Dance review: Margaret Jenkins and Guangdong companies at Clarice Smith Center

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company revels in motion. Once it gets cooking in its new work, "Other Suns (A Trilogy)," you feel that adrenaline high build and build, the dancers blurring in a froth of activity, yanking one another through space, erupting in air like fireworks or swirling in place like human hurricanes. Their vitality gives you shivers.

Part of the pleasure of "Other Suns," a collaboration between Jenkins's San Francisco-based troupe and China's Guangdong Modern Dance Company, performed Thursday and Friday at the University of Maryland, was experiencing this transference of energy. Part of it was the visual spectacle, a rich brew of duos, trios and group dancing going on simultaneously on the Clarice Smith Center stage, starlit by Alexander V. Nichols's dangling array of light bulbs. They dotted the void overhead somewhat ominously -- the firmament's descent, perhaps. It's a fitting image for a work full of voguish vibrations of melting-planet environmentalism and we're-all-in-this-mess-together-ness.

But when "Other Suns" began to cool, dragging in the second section and only fitfully heating up again in the third, a new area of interest materialized, at least for me. I became fascinated by the differences between the American and the Chinese dancers. The time I spent watching them Thursday night turned into a study of the fundamentals of modern dance -- for starters, the value of individual expression -- and the challenges of teasing capitalist narcissism out of a culture of collectivism. Challenges? How about impossibility.

Twenty years ago a partnership like this would have been unthinkable. A decade ago it would have been unachievable. Yet modern dance in China has developed with astonishing speed. The Guangdong Modern Dance Company, China's first, took off in 1992 with support from the provincial cultural bureau. Five years later it made a respectable if uneven Kennedy Center debut, excelling in technique, though the choreography was less than memorable. The mainland now boasts a few full-time troupes, enjoying state funds to varying degrees. In Guangdong, for example, the dancers live and work in a state-supported compound with other artists. Government money is sooo nice.

But it can't buy ego. That's what was missing from the Chinese dancers in "Other Suns."

The first section, which sucked you into a gloriously rich, colorful, spinning world, was entirely the Jenkins dancers; Jenkins created it in California. Liu Qi, deputy director of the Guangdong troupe, created Part 2. The finale was shaped by both troupes and both directors during a residency in China, and the whole was massaged further still when both troupes got together before the work's September premiere in San Francisco.

It's crazy when you think about it -- the quiet, detail-oriented Chinese paired with the earthy, free-spirited Jenkins dancers. Jenkins, the tall, wild-haired matriarch of the West Coast contemporary dance scene, was one of Twyla Tharp's earliest dancers in the experimental 1960s. She has a lot of Tharp in her still -- the scattered focus onstage, the affinity for minimalist music (most of "Other Suns'" accompaniment was by her frequent musical partner Paul Dresher), and the way she pumps her dancers for movement ideas.

That's a pretty communal thing, come to think of it, but it didn't seem to be part of the Chinese process. When one woman bent to one side in the Guangdong section, then arched the other way with a great sweep of her leg, it was like a gust of wind rushing in. But I did not pick up a sense of emotional involvement. The dancers were lovely to look at, all long, elegant lines and terrific flexibility, evidence of ballet training (the predominant form of Western dance in China, far predating modern). But I wanted to see them move. To heck with the careful leg placement, the precise control of weight, the unison born of rigorous practice. I was out for blood, metaphorically speaking, and not a drop was spilled.

Individual expression is the heart of modern dance. Technique has its place, of course, but most dancers make their mark by setting free their personalities. The artistic interest is in what you can dredge up out of your insides and thrust into a leg extension; what feelings squeeze out from a contraction of the torso, what condition of the spirit you fold into a fall.

But expressiveness isn't easy in a society where individual freedoms are still dodgy. Just ask Shen Wei, one of the most exciting young choreographic talents in this country and a recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant. A founding member of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, he was spied on for making friends with Taiwanese dancers and kept home while Guangdong toured abroad. Perhaps China picked up such cat-and-mouse pointers from the Soviets; it was this kind of jerking around that drove Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov to flee to the West. Like them, Shen eventually left his homeland, and now runs his acclaimed Shen Wei Dance Arts in New York.

Modern dance as we have known it here for more than a century may never be a natural fit in China. There is a lot of cultural and political history to overcome. But as it gradually becomes all right to think independently and creatively, to indulge in a little confrontation, one hopes that deeper expressiveness will gain a foothold in Chinese modern dance.

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