From January 14-15, companies from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan demonstrated drama, humor, imagination, and resilience through dance.

By: Jan. 17, 2022


It's been three years since the last Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia, traditionally held every other year at Japan Society. The work I saw in the 2019 edition was so thrilling and innovative that an additional year felt worth the wait, especially when so many shows and festivals were canceled this January. The devotion of the artists who traveled across the world for two performances only to return to a two-week quarantine period in their home countries made the argument to see the event even more compelling.

As for most programming at Japan Society, the evening of four distinctly different performances (including a pre-show piece held in the lobby) from East Asia did not disappoint and was worth braving the bitter cold.

NiNi in FreeSteps at Japan Society's Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia. Photo: © Maria Baranova

Those who arrived early got to catch FreeSteps - NiNi performed by solo dancer NiNi (aka Yu-Ting Fang) floating on the island in Japan Society's lobby. As a member of renowned Taiwanese dance companies Cloud Gate and HORSE, NiNi is currently the principal dancer in Wei-Chia Su's FreeSteps series. She's a beautiful mover whose slow, deliberate undulations felt like watching five serpents (her limbs and torso) navigating their way through melted caramel. NiNi is an enchanting performer who set the tone and whet the appetite for more.

The first piece held in the main theater space was a butoh duo from Japan performing "A HUM SAN SUI," originally conceived as a solo piece. Unfortunately, due to the highly contagious nature of the Omicron variant and a medical condition that prevents one of the artists from getting vaccinated, the performers could not safely travel to New York. However, the opportunity provided them with a platform to create a high-quality, multi-camera video performance. While nothing compares to in-person performances, seeing how the artists played with the camera angles was intriguing.

Watching butoh on the screen was reminiscent of some of the European influences on the Japanese dance form, such as the avant-garde films of Jean Cocteau. Performers Kentaro Kujirai and Barabbas Okuyama demonstrated many of the familiar trademarks of butoh - faces grotesquely contorted in anguished spectral expressions, whitened skin, flowing materials, and a pronounced control of the body. But they also broke from the traditionally slow movements into rapid motion compelled by music from Japanese sound artist FUJIIIIIIIIIITA.

A video still of Kentaro Kujirai and Barabbas Okuyama at Japan Society's ​​​​​Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia. Photo: © Maria Baranova

The second mainstage performance was from the Korean Company Choi x Kang featuring choreographers/performers Minsun Choi and Jinan Kang with onstage assistance from Taegyeong Kim and Heeji Seo. In the 2019 edition of Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia, the Korean company Goblin Party stood out for its playfulness, humor, and precise synchronicity. Choi x Kang's "Complement" had similar elements expressed with different intentions, of course, but it did make me wonder if those qualities are specific, recognizable hallmarks of Korean dance today.

"Complement" is a very clever piece of contemporary dance that utilizes technology, humor, and simple choreography that is very precise and highly synchronized to offer a commentary about monotony, repetition, change, relationships, and paying attention.

The stage is set with flat-screen TVs behind two dancers, Choi and Kang, posed in front of them with Taegyeong Kim sitting on the floor recording the performers with a camera and her back to the audience. The distinctive ticks of a metronome begin the performers' monotonous, repetitive, and pedestrian movements. Both of their faces hold a serious yet blank expression, but Choi's is so deadpan that her very unblinking visage sends the audience into fits of laughter. So too does Kang's thrusting motions and gestures, which can feel vaguely sexual at times. At first glance, "Complement" feels like a commentary on a bored couple going through the motions of monogamy that's turned into monotony.

Jinan Kang, Taegyeong Kim, and Minsun Choiat at Japan Society's ​​​​​Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia. Photo: © Maria Baranova

But as the piece progresses, the viewers become aware that things are not as they seem; the perfectly synchronized moves on the TV screens don't match the motions of the live performers. It's subtle at first, then gets dramatically different and eventually involves interruptions from Kim's camerawork and Heeji Seo, who appears with random props. All the while, the metronome continues to inform the movement and various speeds and intensities. Something about the subtle differences in the same gestures transforming into another action entirely calls to mind how stories change over time and gossip spreads.

The final performance of the 2022 edition of Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia called "Touchdown" was the most relatable and soul-stirring. Taiwanese performer Hao Cheng possesses dual degrees in Mathematics and Dance Choreography. His company Incandescence Dance creates works that explore the poetry of motion with scientific and mathematical thinking. The aim is to combine two seemingly different practices and cultures and make them feel more accessible and inspire curiosity.

Cheng's potent solo work combines his knowledge of mathematics and the laws of physics with his powerful expressive force to tell a deeply personal and emotional story through the journey of an electron. Art and science connect when physics becomes physicality.

Hao Cheng at Japan Society's ​​​​​Contemporary Dance Festival: Japan + East Asia. Photo: © Maria Baranova

"Touchdown" is deep with metaphor and dual meanings. After some text that briefly introduces several points and key dates that shaped the laws of physics and understanding of electrons, Cheng begins by thrusting himself onto a green space on the stage surrounded by small white items a few inches high. (We later discover this is chalk, and the floor is a chalkboard). He contorts his limbs as if glued to the ground, every movement requiring a gargantuan effort. The lethargy and extreme difficulty to find any motivation at all suggests depression.

During the process of discovery and frustration, Cheng creates his own world with the chalk and becomes the center (nucleus) of several ringed circles of an atom he draws around himself. But the mysteries of the electron still elude him, and judgments are cast in several anxious voice-overs heard from above announcing "electrons move in reckless and unpredictable motions." Cheng moves furiously, exasperating, "Why the hell can't we understand how electrons move?"

In time, Cheng's utter frustration gives way to peaceful acceptance, embracing the electrons' nature of "no set path" and arriving at the Zen-like realization that, "The only certainty is the uncertainty of all things." With this understanding, Cheng's physicality and environment morph. The transformation is reflected in the fluidity and grace of movements and softer sound and lighting (sound design by Chao-En Cheng and lighting by Ke-Chu Lai). His staccato gestures relax into a mesmerizing, moving meditation. Cheng makes space for resilience and peace by relinquishing control and accepting the unpredictable nature of life and electrons. It's a beautifully executed metaphor for a timeless truth that could not feel more urgent as we begin 2022.

Now our third year into the pandemic, it's clear that constant change is inevitable, flexibility is essential, and uncertainty does and will persist, especially for those in the arts. But despite the challenges that have always existed in presenting international work and have increased exponentially since 2020, we must press on and take risks to showcase global artists and foster meaningful cultural exchange. Bravo to the producers, presenters and performers who are willing to continue this vital work against all odds and obstacles and keep New York City on the pulse of cutting-edge performance from around the world.

2023 Regional Awards


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