If composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and artist Robert Rauschenberg were alive today, they would have been pleased with Friday night’s event at the National Portrait Gallery but puzzled by the title, “Identities in Motion.” These avant-garde pioneers preferred to call their nights of multidisciplinary entertainment “happenings,” and they happened, originally, in places such as summer camp cafeterias, not museums.
Times change. Friday’s performances were much more rehearsed and much less Caucasian. The night of art, music and dance was inspired by happenings and presented in conjunction with the exhibit “Kyopo” — portraits of about 200 people of Korean descent, including District-based choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess. After musicians played a series of solos on traditional and Western instruments, Burgess’s company performed “Hyphen,” a 2008 piece that explores Korean American identity through images, voice-overs and props. Staged in the cavernous courtyard at the Portrait Gallery, the piece came off as less focused but more conducive to contemplation: Your mind was prone to wander, but that was the point.
Cunningham, who died in 2009, was not interested in imposing meaning on his dances; he was content to create landscapes. This performance of “Hyphen” was very much in step with that legacy. Video projections by the late Nam June Paik were beamed onto the courtyard’s three-story-tall walls. Well-placed speakers created a surround-sound effect. The offstage dancers stood at the edge of a marked-off square, watching as their colleagues took turns moving in solos, pairs and trios. At one point, a voice-over asked, “Does the hyphen separate or connect?” When dancers pair off, they often do so by lightly stroking another’s shoulder. They may touch as they execute slow, angular movements, but they don’t support each other, as if they can’t establish a solid connection.
Odbayar Batsuuri, a Mongolian dancer, offered strong solos during “Hyphen” and an improvisational section later in the evening.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.