23rd of October 2012


In her concert at Dance New Amsterdam (Ocyober17-20), Sunhwa Chung opens with a Korean traditional solo, “Of Love and Memories.”  Then, her company of eight Asian and white dancers performs her featured full-company works, “Epilogue,” “Arirang – We Go Beyond the Crossroad,” and “The City From the Sky: Coming Together,” along with three smaller dances, all in her brand of Western modern dance. 

In “Epilogue,” eight dancers carry folding chairs onto the stage, line them up, re-arrange them, and use them in various ways for support.  Dressed in street clothes, the dancers focus frontally; we don’t really know who they are to each other or why they are so agitated.  Music by Clint Mansell and Zbynek Matejo drives the action.

The premiere, “Arirang,” is a suite that reflects on Chung’s departure from Korea and assimilation to the United States.  The assimilation is apparent in the borrowed modern dance tropes that comprise her choreography.  Hands swiping across the face, crisscrossed arm shapes, side tilts in parallel passé, and falling rolls over the hips are among her favorite motifs; they recur persistently.  White blouses and black skirts, embossed with a large white donut shape make the women dancers seem like either a team or facets of the same person.  

After a sweetly defiant opening violin interlude by nine-year-old Sarang Chung West – Chung’s daughter and a rugby player on her school team – the tone of the work is consistently dark and intensely emotional; it remains on a single dynamic level throughout.  Live music by Korean percussionist Vongku Pak on traditional instruments has an evenness that matches the movement.  Lighting by Miriam Nilofa Crowe shifts sometimes abruptly to alter the stage space from mellow washes to shadowy streaks to diagonal pathways.  It’s effective if not very refined.  

We can see Chung’s grasp of compositional craft; a trio counterpoints a quartet, dancers use the full range of the limited space, they flow between levels, entrances and exits flow without seeming arbitrary.  In short, Chung adheres to elements of “good composition.”  In a couple of passages, the lack of an extra male means that, with obvious difficulty, a woman must act as a lifting partner for another.  Anxiety and a sense of impending doom pervade the piece without the emotional contrast to provide context.

The dancers execute the movement efficiently, but because of Chung’s vaguely articulated emotional intentions for her characters, it’s difficult for the performers to rise to individual distinction or achieve clarity, although at least one does: Frenchman Benjamin Gaspard displays electric physicality and piercing focus; his kinetic vibrancy so excels that he captures our visual attention, whenever he is onstage.

After intermission, a trio, “Inevitable Convergences: The Last Story,” finds Gaspard narrating (in French) and dancing in a kind of “No Exit” situation with Alissa Wall and Ishiguro on, in, and around three of those ubiquitous folding chairs, they used in “Arirang.”  Soaring, orchestral music by Stephen Warbeck swallows the dance.  

“No One Knows But You” is Chung’s contemporary solo paints a portrait of a woman, confronting – or seeking – her own truth in a mirror that stands in an upstage corner of the stage.  She wears a magenta shift and uses high heels as her prop – both or one or none.  It is a counterpart to “Love and Memories,” where the traditional garb of delicate pastel chiffon and an umbrella hat depicts a fragile, stylized woman without her own agency.  Chung’s committed performance in both solos makes them convincing.  

The obligatory “upbeat” finale, The City from the Sky: Coming Together,” uses one of Danny Elfman’s pounding, familiar movie theme songs alongside equally catchy music by Hwang Sang Jun and Kodo drumming.  Urbanites in black suits and white shirts dart laterally across the stage, throwing in occasional somersaults and attention-pulling tricks.  At ninety minutes, the show gives us more than our fill of mid-20th century modernism – competent but by now irrelevant.  

Photos by Lexi Namer

© Gus Solomons jr, 2012

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