Through Eastern Eyes

Chinese and Javanese artists explore traditions foreign and native, secular and sacred

Shen Wei usually approaches dance with a painter's eye. In Near the Terrace, Part I (2000, but new to New York), he channels Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux via a series of beautiful, haunting images—as resonant and spare as the Arvo P music. Voluptuous spectral women, wearing only long crumpled skirts, lie draped on a steeply vertical flight of black steps that fills the stage from side to side. Glowing coolly in David Ferri's superb lighting, they slowly traverse a white floor, sometimes slanting forward, sometimes leaning back. A naked one walks across the top step, a red cloth dragging behind her. Another, bent like a crone, lays some women tenderly out; they rise again. Almost the only swift movements come when certain women dive onto the outstretched arms of various men who have rolled onstage. In the end, the 15 dancers have climbed the steps and are returning head first, sledding slowly into darkness.

There's no comparable visual poetry in Map, a Lincoln Center Festival premiere. Shen matches movement principles to sections of Steve Reich's rich, powerful The Desert Music. However, because each of the dance's seven sections doggedly varies a single physical motivation, the choreography's responses to the music tend to be subtle and hard to sense, and Shen avoids the emotional shadings induced by, for instance, male voices singing a kyrie eleison.

The opening "Rotation Map" begins intriguingly. In front of a backdrop by Shen that looks like a kabbalistic blackboard, accumulating squads of dancers roll a fascinating physical calligraphy onto the floor, their limbs and heads circling. In this didactic new work, "Bouncing Map" is about small, abrupt bounces that jar the marvelous performers' bodies and make their extremities flop. "Bouncing Map 2" involves bouncing and rebounding in duos. "Internal Isolation Map" focuses on fluctuations and undulations of the torso. The penultimate "Internal Individual Map" begins with welcome wildness; Janice Lancaster leads off running and turning—now staggering, now suspending. At the end, Shen stirs all the previous "maps" together in big, sweeping contrapuntal designs. Mulling over a program essay that describes a group phrase as "based on lengthening the space between the joints," I feel as if Shen's concept, meant to be freeing, straitjacketed his theatrical talent.

The Javanese dancer-choreographer Mugiyono Kasido (usually known only by his first name) stands on one leg; suddenly he drops into a squat, his other leg still held up. Gasps erupt all around me. It is true that Mugiyono's lean body is capable of astonishing flexibility and control. He can walk in a deep, deep knee bend, his heels still on the ground; he can curl himself into a perambulating ball or knot his limbs. He can balance forever in utter stillness. However, his physical control functions not as mere virtuosity but in service of mesmerizing solos that draw on his background in traditional Indonesian arts and rituals. A profiled shape or a projected shadow calls to mind the puppets of wayang kulit; a spraddle-legged warrior move references Javanese dance-drama forms; a hint of a Balinese baris twitches into view.

Mugiyono's opener, Mencari Mata Candi, was inspired by stone temple carvings. He performs a spiritual odyssey in a white T-shirt and knee-length blue pants, but begins partially hidden by two large "fans" shaped like the tree-of-life symbols in shadow plays. The red demon face on the reverse of one briefly becomes his face, staring at us. Later the props become bird wings. Sometimes Mugiyono resembles a dreaming god, reclining on a temple facade. He jumps suddenly, his legs forming a diamond in the air. He chants in a strong voice. And in a terrifying red-lit passage before the serene end, he roars and writhes as if possessed. A. Dedek Wahyudi's taped score reinforces the drama with its untraditional use of the instruments and voices of the gamelan.

For Kabar Kabar, Mugiyono brings to life the charming clown of many Asian dramas—the simple if wily guy who grins even as his feet are being shot from under him—in order to comment on the social chaos that followed the 1998 collapse of the Suharto regime. Confined to a red platform, grunting and crowing and using an outsize white T-shirt as prop and metaphor, this fellow never gives up. Losing his arm inside the shirt, he pokes a foot out the armhole. The predicaments are hilarious, and even scrunched up in the shirt with only his feet and face showing, he flirts happily, as if being a human bowling ball were fine with him. In the end, however, he turns the shirt into a pair of short white pants and stands tall.

Bagaspatidraws on classical Javanese dance techniques to honor the sun as life force. Flanked by many lit candles, Mugiyono wears a serene mask and manipulates his sash and part of the drape that covers his lower body. His every move is slow and controlled as he sinks into wide-legged, turned-out stances or raises one flexed foot. His delicate fingers twine little invisible vines and open into blossoms. In the culminating moments, this remarkable artist spins and spins, glowing in Iskandar Kama Loedin's lighting, illuminating our lives. Read Jowitt on Ben Munisteri at villagevoice.com/dance.

 
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