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BWW Review: HT CHEN AND DANCERS 'South of Gold Mountain'


After touring several states, "South of Gold Mountain" held its New York premiere at New York Live Arts. Renowned choreographer HT Chen and Dancers brought to life the untold stories of Chinese immigrants who settled in the South, using elements of Chinese Opera Movement, modern dance, traditional Chinese music, deep south blues, personal narrative, and old family photos. What emerged was a living history unfolding before the audience's eyes.

The performance begins with a slideshow of personal photos taken from the many interviewees and their relatives set to their narration. This moment of nostalgia was abruptly interrupted by a group of dancers rushing about the stage, embodying the frenzy of the Gold Rush of the mid 1800s that drove thousands of Chinese to the United States. Their movements were sharp, angular, and combative and yet the dancers aided each other through communal effort, a reoccurring theme seen through much of the performance. The dynamics and variety of textures in the carefully selected movement vocabulary demonstrated the complexities of immigrating to a new country. One poignant moment was when the dancers, one by one, moved towards downstage across a runway of light in complete darkness. As a dancer navigated through this trek, the others acted as physical obstacles, one of whom literally dragged the traveler back from whence she came.

In the next section, the dancers engaged in tedious field work. This section was interspersed with highly stylized duets that parallelled the soulful expression of the blues singer and the subtle, sharp accents of the guitar twang. The next section was a living family portrait, underscored by recordings of a woman speaking Chinese to her children. As the young children, students of the Chen Dance Center, happily studied on one side of the stage, the audience drew their attention to a most beautiful duet between Dian Dong and Renouard Gee. Within a wonderful scene that juxtaposed the new and old, the duet displayed grace and elegance despite the pull of hardship and weariness. Although they embodied the histories of the families they had carefully researched, Dong and Gee seemed to also dance out their own histories, paying homage to the many years they had worked together.

The next few sections highlighted some lighter and more fun moments. The dances highlighted working in grocery stores to putting on a cheery disposition in restaurants to chasing around children who would rather play than work in laundromats. What seemed like caricatures were also very real portrayals, tickling funny bones and tugging at heartstrings. Then, of course, there was the surprise appearance of the most famous Chinese American (though widely debated) invention known to man - the fortune cookie! - which dancers passed out to audiences after the restaurant section.

The performance then turned solemn. Continuing the wonderful duet between Dong and Gee, the audience delved deeper into the psyche of the young Chinese American family. With narration retelling the conflict between tradition and assimilation, the audience witnessed the internal struggles of a family striving to provide their children a better life. As the children ran off and waved goodbye, what was left was not a complete heartbreak but a bit of hope. This moment then led to a colorful celebration of playfulness and artistic acrobatics, ending in a fireworks display (on the scrim) and highlighting the significant contributions of Chinese Americans in the South.

Though "South of Gold Mountain" told the very specific stories of Chinese immigrants to the South during the mid to late 1800s, it also told the stories of many, including HT Chen, Dian Dong, Renouard Gee (who is actually from Texas), the dancers (one who has just moved to NYC this year), the children, and their families. It also told the stories of many audience members and their families, who expressed their gratitude for the piece during the artist and audience talkback. "South of Gold Mountain" shed a light on the untold stories of immigrants that are far more common than foreign, and that light shone brilliantly.

Photo: Maki Shinagawa in "South of Gold Mountain" by Joe Boniello, Dancers in "South of Gold Mountain" by Joe Boniello

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From This Author Jessica Abejar

Jessica Abejar is an artist with a love of storytelling. As a dancer/choreographer, she most recently performed at World Youth Day in Brazil, where she (read more...)