddenly too heavy to take lightly, finally spurt out a demand, “Just fu*king say it!”

Translations transformed this impulse to say “it” (race, sexuality, desires, friendships gone awry) into dance, at times sharing a conversation with the audience, at others holding a furiously silent tirade.

Let’s talk about “it.”

For Amy Chang and Emily Zeller of Chinawind Dance and Arts, the conversation was at first a playfully domestic one. Their piece, “Moongate,” focused on two women’s shared intimacy, shadowed by the rigid structure of a bench on stage. In playing with this symbol of domesticity, Chang and Zeller infused the art of “rearranging furniture” with new meaning, rolling under and over it, leaning on it and on each other, and at times using it and their own bodies as a weapon, all while rearranging the boundaries of their relationship in rapid flights of fury.

Other artists in the show spoke in the eerie language of dreams and nightmares. In a quietly mesmerizing performance, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, bypassed familiar milieux for a dreamscape of plastic bubbles and white-powdered bodies, in a statement about the jagged comforts of consumerism and artifice. Their soft-lipped pops and sighs lent an effervescent, fairytale quality to the stage before the mood changed. The beautiful creatures cavorting gently on the floor with graceful limbs started choking. Propelled from the floor into the audience with a slow, frantic push forward, the dancers implored the audience with unintelligible frenzied whispers and breathless gasps.  As the dancers encroached upon the audience, naked flesh pressed against surprised faces, and pressed, pressed, and pressed, until it all suddenly stopped, and they fell away, like a human tide of sorrow.

In another piece, the formidably nonchalant duo, Twincest, swung the conversation back to almost familiar terrain with a romantic table for two spiced up with shots, sexual tension and conflict. Only in this case, the pair took conversational bloodletting literally.

The artists (Jez Lee and Shawn Tamaribuchi) warned me that someone had passed out the night before, and so I was prepared for some gory exhibitionism. What I wasn’t prepared for was the innocent-seeming, hand-holding and pantless duo that stood smiling sweetly at the audience, playfully lifting their shirts to reveal a pert breast in between playful kisses. Once they reassured the audience with the cloying sweetness of their affection, the modesty-free wonders armed themselves with syringes and snapping rubber and sat down at a dining table to draw each other’s blood, intermittently letting loose snippets of conversation and interaction that signified a new level of PDA.

“Hold the vein down and don’t miss it.”

“The rubber’s breaking!”

“It’s going to explode!”

The scenario is a simple enough one: the duo on stage is drawing each other’s blood so that they can drink it, hence the piece’s name, “Bodyshots." But what’s mesmerizing is not the act of drinking fresh blood; it’s the dynamic between the two women.

Jez, though she’s done this before, walks through the procedure with her eyes closed or, at times, flung wide open with fear. In contrast, there’s a hint of annoyance in Shawn’s eyes, who manages to draw her shot glass worth of blood with a breezy ease. The on-stage and actual intimacy between the two performers (who also are partners off-stage) slips and slides as Jez struggles to play her part to Shawn’s satisfaction. While Shawn offers at times encouraging, at times stern instruction, Jez bites her lips as she concentrates. There’s mute horror in her eyes when blood breaks free from Shawn’s arm, followed by a laughing sigh of relief when it’s all over. A spark of affection reignites in both performers’ eyes and the tension eases. They toast, drink, and lips wet with blood, kiss.

Admittedly, it’s not polished; it’s honest… and in the oft-practiced artifice of modern relationships, a performance about honesty is one that makes the audience literally faint with shock.

In this realm of honest conversations, often the most riveting ones are the ones held with ourselves.

The artists who touched the heart of “it” were, fittingly, the solo performers who were selected to open and close the show.

In the closing act, danah bella came to the stage strong, square limbed and with a shaved head bowed close to the floor. Throughout the piece, the floor served as her dance partner, as she leaped and fell, twirled and gyrated, always returning to the floor, as if it were a conversation between earth and air about her desire to take flight. danah bella held a conversation with the floor and with her shadows, as she looked over her shoulder, side to side, everywhere but at us, the audience, the only other ones in the room. Often, it is not what is in front of us that demand our attention most, but what happens in the machinations of the mind. And that was, for her, “it”: We watched a focused danah bella fighting her shadows, dodging and ducking, whipping left and right, until she stood with her legs apart, her elbows jutting out with her wrists broken at her heartline, like a boxer whose fight is done.

Another solo fighter was Christopher K. Morgan, who opened the show with the snap of a match, and began a conversation with the audience that was darkly spiritual and sexually-infused.

In the beginning, he wore the guise of desire held in secret, allowing his body to be revealed and disappear in brief flashes of light. In one flash, he strained against the pull of cloth caught in his jaws. In the next, he sailed aloft in a cloud of billowing white fabric. Later, he transformed again, into a Prince Charming in tights. And later, again, into hot shorts, a tube skirt, and sky-high astronaut boots. Each time, he strutted incarnations of desire – raw testosterone in one instance, to the sex of chivalry, to the bump and grind of the modern club scene.

But the most revealing transformation was when desire broke down, and he stood gleaming with sweat and sadness, frustration and hope. It was here that his limbs moved brokenly, like a child learning, for the first time, what it means to be loved, and what one must do for love.

“Is it enough yet?” he asked.

He punctuated his question with a slap to his face.

“Is it enough yet?” he asked again, with a punch to the chest. And then, another punch, and another, each flurry of physical slaps and hits somehow obviously less painful than the internal hurt he carried forward into the performance.

This end, this honest and broken end, where the individual emerged from underneath the costumes and the performance, reminded me of the start of his piece, in which the dance of the single light he held cast a large shadow of his head looming fiercely behind him.

It made me wonder, “Can a man’s human body bear the weight of all the psychological, cultural and emotional identities cast upon him, which always looms large behind him, encumbering his every step with the nagging insistence that he be more than he is?”

In the beginning, I said that “Translations” was like a four-letter word said lovingly.

Emerging from places of hurt and love, sex and silence, fear and honesty, the dancers of “Translations” tackled the question of what happens when race, gender and sexuality intersect: more questions, each a fight to establish the right to just be, to find an end to the questions, to be still at the end of a dance, with a heart beating wildly, a body slick with the exertions of speaking in motion, with eyes that refuse to shut--in or out--fear.

“Is it enough yet?’

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